CORVALLIS, Ore. – It started the way things do in a small town. It was the autumn of 2001, New York’s World Trade Center had been attacked, there was talk of the U.S. military invading Afghanistan, and people here were calling each other, huddling over chamomile tea at the Sunnyside Up coffee shop, asking what could anybody do.
Some of the professors at Oregon State University organized seminars to explain who the players were. “They talked about the histories of Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. They brought in experts on Muslim fundamentalism, and they made it quite clear there was not a clear connection between Islam and terrorism,” said Mike Beilstein, a retired chemist and member of the City Council.
On Oct. 7, the day after bombs began falling on Kabul and Jalalabad, several dozen people got together and held a candlelight vigil against the war in Afghanistan. The next day, Beilstein stood with an anti-war sign outside the Benton County courthouse. Two other people showed up with signs of their own.
The next day, more protesters came.
Since then, a second war started in Iraq, a new president was installed in the White House and the Taliban was beaten back, only to regroup again.
Yet in Corvallis, they’re still saying no to the war in Afghanistan. They have been there seven days a week, 365 days a year, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., since that day in 2001.
“Some days, we have 100. There’s never been just one. Usually, it ends up with at least five or six people by 6 p.m.,” said Ed Epley, 72, a retired phone company worker who has been the mainstay of the vigil over the years. He donates most of his afternoons to the cause and uses his 1961 Volkswagen van to transport banners and signs back and forth to the sidewalk protest site.
Drivers often honk in support as they pass by. They drop off cookies or ice cream bars or, as on one recent day, gas money for the VW. Sometimes people park and pick up a sign or a flag.
Other times, insults – or worse – are hurled out of car windows.
There have been counterprotesters who set up across the street or on the other end of the block, usually waving American flags and signs about supporting the troops.
The point is not to be for or against the war, the counterprotesters said; it’s to support the men and women who are fighting it.
“America has this wonderful history of defending freedom … and not being imperialistic, and our troops are out there doing all that,” said Jane Newton, 80. “Yet they come home, and they get these lukewarm responses from people.”
When asked if the protesters ever imagined they would still be standing on the sidewalk eight years later, Charlie Miller, a retired professor of oceanography at OSU, said: “No. We thought the war would eventually end.”
Added Epley: “We didn’t have an exit strategy. And we still don’t.”