Every Friday at noon a small group of peace activists gather in front of the federal building in downtown Hartford to condemn war. Led by members of the Hartford Catholic Worker, these vigils are about 20
years old. Every Friday for 20 years someone is there. Sometimes a group of 10 or more people, sometimes just one. But bearing witness to the atrocities of American foreign policy warrants at least this small public gesture. Does it agitate? Does it help recruit new members to the movement? Maybe not, but it’s become a fixture of public dissent in a city like so many others in the country – preoccupied with the day-to-day struggles and grinds.
The second longest running such public gesture in Hartford is Hope Out Loud Peace and Music Festival (HOL). Sunday September 19 marked the ninth year for HOL. Started as a peaceful memorial to the horrific violence of 9/11, it exists like a living monument not only to the horrible violence of that day and the violent response to that day, but also to the battered and weary peace movement in the United States. Like any monument, it has become weathered with time – the height of anti-war activism seems to have peaked somewhere around 2005 or 2006; many progressives and liberals saw it more fitting to embrace Obama the candidate, now president, as a hope for peace than the arduous, constantly defeating work of peace activism; the ultimate modern symbol of US aggression and war-mongering, the Bush administration, has quickly and happily faded from the forefront of the activist’s mind. In some ways, it’s amazing that Hope Out Loud still exists at all. (full disclosure: I was at one time a very active participant in HOL organizing, but haven’t been in recent years)
Hope Out Loud has evolved from a concert to more of a peace bazaar. Tables from activist groups and organizations are a close second to the main stage where music, poetry and speakers address the crowd. A smaller music tent, the coffeehouse tent, features music between main acts. The atmosphere used to be much more like a soapbox, w
here the converted hoped to inspire other converted and convert others who happen to pass by. But this year it was different: fewer speakers, more mingling, more conversation and networking among groups.
Much criticism exists about events like HOL. It’s not doing enough to recruit people into the movement. It’s not doing enough civil disobedience. It’s not making enough connections between the peace movement and other social justice struggles. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not. . . These are fair concerns; however, they are most often made by people who have not been on the inside of HOL. While that doesn’t not make these concerns illegitimate, it does make me wonder if a peace and music festival, and the activists who create it, should be seen as less valuable to social justice in general. I walked around Sunday afternoon, and I saw many people I haven’t seen in a long time: Emily Chasse, social justice storyteller who works at the kids section of the festival sharing timeless fables that teach about cooperation, mutual aid, and compassion; Jill Freedman, singer, songwriter and musical activist from Bread and Roses and the People’s Music Network (which is coming to Hartford in January 2011); MIRA, spoken word artist by night and social worker by day; Marla Ludwig, one-woman activist powerhouse who founded Bright Star Vision; members of SEIU 1199 on strike from Spectrum Care now for over five months.
Maybe it’s not the end all be all of CT peace activism. Maybe it could/should do more. But as a monument, it should at least do what other great monuments do: bring people together, inspire them, cause them to reflect and connect. Hope Out Loud has value because it provides a public space for dissent and progressive ideas, a community of activism, and it has become a reminder that the desire for peace can endure if we want it to.