September 19, 2019

Two new Maine peace activists are ‘regular’ folks taking a stand

They’re both registered to vote as independents. Neither had taken any kind of political action before 2004. And both describe themselves as regular working folks.

Beth Leahy, 47, of Eddington and Jonathan Kreps, 55, of Appleton are now part of the peace movement in Maine, working to end the U.S. war in Iraq.

In separate interviews, both said they were reluctant to pick up placards and pester elected representatives, but as the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is marked Sunday, both are committed to bringing troops home immediately.

For Leahy, opposition to the war is not just a matter of political philosophy. Her son Bill, 20, enlisted in the Air Force while a senior in high school. He is in training in Tucson, Ariz., and expects to be deployed to Iraq in the coming months.

“I was actually raised Republican,” Leahy said. “I wasn’t really into politics until recently.”

Though she opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq three years ago, it didn’t occur to her to express that view publicly until last year when she learned of the Eastern Maine Peace and Justice group’s weekly demonstrations in Bangor.

“Last summer, I found out about the vigils,” she said. So she joined a group on State Street.

“It felt great. You felt a kinship with them,” Leahy said. Holding a “Honk for Peace” sign, she said, many people honked their horns driving by, though “a few go by and flip us off.”

Her response to the latter is to flash the peace sign.

She has no regrets about demonstrating.

“If you’re silent about it, you’re complicit. I couldn’t not do it,” she said.

Her son, whose father and grandfather both served in the Air Force, supports her activism, Leahy said.

“He doesn’t mind that I’m doing this,” she said. He told her his service is related to protecting her right to protest.

Kreps, who runs a greenhouse business, Perennial Favorites, with his wife in Appleton, was surprised to find himself becoming politically active a year ago.

“I prefer not to be active politically,” he said. “There’s enough to do in life.”

But a growing anger about President Bush’s policies, including the war, transformed him from shouting at the TV to joining organized protests.

“I found myself filled with anger, filled with rage, and needing to do something,” he said.

In January 2005, he traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., to join a protest coinciding with President Bush’s second inauguration. In September, he joined 300,000 others marching against the war in Washington.

Being counted is important, Kreps believes.

“That message is a matter of numbers,” he said.

He believes most Americans oppose the war, but he is perplexed by the lack of what he terms outrage over the deaths of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and the alleged torture of prisoners.

Kreps has participated in the “frequent visitor” action in which those opposing the war visit the offices of U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and read the names of dead Iraqis and dead U.S. troops. They have asked both senators to hold town hall meetings to hear public comment on the war, but those requests have been refused.

“They’ve stonewalled. Collins has said she prefers to meet individually,” he said.

Jen Burita, a spokeswoman for Collins, said Friday the senator “has had individual meetings with dozens of these folks” and believes she is hearing their views.

Preston Hartman of Snowe’s office said the senator has met “with anyone that wants to meet with her. The lines of communication are open.” He said Snowe is aware of public sentiment on the war.

Collins agreed to a videoconference with Kreps and others, but refused to hold a public meeting, Kreps said.

Leahy, who works as a waitress, had been an animal protection activist for several years, but once the war spurred her to action, she found herself gearing up on several fronts. She went door to door in the fall of 2004 to get the vote out for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and she calls Snowe’s and Collins’ offices regularly.

She will not argue politics with those she works with, instead proffering printed matter. And she believes she may have paid a price for her stands – the tires on her car were slashed recently, which she guesses was in response to the bumper stickers that cover the car’s trunk.

Leahy and Kreps are old enough to remember the Vietnam era, the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It marked them both.

Leahy remembers her older brother traveling to Canada to avoid the draft, then being persuaded by their father to return. She wore a POW-MIA bracelet in junior high and wrote letters to families of those missing in Vietnam.

Kreps was old enough to be drafted, but, through a fluke in the draft, was able to avoid selection. He opposed that war, but was not active in opposition.

“I think we need a draft now, and there should be no deferments. And they should start with twins,” he said, a reference to Bush’s daughters. At the same time, he worries about his young grandson growing up to be drafted.

Leahy watched the 1991 Gulf War unfold on TV with her young son. “I thought, ‘All those poor mothers. Mothers’ sons are dying,’ on both sides.” She opposed that war, too, she said.

Kreps was in graduate school during the Gulf War and does not recall having strong feelings about it.

Leahy and Kreps both think the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq immediately. They believe it would reduce the violence in Iraq.

Though they were reluctant activists, Leahy and Kreps don’t seem likely to return to the sidelines anytime soon.

Asked whether he considered himself an activist now, Kreps answered quickly. “Yes. I feel better these days because I’m doing something,” he said.

Asked whether the activism marks a new chapter in her life, Leahy seemed surprised.

“I guess so. I wasn’t really planning on it,” she said.

Events in Maine

Among events planned to mark the third anniversary of the start of the war:

. Reading of the names of U.S. troops killed in Iraq, noon Sunday, March 19, village green, Camden.

. Chain of concern, along U.S. Route 2, from Eastern Maine Medical Center to Mount Hope Cemetery, 11 a.m. Saturday, March 18, Bangor.

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