We Mourn and We Warn

Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable: A local Woman in Black explains herself.

It is essential for me to state, and the reader to understand, that Women in Black is a collection of completely autonomous groups for whom no one woman may speak. I am a Woman in Black, and I speak only for myself in this attempt to tell you what we do.

War is as old as picking up a thigh bone and whacking a rival. What the Women in Black do in their silent vigils against war all over the world is even older. To use one of the Bible stories that are, at present, the favorite bedtime reading on the pillows of power, Mother Eve had to give birth to her boys before one of them could kill the other.

Before death and war comes the giving of life, and after death and war comes the last of a thousand, thousand cleanings up, which have been the duty of the crone, the ancient and original Woman in Black whose power is invoked by today’s lines of silent, somber women. It sounds mystical and partly is. There is a very large spiritual component in any dedicated vigil, and the women who stand on street corners and at checkpoints make good use of their stillness.

We are not precisely antiwar. We are most profoundly for—for peace, for life, for understanding, for hope. Although our attention wanders during our vigils, dwelling on the immediate action of the stage before our eyes, on our families or finances or chores to be done, on jokes or politics (insofar as there is a difference), we do spend much of this quiet time considering ways to free ourselves of angers and oppositions and learn what we need personally and so terribly to know of peace.

The crone power we sometimes joke about wielding is real and astonishingly effective. Our silence, our stillness, our black mourning garments move passersby in depths and ways that neither we nor they ever quite anticipate.

Women In Black is not an organization but a network of independent groups of women of all ages, faiths, countries, and political convictions who express their shared passion for ending violence by supremely nonviolent vigils. Its original inspiration was the Argentine Grandmothers of Plaza De Mayo, who have been standing and marching in black since the early 1980s, sometimes silently and sometimes loudly seeking the return of their “disappeared” children and grandchildren. In 1988, in Jerusalem, a group of Israeli and Palestinian women, sickened by the murder-suicide pact of their bloodstained peoples, braved bombs, bullets, and other obscene attacks to stand together in black and demand an end to the insanity. They were not silent at first, but they quickly discovered that angry confrontation was no more effective than it had ever been, while silence startled witnesses into thought, however confused.

That disturbance of people’s mental status quo remains our basic tactic in pursuit of our ultimate, and ultimately maternal, goal of making people want to seek and find honorable, nonviolent solutions to the troubles of our world. We want to reach into that place of unease that lurks within us all and makes us wonder if we have been good or bad, and if She knows.

What people think after we have poked our crones’ spoons into the cauldrons of their consciences is up to them. We hold up signs, usually in a very limited way, to indicate our strong preference for peace, human rights, justice, and nonviolence, but once we have people’s attention, we leave them alone. We know we will haunt them.

In our group on Bainbridge Island, we have developed a twist on the maternal tactic. On Friday evenings, most of the women stand in a line on one of the corners where they are most visible to drivers on their way from the ferry, a somewhat alarming sight—though a familiar part of the landscape after two and a half years. On another corner, frequented by most foot passengers, the plump, pleasant Universal Grandmother sits in her quite legitimate wheelchair and hands out leaflets, talking with anyone who has questions or comments. She does not talk much, unless it is important to someone, but she smiles a lot, especially at those who scowl or are offended by her proffered flyers. She was chosen for the job partly because her eyebrows are nearly invisible, which, combined with her being seated and therefore shorter than most people, makes her look harmless, cozy, and unthreatening. Thus do we enact H.L. Mencken’s injunction to simultaneously “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

The device came out of a period of open aggression from a group that brought large flags and a lot of noise to yet another of the four corners of the intersection. They identified themselves as Republican Women (“Women in Red, White, and Blue”) and American Legionnaires, some of them local and quite a few coming on the ferry, and they were shouting support for the troops on their way to begin the war in Iraq. They were offended by us and also shouted, often angrily and sometimes offensively, at us.

We learned a lot in those weeks about just what nonviolence means, both tactically and spiritually. We spoke in e-mails and in the brief circle we hold after vigils about the struggle against our own angers and longings to retaliate and the fear the attacks inspired in us. It is difficult enough for each woman to make of her person a public symbol, to expose herself deliberately to even friendly, uncontrolled scrutiny. To stand as an intentional focus of all eyes, when the eyes and the mouths are hostile, to be silent and apparently serene in the face of dislike or actual hatred is difficult. Very.

The threat of violence from the noisy corner was more apparent than real, and perhaps the gentle warnings of the police, who came out of their station 30 feet behind the crowd, were not really needed. Still, the intense hostility alarmed us into giving serious consideration to what we would do if we were physically assaulted. The consensus was for us to act as we preach and, if attacked, to respond not at all. Whether we would have been as brave in any other location was a question we did not need to answer at the time, but we thought of the tar baby in the story. It, too, was black, and when punched and kicked its stillness eventually reduced its assailant to silent immobility.

There really is no answer to silence. The angry person who rails against it eventually gets tired and either goes away or hits the silent one, which undoubtedly hurts the silent one physically, and perhaps emotionally, but leaves her argument in clear command of the field.

Not all public response is hostile. Indeed, it is much more often friendly, even grateful. People come up to us and thank us for being there and doing what we do. One man said our silence was “the loudest demonstration” he had ever seen—most encouraging, but insidiously more likely to lead us astray than would angry threats. It is tempting to want to be liked, to be a cozy part of the island scene instead of a disturbance to it, and it does not really help that tourists snap pictures of us as local “color.” We catch ourselves frequently when we are tempted to settle into the niche of sweet respectability.

Let there be no misunderstanding of the black we wear. If we know its mythic strength and use that, we also mourn truly and very often in tears. Our silence is tactical but born of a grief and a horror too deep for words.

Women in Black stand at the gates of night and face both ways. From the beginning, it is we who give birth to the new lives, send them—at need or at no need at all—to war, and afterward search the battlefield for them, to carry home and heal or bury, even as we assist the younger women to bring their own new lives into the same circling world. Flags and governments come and go, as civilizations rise and fall, but the women stand at the dark gates and wait for light.