40 years promoting peace
Larry Burcroff, left, and Leonard Polletta were among those gathered on the green in front of the White Hart Inn recently. 
Photo by Kathryn Boughton

40 years promoting peace

SALISBURY—Week after week, in rain, snow and summer’s heat they gather. 

More than 2,000 times over the past 40 years, a small group of like-minded individuals have come together on the White Hart Inn green to unfurl their banners, advocating first for nuclear disarmament and now for peace and justice.

Their diligence has made them the longest-running vigil promoting peace in Connecticut.

The Northwest Corner Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament, formed in 1981 as a grassroots effort to halt the nuclear arms race, occupied the Green first and has since morphed into the Coalition for Peace and Justice. The vigils began Oct. 15, 1983, and continue to this day. 

“In the beginning, we stood on the Town Hall steps,” said Al Ginouves, who now organizes the weekly vigils, “but then we moved down here.” 

The coalition draws members from throughout the tristate region but numbers have waxed and waned over the years. There were only a handful of regulars standing in the line behind the group’s banner on a wet Saturday last week, but Ginouves was not discouraged. “We get a lot of [supportive] honks — and every now and then someone gives us the finger,” he said with a laugh.

Ginouves comes by his activism honestly. His mother was a member of WILPF (The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), which was founded in 1915 to promote world peace from a feminist viewpoint. He was protesting the war in Vietnam by the time he was 16 and introduced his children to activism early, as well.

“I used to bring them when they were kids,” he recalled. “I would put a blanket in the shade of a tree and let them play during the vigil.” He said he never realized that the children were frightened until his son wrote a Father’s Day essay at school. 

“He said, ‘My father is brave,’” Ginouves recounted. “I asked him why he wrote that, and he said because I stood on the Green. It turns out he was afraid of a car hitting us. He was born in 1996, so he was well aware of the tensions in the nation.”

Some of those tensions have led to direct exchanges with people of differing opinions. Ginouves recalled one World War II veteran who stood in front of the banner and said, “I love the atomic bomb.” Ginouves asked him why, and the old man said, “Because it saved my life.”

“He said he would have been sent in to help defeat Japan and could have been killed,” Ginouves said. “I didn’t get upset or argue with him. I just said, ‘That was then, and this is now.’ He stayed for the rest of the vigil. He didn’t come stand on our side of the banner, but he stood with us.”

Another woman who frequently walked by the vigil confronted them once and asked why they stood there week after week when they knew it would do no good. Ginouves simply asked her if she went to church and, if so, why.

For a while, in the 1980s, it appeared that some of the group’s dreams were being fulfilled. During Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure the group sponsored cultural and agricultural exchanges with Russia, sending groups of local high school students to Russia and bringing Russian youths to the Northwest Corner. 

At the same time, Gorbachev and President Ronald Regan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in December 1987. But with the disintegration of the USSR and the tightening of the authoritarian regime, relations again cooled.

A feeling of solidarity is a byproduct of the vigils, according to Pam Patterson of Salisbury, who stands with the Coalition for Peace and Justice and who has a long history of advocating for peace. “I started in high school, protesting the Vietnam war,” she said. “My older brother and our friends were all being drafted, and I was just against the war. These vigils give like-minded people a chance to get together.”

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