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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Icons’ of local political and social justice movement step down

Couple held leadership roles for two decades

Rusty and Nancy Nelson, the heart and soul of  the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, stand Friday outside their home near Rockford with two new kids from the goat herd they share with a neighbor. The couple are retiring from their leadership role after almost 20 years at the nonprofit.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

For nearly two decades, Rusty and Nancy Nelson have shared all the duties that come with running Spokane’s primary peace and social action group – including deciding who would get arrested at certain protests.

Last month they shared a final joint activity. Both retired as co-directors of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.

The Nelsons were involved in a wide array of political and social issues even before they took charge of PJALS in 1990. They’ve protested against nuclear weapons, the death penalty, war in the Middle East, apartheid in South Africa and U.S. policy in Central America, and in favor of such things as gay rights and justice for Palestinians.

They’ve organized rallies that attracted thousands, such as the protest against a looming Iraq war in 2003, and demonstrations that barely drew a handful. Hundreds of demonstrations, although just how many even they can’t be sure.

“I think it’s safe to say two a month for 20 years,” Nancy Nelson said recently. “Although in the months leading up to the Gulf War, it was every week.”

They’ve had the organization infiltrated by informants and monitored by the FBI. They’ve dealt with community anger and apathy.

“The people who flip us off don’t scare us,” Rusty Nelson said. “It’s the people who are uneasy because we’re here, and they don’t like that, who worry us.”

Through it all, they’ve remained “extraordinarily steadfast,” said Liz Moore, a former intern who will replace them at the head of PJALS.

“They have been consistently outspoken, regardless of the popularity” of their causes, Moore said. “I learned from them, if you see something wrong … you dishonor your beliefs if you don’t speak up.”

Deputy Chief Jim Nicks, who worked with the Nelsons preparing for many demonstrations when he oversaw special events for the Spokane Police Department, called them “the icons” of the local protest movement. They’re straightforward, easy to work with, and respectful of law enforcement, Nicks said. The department tries to reciprocate.

Over the years, the department has made clear to PJALS at what point they will have to make arrests, and leaves the choice up to the demonstrators.

“They can choose to be arrested, and we’ll accommodate them,” he said. But there are rarely any hard feelings on either side.

Nancy Nelson’s first arrest was in 1985, with a group trying to stop the so-called “White Train” that transported nuclear weapons from the manufacturers to military bases. She’s been arrested at local congressional offices for protesting U.S. policy in Central America, at recruiting offices for protesting military policy, and at the state penitentiary for protesting the death penalty. She was arrested at three of the state’s four executions, missing one only because she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

“It’s not that I enjoy being arrested. It’s just something I often feel called to do from a faith perspective,” she said. Her Mennonite faith directs her not to obey what she considers an unjust law.

The Nelsons met in Europe in 1971. Nancy was hitchhiking with two friends when Rusty and his brother picked them up. He was a “fairly agnostic” son of a preacher; she was nominally Christian. After they married, they applied to adopt a child through an agency that required applicants to belong to a church. They joined one and gravitated toward a group interested in social-justice issues. They felt a call in 1981 to come to Spokane, where Rusty worked at a radio station as a reporter and announcer. Their interest in social issues continued, with Nancy starting at PJALS in 1984, on staff when the group had money and as a volunteer when it didn’t.

As Rusty got more involved in social issues, he became a self-described “loose cannon” as a newscaster. He took a transfer to an FM station that played “beautiful music,” working part time as an announcer and part time with PJALS. They became co-directors of the group in 1990.

In 1994, Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after a year of radiation and chemotherapy, the doctors at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle eventually recommended a bone marrow transplant, “hoping it would give me two more years of life.” She had the procedure in 1995, and a radical mastectomy two years later. She’s been in remission since.

Nancy has been arrested more times than Rusty, but on at least two occasions, that wasn’t the plan. When their children were small, they decided only one would be arrested at any event so the other could take care of the kids. Once during a protest at a Fairchild Air Force Base open house and once during a protest at a Marine recruiting center, he was expecting to be arrested for a sit-in when Nancy was arrested unexpectedly for another activity. He had to make sure he wasn’t arrested.

The goal is not the arrest but the nonviolent statement against a violent activity or policy, and most PJALS demonstrations have no arrests at all. Instead, they feature signs, speakers, music, marches, chants and anything else the Nelsons and other organizers think will catch the attention of the community.

Sometimes it seems like the same handful of people waving the signs, making the speeches or manning the marches. Change, when it happens, comes slowly.

“There are times when it becomes discouraging,” Nancy said recently. People say they’re opposed to war but have to support the country once the war starts. Or they oppose capital punishment but say a particular crime is so terrible that it’s acceptable in that case.

They remain philosophical: “We’re not called to be successful; we’re called to be faithful,” Rusty said. “If you keep your cool, you can plant a seed of doubt in their faith in violence.”

Because the Nelsons are in it for the long haul, they’re able to look back and see change. Both Nancy and Rusty said the biggest change they’ve seen since coming to Spokane is the community’s growing acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

PJALS got some of its most violent opposition when it spoke up for gay rights. Office windows were smashed and homophobic messages were painted on the walls. Now, Spokane stages an annual gay pride parade without incident.

“I think Spokane has grown up a bit in that there’s more freedom to express one’s opinion, and an understanding that one can criticize one’s government and still love one’s country,” Nancy said. “It’s part of Spokane becoming larger and more diverse.”

Retirement doesn’t mean they won’t be at any more demonstrations, picket lines or sit-ins. It just means they can pick and choose a bit more, and spend a bit more time at their straw-bale home outside of Rockford with the dogs and goats.

“We’ll be there if it works out for us,” Rusty said.

Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or by e-mail at