Group's Peace Demonstration A Weekly Event
PORT RICHEY - Local drivers don't need statistics to tell them that the intersection of U.S. 19 and Ridge Road is a daily focal point of rush-hour bedlam. But for one hour of peak driving time each and every Friday morning, car horns blare every few seconds as they pass through the intersection. It isn't because of some inexplicable convergence of bad drivers at the same time every week. Rather, passing motorists are responding to a now-familiar sight: a large hand-written sign inviting them to "Honk for Peace," flanked by a group waving hands, flags and other signs. "This spring it will be two years," said Richard Downing, a member of the Florida Peace Action Network, people from various walks of life connected by a single common thread."Just one goal, to stop the war in Iraq," Downing said. The roadside demonstration, the protestors say, will continue after Jan. 20. That is the day President George W. Bush, who ordered U.S. troops into Iraq, leaves the White House and is replaced by President-elect Barack Obama. While campaigning, Obama called for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but he is keeping Bush's secretary of defense, Robert Gates. Since April 2007, the network's members have gathered at the intersection from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. every Friday to show their opposition to the war. "Three of us started originally; now we have a rather large group," Downing said. "People think we were one large group of people that knew each other and came together. Not at all; this is how we have gotten to know each other." The group's Web site, www.flpan.org, includes links to international news sites, stories and data pertaining to the economic and human costs of the war, and provides information on other anti-war groups and activities along the Suncoast. "We channel information for other peace groups to coordinate," Downing said. The purpose of the Internet site, he said, and of the weekly vigils, for that matter, isn't some expectation that peace in the Middle East will arrive via the intersection of Ridge Road and U.S. 19. Rather, they aim to create a forum for dialog or something as simple as the honking horn of a passing vehicle. On a recent cool, gray Friday, about a dozen group members were out. Rarely did more than a few seconds pass without a honk. It wasn't always that way, said member Barbara Sullo. She and Downing recalled that during the first few months, the reactions of passers-by were much more negative. "A lot of people thought we were here against the troops," Sullo said. "We were supporting the troops. We wanted them home. We didn't want any more of them to die. But oftentimes they thought we were against the troops." They still get a few obscene hand gestures every Friday, Downing said, but the finger-to-honk ratio has changed since they began, directly reflecting polls that show a shift in public opinion. Once or twice a week, there are those commuters for whom a honk or a finger isn't enough, and they will stop to discuss the issue. "Some people just want to discuss things," Downing said. "Others want to get in your face immediately." This ratio also has shifted, Downing said. Fewer people who stop are immediately confrontational, but the ones who are seem to be much angrier. Downing said that is because these people are finding themselves in a shrinking minority of public opinion, which would put anyone on the defensive. One sight that continues to rile many passers-by is when some of their members fly an American flag upside down. For many people, it projects a sense of disrespect, maybe even a call to anarchy or revolution. "I didn't know what it meant, either," Downing said, but he learned quickly from those who stopped to complain. "The upside-down flag is in no way taking shots at the country," Downing said. "It's the international symbol of distress. In other words, if you were out in your boat and you were in trouble, you'd hang your flag upside-down, and people would see it and know to come to your aid." In this case the distress is in reference to the 4,500 U.S. troops killed and tens of thousands who have been injured in Iraq. In the long run, expression might be the most important aspect of their weekly displays, Sullo said, at a time when the country's problems seem so big and unsolvable. "I think people don't feel like they can make a difference, so they don't do anything," Sullo said. "People do support the troops, and want them home, but they don't feel they have a say." Downing continued that line of thought. "When they see us, some people think, 'You know, you can do something,'" he said. "People think, 'I can call my congressman, I can write letters, I can talk to my neighbors. I don't have to just sit here and not like something. I can actually matter. "If we do anything, that may be our biggest function."