Women in Black

There’s still a war –- and some are still standing against it



An older woman stands in line at Murphy's Market with a small bottle of water. Short and hunched over, she's dressed in all black, loose-fitting clothes. She smiles at the clerk, looks down and says something softly, then slowly toddles into the sunny summer streets of Trinidad.

Late on a Friday afternoon, it's busy downtown. A construction project pounds and tears at the main intersection, where cars and RVs pour in from Highway 101. The town is filled with a kaleidoscope of out-of-state license plates, and the air smells of crisp ocean and hot, demolished asphalt.

This woman wearing black crosses the dusty street, dragging behind her a folded metal chair. The sun shines through her bright-white puffball of hair. She walks once around an island of hedge plants and flowers at a corner of the intersection and waits. The three women who join her are dressed in black as well, and one helps unfold the chair. They stand, and she sits.

These four women of Trinidad are part of an international movement that holds hour-long vigils all over the globe. These are the Women in Black.

Born in 1988 in Jerusalem, in response to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Women in Black has since become a worldwide movement of women dressed completely in black who stand together against war.

The movement surged on the North Coast shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when as many as 170 women assembled on the Arcata plaza. There, dressed completely in black, they stood in silent opposition to the deployment of American troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Other Humboldt groups gathered, first in Eureka and later in Trinidad. Sometimes reactions were bitter. Trinidad's Women in Black remember when they were mooned repeatedly, pelted with beer bottles, and confronted by shouts of "Just move to France," and "Go home to your husbands."

Nearly 11 years later, the wars have not ended, but Humboldt vigils have mostly waned. Only two women routinely stand in Eureka anymore and just one in Arcata, according to participants.

Trinidad, California's smallest incorporated city, now musters a weekly turnout larger than Eureka and Arcata's combined.

What keeps these women coming, week after week, year after year?

"We are a movement that does not instantly produce a visible accomplishment," said Kathy Reid of Trinidad, who has stood with her fellow Women in Black almost weekly since 2002. She has seen others leave in frustration, but she keeps on coming because she still has a message to share. "Even one woman standing is powerful, moving and very emotional. ... I'm not ready to give that up."

Like others in the Trinidad group, Reid now talks while she stands. The group abandoned silence nine years ago at the encouragement of one participant, now deceased, who was furious that newspapers were writing so little about the war.

So on most Fridays, Reid chats with her friends: Janine Volkmar, Sandra Fredrickson and Mary Wilber, the woman who brings a chair to the Trinidad vigils because, at 93, she no longer can stand easily. That doesn't stop her.

"It's important to make it known that there is a different way of resolving problems," said Wilber. Asked if she'd ever stop keeping vigil, she eases herself straight, exhales and says, "Well, till death do us part, I guess."

These days the little Trinidad group meets a kinder crowd than the ones that earlier vigils confronted.

"When they honk their horns, they're waving now instead of flipping us off," Volkmar said. Sometimes, people stop and thank them. Some give the women homemade muffins and hot coffee in the winter.

Volkmar and Fredrickson have been standing since the first Trinidad vigils in December 2002, but now Fredrickson is thinking of wrapping up her role in the movement, figuring a decade is long enough. "We're going on our 10th year," she said. "I'd love it if Women in Black didn't have to stand anymore, but really, they'll still be standing long after I'm gone."

Around the world, the Women in Black movement is still vibrant in some countries. In Humboldt, where it is mostly over, the reasons it has dwindled are as varied as the women who stopped attending. Salina Rain, who helped start the Arcata vigil, says the local movement just seemed to lose focus. What was once a silent invocation delivered by an unflinching group of women became vocal. Some began to hold signs. "They were changing the character," said Rain. "I didn't want the organization with the meetings and the fliers and the dues. For others that's how to get things done, but not for me."

In Trinidad, on this sunny, late Friday afternoon, at least a few women still believe they are getting something done. A breeze sweeps past them. At times, Volkmar spins to face the others and speak. Her legs are planted loosely as she gestures, and she raises her voice over the construction-clogged afternoon.

A construction worker greets the women as he walks past, and they smile and return his hello. Asked how passersby have been reacting to the women, he says, "I didn't really notice they were here. They were nice as can be, though." He looks back at the group he had just passed and asks, "What are they protesting anyway, the sidewalks?"

At five o'clock the Women in Black begin wrapping up their vigil.

Wilber folds up her chair and vehicles stop in all directions. The drivers watch patiently as she slowly labors her way across the street. Her long black sweater hangs loose and flows softly in the breeze.

Bernard J. Bass, a freelance writer, lives in Eureka.

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