Demonstrating at Weapon World
By Dan Bernstein
Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, pp. 7-8
The people who gathered on a baseball field under cloudy skies were as diverse a group as you could imagine. There were teen-agers and grandmothers; doctors and musicians; hippies and priests.
But they had all come to Orlando on Saturday, October 22, for the same reason: to protest the planned deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe.
About five hundred people, half the anticipated number, braved heavy rains to march for an hour and a half through a portion of this central Florida city. Singing songs and chanting slogans, the group formed one of a series of demonstrations across the United States and Western Europe opposing the placement of five hundred and seventy-five Pershing II and Cruise missiles in five European countries in the next five years.
Orlando was chosen as Florida’s sole protest site because the Pershing II is being built by Martin Marietta, a defense contractor with a plant just outside the city. Hence, the protest’s title: “Halt the Pershing at its source.” And hence, signs like “M &M melts your mouth and your hands.” (In addition to the protests, candlelight vigils were held at the plant grounds the night before and the day after the march.)
While many of the demonstrators said they doubted the protests would stop the missiles from being deployed, they said they still felt the need to march. “Silence is complicity and we don’t want to be part of that complicity,” said TJ. Powers, an Episcopal priest from Gainesville, who carried a large red sign reading “Choose Life, Pax Christi.”
Aside from the busloads of people who came from throughout Florida, the march and afternoon rally attracted some people from outside the state, including a group from Atlanta.
Many of the protectors said they had been involved in the Vietnam War protests. They agreed that the nuclear freeze movement represented a greater cross-section of America and said it was farther reaching than Vietnam because it involved a possible world war with millions of deaths as opposed to localized fighting by guerillas.
Some said they were too young to get involved in the Vietnam protests, but have been very active in the freeze movement. “If nothing else, Ronald Reagan has spurred us on the road to peace,” said Chris West-Harazda, a thirty-year-old prep school teacher from Tampa.
Indeed, some marchers seemed to be using the demonstration as a way to attack the President. “Ronald Reagan, he’s no good/send him back to Hollywood,” was among the chants heard from the group during the march. One speaker at the subsequent rally referred to Reagan as “Hatchetman.”
Other speakers appealed to different levels One had a comedy routine. Others harmonized. A University of South Florida cancer researcher spoke about the medical effects of a nuclear war.
“The bottom line,” said Dr. Gary Lyman, “is that if one
or two percent of the nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union were fired at Florida, there would be five million immediate deaths and three million severe injuries.”
Before the speeches, the crowd held hands and formed a large circle around the baseball field near the Tangerine Bowl. Softly, they sung, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” The haunting John Lennon lyric was repeated over and over.
During the rally, buttons, T-shirts and books were sold to raise money to offset the $2,500 it cost to put on the march, $1,500 of which was to pay the city for police protection.
The Central Florida Nuclear Freeze Campaign, which organized the march, has challenged that fee on the grounds that it hinders free speech. A federal district judge ruled in favor of the city, and the money has been placed in an escrow account pending the outcome of an anticipated appeal. Lawyers for the freeze group said the case could end up in the lap of the Florida Supreme Court.
As for their part, police reported no problems during the three and a half mile march or the rally, which continued despite a constant drizzle. At one point during the march, a policemen noticed that a peace sign had been placed on the windshield of his parked motorcycle. He quickly pulled off the soggy cardboard and kicked it into pieces.
Dan Bernstein is a reporter for the Tampa Tribune.