Joy First, 52, is a mild-mannered grandma who lives in Monona. She's raised five kids, worked for the UW-Extension, and last year earned a Ph.D. in women's studies from the University of Cincinnati. Oh, and one more thing: She's been arrested more than a dozen times for protesting the war in Iraq.
'This isn't something I enjoy doing,' explains First. 'It's something I feel called on to do.'
First has been busted seven times in Madison, five times in Washington, D.C., and once in Wausau, for various acts of civil resistance. Usually she's gotten small fines and paid them. Recently, she's been taking her cases to court, gaining yet another forum for opposing the war.
Last month in D.C., First and other activists got a suspended sentence for 'crossing a police line' in September to talk to their elected representatives. Last week she was back, as the Senate passed a $122 billion war spending bill that proposes a March 2008 withdrawal of U.S. troops. First and others were arrested at the Hart Senate Office Building for erecting cardboard tombstones with the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq 'since the Democrats have been in control.'
In Madison, First and others went to trial in February over $109 fines. Municipal Judge Daniel Koval sentenced them as requested to community service, at the usual rate of one hour for each $10 of fine, after the city attorney's office did not object.
'The judges we've dealt with,' says First, 'have all been sympathetic.' (Koval says his personal feelings play no role.)
Indeed, First and other anti-war protesters count much of the nation as being on their side.
'When we're out here protesting and there's 25 people, it's easy for people to say, 'Here's a bunch of kooks,'' says Terry Tinkle, 60, a retired teacher and high school principal who lives in Coloma. 'But in the last election, 75% of the people voted for change, for an end to the war.'
Tinkle, who's made the trek to Madison for several protests, thinks politicians in Washington are engaged in 'a lot of posturing and rhetoric, but nothing is changing, and it's continued to escalate.' First couldn't agree more.
'I feel a deep sense of betrayal,' she said via cell phone last week, moments before her latest arrest. 'We're being betrayed by our Congress.'
Allen Ruff, a local historian and activist, notes that the current anti-war movement reached its apex before the war began, in early 2003. Tens of thousands filled the streets, hoping against hope to stop Bush's plan to invade Iraq.
Afterward, says Ruff, people were 'frustrated, disappointed, demoralized.' John Kerry's presidential bid further 'sucked life out of the movement,' as war foes rallied behind a Democrat who called for adding troops.
As chaos has engulfed Iraq, the continued open-ended investment of lives and resources is hugely unpopular. Indeed, says Ruff, 'public opinion is actually way ahead of the anti-war movement. Now the question is: Where is everybody?'
While mass protests have not resumed, Ruff sees signs of 'an uptick in anti-war activity.' Referendums are reaching ballots. Groups like the Network for Peace and Justice are stronger than ever. Churches are getting more involved. There is growing resistance to military recruiters in schools. And pressure from the left 'has helped Congresspeople find some backbone.'
In Madison, a focal point of anti-war opposition is Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl. Since early February, protesters have staged weekly protests outside Kohl's office on the Capitol Square.
These events, organized by First, have attracted up to three dozen people. One of the regulars is Margaret Dunn, 71, a retired teacher who now lives in Waunakee.
'I believe this war is very wrong,' says Dunn, a veteran activist ('I marched in 1968 after Martin Luther King died'). Dunn has been against the Iraq war from the start and is a core member of the Madison chapter of Women for Peace (a.k.a. Code Pink).
The Kohl protests are part of a national 'Occupation Project' targeting members of Congress. The activists see both mainstream political positions ' staying the course vs. seeking U.S. troop withdrawal sometime in 2008 ' as woefully inadequate. They want the troops home now.
'Any vote for supplemental funding is a vote for further deaths,' says Flo Evans, 53, who's active with the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. 'Every day, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying.'
Network coordinator Steve Burns admits a parochial reason for picking on Kohl: His office is closer than Sen. Russ Feingold's, in Middleton. It's true, says Burns, that Feingold has done more to oppose the war. But 'Feingold's record has been the same as Kohl's ' he's voted consistently for war funding every time it's come up.'
Two weeks back, the Kohl demonstrators read the names of the 70 state soldiers who have been killed in Iraq. First, wearing a black mourning veil, wept and wailed.
Last Wednesday, in the cold and rain, a dozen diehards held signs and briefly chanted; the sole student among them wrote 'Hey Kohl, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today' in chalk on a wall by the front door.
After a while, a handful of protesters moved upstairs to Kohl's office, where they've become a familiar presence. Several criticized the senator's lack of accessibility, with Evans likening him to 'a ghost or apparition.' An aide jotted down these comments, purportedly to share with Kohl.
Earlier that same day, First showed up at Kohl's Washington office for a weekly 'Coffee with Herb' event, joined by a friend whose T-shirt branded Bush an 'international terrorist.'
First says they were ushered into Kohl's office, where the senator assured them that 'what we're doing really matters and that our voices are being heard.' She still feels Kohl's response to the war ' he's joined most Democrats in supporting a deadline for troop involvement ' is 'weak.'
What does Kohl make of such encounters? 'Any contact affects his thinking on just about any issue,' says his spokesman, Joe Bonfiglio. 'He's been engaged on this issue [and has] taken all communications to heart.'
Bonfiglio says Kohl has met with protesters whenever time permits. But some Madison activists say their requests for face time have been rebuffed. 'I've never met Kohl, and I've been doing this a long time,' says Judy Miner of the Network for Peace and Justice.
Kohl has told his staff he does not want protesters arrested. Last September, a group was even allowed to occupy his office overnight. Says Bonfiglio, 'He believes in free speech and recognizes that his office is a place where people come to protest.'
Meanwhile, protester Dunn is cheered by signs of Bush's growing vulnerability: 'I think the administration is in a very weakened position, and it may not take very much to push down the house of cards.' She tells of an 85-year-old resident of her apartment complex who shares her disdain for Bush and the war but doesn't know what to do. 'The foment is there. There's so much dissatisfaction.'
Everyone, she says, can do their part. For some, maybe it's writing a letter or calling their elected rep. For those willing to risk arrest, 'maybe we have to get out there and risk one more time.' Through such acts, she believes, 'a critical mass is forming.'
Making the connection
Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice
Madison Area Peace Coalition