If you’ve driven or walked down Biltmore Avenue near Pack Square on a Friday evening between 5 and 6 p.m., you may have noticed a group of women, clad mostly in black, standing silent and still in our public square (or what’s left of it) displaying a large, hand-sewn banner. It reads “Women in Black … Silent Vigil … Mourning Violence,” and we have stood there every Friday evening for the last six years, beginning a few weeks after the attacks on Sept. 11. We stand to hold a public space for mourning the violence in our communities, nation and world. As one participant stated, “I had to take some action after seeing how violent a society this is—violence in news media and entertainment, in domestic squabbles, in school competitions and even in traffic.”
Another said: “I chose to join the silent vigils because I wished to take a stand in a way that had nothing to do with ideology or partisanship. I wished to participate in a visible, unadorned act of bearing witness. As unglamorous as it was, standing at the edge of the downtown traffic circle on a Friday afternoon in the midst of windblown grime and diesel fumes, the experience was very much an expression of the feminine principle. We created a context for awareness and inclusiveness.”
Standing still in silence on one of the busiest corners of our vibrant downtown, the city swirls about us: people going about their business, couples entering restaurants, tourists consulting their guidebooks to find specific streets, bicyclists carefully navigating the rush-hour traffic.
Our banner has been held aloft through wind, rain, snow, heat and cold. We’ve endured angry curses and graciously accepted nods of support from passers-by. We’ve been hugged by recently returned Iraq veterans thanking us for our “witness.” Sometimes pedestrians stop and bow, palms together, or whisper “thank you” as they pass. Some pedestrians’ faces turn stone cold—as if we somehow threatened them—and walk past as quickly as possible. Occasionally someone stops to talk to us about Jesus and Armageddon or to ask for spare change. Sometimes we see children, walking hand in hand with their parents, looking back at us and wondering aloud, “Mama, why are those ladies standing there?”
We have stood through the intense emotional atmosphere right before and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and witnessed as police bullied young people who’d gathered in outrage over the violence of yet another U.S.-initiated war. We watched as city officials closed the public square—our “commons”—to the public, claiming it was for safety reasons. We watched as a supposedly sophisticated Southern city had no creative ideas for how to address citizen concern about pre-emptive war other than by muzzling free speech and assembly, arresting nonviolent demonstrators and closing public spaces.
When Pack Square was cordoned off by barricades and “No Trespassing” signs in March 2003, Women in Black stood, as usual, in our public square, bearing witness against violence and for public safety. Ten of us were arrested, found guilty of trespassing and fined $150 each. But two Fridays later, the barricades were gone and the park again belonged to the public. In 2004 the WNC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union gave Asheville Women in Black the Evan R. Mahaney Champion of Civil Liberties Award.
Over the past six years, women have come and gone. Some have moved to other areas. One of our number has died and, interestingly, a letter she’d written to our local paper calling for peace was published the day after her death. Two women have given birth, several have become grandmothers, several have lost their own mothers. One has survived the death of her son and the rape of her daughter. The cycle of life continues as we mourn the cycle of violence—both domestic and international.
We mourn the murders and shootings that have occurred in our town, the abuse of women and children, war still being used as an instrument of foreign policy, and poverty (which is its own kind of violence). Because we are silent, we don’t necessarily know what particular issue has brought each woman to the vigil. There may or may not be shared concerns; the reasons for each woman’s grief may change from week to week. The connecting thread is violence.
Our vigil has also served as a means of mobilization. One woman has walked across Spain and France as a peace pilgrim, others have walked to Oak Ridge, Tenn., as witnesses against the production and use of nuclear weapons and to Fort Benning, Ga., to bear witness against the training facility for torturers formerly known as the School of the Americas. Still others have worked to address/prevent domestic violence and sexual assault, to protect and preserve our environment, and on many other efforts to promote human rights, peace, justice, environmental integrity and human betterment.
Have we had any effect? Six years later, the U.S. military still occupies Iraq and Afghanistan, and our president now threatens to attack Iran. Six years later, global warming is an ever-more-critical challenge. Six years later, young people are using guns to settle disputes in our hometown, and rape is still the hardest crime to prosecute.
Asheville is a somewhat quieter place when it comes to free speech and public assembly concerning the issues of the day. But Women in Black continue to “hold the space,” mourning the senseless violence against humanity and our planet that threatens our very survival. We envision a more humane society, and our vigil is a reminder to everyone that this is still possible.
[Asheville resident Anne Craig founded, directed and taught at several local schools. She now works as a community volunteer and activist.]