Letter: Celebrating the power of peace in Asheville

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Former Asheville activist John Penley in 2016 sent a letter to the Mountain Xpress. The purpose of his letter was to comment on an NPR report concerning Russians preparing for a nuclear strike from the U.S. [avl.mx/bzo]. He wrote that he had called Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer’s office to inquire about our city’s readiness in case of a nuclear strike. Her aide laughed. “I could tell he thought I was nuts,” Penley wrote.

The NPR report noted that there is now a nuclear warhead powerful enough to destroy territory the size of Texas. If dropped in our neighborhood of Western North Carolina, most likely none of us would live to write about it.

When I contacted the mayor recently, I shared a video (“What if We Nuke a City?” on YouTube) showing what one nuclear bomb would do to a major city. The mayor sent the following response: “Asheville has already joined many U.S. cities in the call for the U.S.’ support of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

Anti-war activists, like Peacemaker Anne Craig of Asheville, were responsible for getting the city’s support for this treaty many years ago before Manheimer was mayor. Today, we as a city can’t let up on our pressure to make this ban a reality, meaning getting the U.S. to actually sign the treaty, along with other countries with The Bomb.

For decades, peacemakers, including Penley, now living in Las Vegas, have put their lives on the line to show there are better ways of solving disagreements — local or global — other than mutually assured destruction. Local peacemakers have protested conflicts from Vietnam to Ukraine. They’ve danced to a different beat, not the drumbeat of war, but one of diplomacy.

WNC peacemakers and those around the world often use nonviolent civil resistance to get their message to decision-makers, going as far as risking prison and injury to show the importance of diplomacy instead of weapons. Without the resources war-makers have, anti-war activists have to resort to civil resistance. For example, one of our former Peacemakers of the Year, the Rev. William J. Barber II, and other members of the Poor People’s Campaign have repeatedly been arrested after protesting the war economy and related issues.

My journey to peacemaking started on a snowy spring day back in 2008. I drove over the mountains from Kingsport, Tenn., to join local peacemakers here. To me, they were modern-day prophets. I still think that. Since 2003, on every Tuesday, you can see WNC Veterans for Peace challenging residents to “make peace, not war” at Pack Square. Asheville is truly the place to start and learn from the pros. A few such teachers for peace are on our new honor roll, including Jim Brown, Lew Patrie and Gerry Werhan of Asheville and Ellen Thomas of Tryon.

WNC residents have observed annual International Days of Peace in Asheville, itself an International City of Peace, since 2010. In recent years, we’ve gathered downtown at the Elder and Sage Community Garden on Page Street. Rising tall in the middle of the garden is a white pole inscribed with the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in English, Cherokee, Spanish and Korean.

WNC peacemakers — the shy and the bold, the writers of letters to the Mountain Xpress, those holding elected leaders accountable, former prisoners of conscience, people who currently have court dates — will read their own 2022 WNC Declaration of Peace at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, in the garden. Musicians Rhoda Weaver and Caesar Williams will entertain and inspire us with song.

The theme for Peace Day 2022 is “End Racism. Build Peace.” We hold up those who remind us that there is no peace without justice. All too often in Asheville’s history, systemic racist policies, such as urban renewal and redlining, have resulted in denying equal services, rights and opportunities to people of color. Fellow peacemakers urge our leaders to accelerate efforts toward speedy, generous and just reparations.

BeLoved Asheville’s Ponkho Bermejo is our 2022 Peacemaker. Ponkho is a strong activist and Indigenous/Latinx community organizer who is brilliant at innovation and is also BeLoved’s media expert. He loves supporting the community in expressing cultural pride, honoring ancestors and teaching youths their cultural roots. He uses photography, art and music to creatively celebrate culture and work for racial equity and social justice.  For example, he has constructed art pieces and infrastructure for the Elder and Sage Community Garden. With passion, he calls us to build community and to “be the people we have been waiting for.” He has been active in advocating for the rights of people on the streets, the African American community, the LGBTQ+ community, the Latinx community and for the rights of women.

Last year, we honored Reject Raytheon Asheville, which grew out of citizens’ anger over the siting of Raytheon’s Pratt & Whitney facility on property along the French Broad River. This past Earth Day, eight members delayed trucks for two hours from entering or leaving the 1.2-million-square-foot facility. Buncombe County deputies cited the resisters for trespassing. Although ready to defend themselves in court, their trial was recently and mysteriously dismissed.  However, the group continues to build support for only sustainable development outside the war economy in our region.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

Asheville peace activists are guided by MLK and many others who were often threatened and imprisoned for their acts of civil resistance. Their words ring true for all who continue to confront injustice and violence through civil resistance.

Watch for more information about the power of peace in the days ahead on social media and chalked peace messages contributed by Trinity Episcopal Church’s youths on sidewalks around town.

And may WNC activists’ civil resistance lead to a world where no one worries about the bomb ever again.

— Rachael Bliss



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12 thoughts on “Letter: Celebrating the power of peace in Asheville

  1. Rachael Bliss

    Asheville School will chalk sidewalks on Wednesday with peace messages.

  2. John Malcolm

    Despite or because of the horrendous nature of modern weapons of mass destruction, we have enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity since the end of WWII. If it doesn’t seem that way, you need to pull back your perspective and learn some history. I don’t think this genie will go back into the bottle.

    • Rachael Bliss

      Depends on how you define peace, I guess. It’s like injustice. When others in countries not our own experience injustice or violence, the rest of the world does too. Sadly, we are often the people who invade and oppress others, my brothers and sisters. After George Floyd was killed, did people of color feel at peace?Or after an ICE raid, do undocumented people feel peace? Do those without a bed or roof over their heads feel peace?

      • Enlightened Enigma

        probably depends on their legal status under our Rule of LAW.

  3. John R Penley

    I believe it is more likely that Asheville would be exposed to nuclear fallout instead of a direct nuclear strike. As to the previous comment are you nuts ? Anyway, Asheville could be prepared for fallout exposure and some preparation would be wise. In the current war Ukraine and Russia it seems that the danger is a conventional strike in an area with 6 reactors releasing a massive amount of dirty bomb nuke waste into the atmosphere.

    • indy499

      You better be laying in some canned goods, water and a generous supply of ammo.

  4. John Penley

    Ukraine war live: Putin announces ‘partial mobilisation’ of Russia and threatens nuclear retaliation saying ‘I’m not bluffing’
    Latest nuclear threat issued by Putin today,

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