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A History of Peace and Arrest

by Rich Schwartzman for Chadds Ford Live: 

Being arrested is nothing new for 80-year-old Joan Nicholson. She said she’s been taken into custody more times than she could recall off the top of her head. One of those times, however, did lead to a year in prison.

Nicholson is, and has been, a peace activist. Her name might not be familiar, but motorists who drive by the Old Kennett Meeting near the entrance to the Kendal retirement community on Route 1 during morning and afternoon commutes know of her. She’s the woman who stands out there with signs calling for an end to U.S. military intervention around the world.

She was born into a family with a strong Quaker tradition. An uncle was the first executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, she said, and an aunt took time off from a teaching job to help with a child-feeding program in Germany after WWI. Her father went to France to help rebuild after that war. And Nicholson went to Quaker schools.

All of that, she said, made “a profound impression” on her in terms of how she views the world: “All humans, all people, are of equal worth,” she said.

Her own activism began in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. She attended and took part in protest rallies. She was involved in reading the names of the war dead on the steps of the U.S. Capital where, she said, “we were arrested week after week” until the courts ruled such arrests were unconstitutional.

In time she got involved in draft board actions where she and others destroyed files of men who would have been drafted. It was during one of those events in Rochester, N.Y., when she was arrested and sentenced to prison.

“We faced 38 years, but the jury recommended leniency,” Nicholson added. “I ended up doing one year in prison.”

She’s traveled the world from Vietnam to Pakistan as an activist. It was in Pakistan where she met with families who had relatives maimed and killed by U.S. drone strikes. Learning about those incidents led her to stand near the entrance to Kendal with her signs calling for an end to drone strikes and withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea and everywhere else.

As many others also think, she wants the prison at Guantanamo closed, and she wants to see an end to force-feeding prisoners there who go on hunger strikes.

“It was all of this – all the wars the United States continues to carry on” that led to her sign vigil.

As a general rule, she’s out with the signs every day with few exceptions, such as extremely bad weather or when she goes to Washington, D.C., where she’s been arrested at least 11 times, she said.

One of those times occurred in 2011. She and several other activists joined up with veterans who were opposing the war in Afghanistan. Nicholson was in the House of Representatives listening to congressmen debate a resolution sponsored by former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

“One of them, a Republican, kept calling out ‘al Qaeda are global terrorists.’ After he said that for the third or fourth time, I finally stood up and called out ‘we are a global terrorist nation,’” she said.

Nicholson said she was arrested as she left the building, charged with calling out from the gallery. There was no jail time, but she was ordered to stay away from the Capital and adjacent streets for nine months.

“I could have been arrested even if I had walked on the sidewalks. And all this for six words,” she said.

As motorists drive by or are stopped at the traffic light, some give horn honks of approval. Others will give Nicholson a thumbs-up or flash a peace sign. Still others offer another hand gesture that Nicholson chooses to ignore.

Nicholson has no plans to stop. She thinks too many people are swayed by propaganda being spread by radio and TV. She said people need to keep looking elsewhere to find out what’s really going on. Some of those other places include RT, Democracy Now, Bill Moyers and the Internet.

She also recommends several documentary films, “Dirty Wars,” which received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary; “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars;” “Wounds of Waziristan;” and “Ghosts of Jeju.” She said she has those films and is willing to show them to interested groups.

Nicholson believes that constant wars are based on all the wrong reasons.

“The world could be a better place, but greed and insanity are driving U.S. policy,” she said.