On a cold February Sunday at noon, about six locals gathered at the Amherst Town Common and braved wind and occasional snow flurries, taking part in a weekly vigil that has been held on Sunday afternoons in downtown Amherst for 34 years.
The Amherst Vigil for Peace and Justice in a Nuclear Free World advocates for worldwide social justice, an end to nuclear weapons and an end to arms trades, according to the free flyers participants hand out to passersby, while others hold signs and banners.
Bundled in a coat and helping to hold a banner that read: “Peace cannot be achieved by force” was Pat Church, a regular attendee of the peace vigils.
Since the late 1970s, the vigil, according to Church, has been “overarching,” and “inclusive.”
“Our focus is almost anything that has to do with justice whether it’s for women or minorities or different aspects of the war machine in different places, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, or now Africa or Yemen ,” she said.
Church explained that the vigil was started by a couple who had been holding a vigil in Springfield in opposition to war in the 1970s. When the couple relocated to the Pioneer Valley, they decided Amherst needed a vigil, too.
“Some vigils are exclusive. They only want to talk about one issue, but if you want to come and bring a sign and talk about an issue, we’re pretty welcoming,” added Church.
At the vigils, there are a variety of signs displayed. Depending on how many people are present, sometimes they break up into groups of people who want to talk about issues and others who want to hold signs and pass out flyers.
Holding a sign that read, “Stop U.S. Wars,” Dade Singapuri, a regular at the peace vigils, said she attends as often as possible. A particular issue that concerns Singapuri and inspires her to come to the vigils, she said, is U.S. drone attacks. Singapuri is concerned about civilians who she said live in fear of drone attacks on a regular basis, afraid to go out in groups for events like weddings or funerals, since drone attacks are said to target people in large groups.
“Drones are part of our military prison industrial complex. This country is the biggest exporter of weapons in the world. The more people who kill each other … the better our business is.”
Church said that attendance at the vigil is largely dependent on the time of year and the weather. On this chilly day, only about six people were present, and a few people stopped by briefly for a flyer or to talk, and then continued on their way.
Church added that sometimes attendees are people who used to partake in vigils when they were kids, growing up in the Amherst area.
Mark Watkins, another regular attendee, said there were some Sundays before the Iraq War began when a hundred or so people showed up. Often, he said, they get dozens of people. Watkins said he comes to the vigil every Sunday.
Watkins noted that there is free lunch offered every Sunday for anybody who chooses to stay for the entire hour and hold a sign. They get the food from Amherst Chinese Food, not far from where the vigil takes place.
“We don’t know what our effect is just (by) being here,” added Church. “But we have had people come back and say what we talked about here really engaged their mind, and (they) looked into it and wound up changing (their) major or things like that.”
Steffi Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org