At the North Carolina State Fair you can look in any direction and see a U.S. flag. At a dart-throwing booth, if you pop a balloon you can win a T-shirt featuring a wanted poster of Osama bin Laden. Signs of nationalism are everywhere, and support for the U.S./British bombing campaign against Afghanistan appears substantial.
In other words, the fair's not a good place to be wearing your anti-war views on your sleeve. But that's what a band of Triangle peace advocates have been doing since the fair opened Oct. 12. During the course of the 10-day annual fair, more than 100 volunteers will be working two-hour shifts 12 hours a day at the Peace Booth in the commercial building, hoping to convince people that active nonviolence, not war, is the only hope humanity has in the fight against terrorism.
Founded by Quakers 50 years ago, the Peace Booth may seem an odd fit with the tobacco and livestock exhibits and the midway rides, but for five decades local doves, with financial backing from numerous individuals and congregations, have kept the booth going as a persistent voice for nonviolence and political action.
Visitors to the Peace Booth can help themselves to literature, sign petitions or grab a copy of a leaflet explaining what various religious denominations believe about peace. The booth also offers coloring activities for children, as well as a round sticker of a peace dove in flight, an olive branch in its beak, with the words: "50 Years at the Fair" and "Peace, Justice, Freedom and Dignity for All."
While organizers of the booth have always prepared volunteers for possible confrontations with irate fairgoers, this year the committee was doubly careful. Peace Booth organizers Leo and Judy Occhetti-Klohr and Debbie Biesack decided to bring in Raleigh nonviolence trainer Russell Herman to help volunteers be better equipped to handle confrontation.
"We expected that there would be more negative comments than usual," Biesack says, "that the possibility of an angry confrontation was going to be greater this year than any other year."
During the trainings, which were attended by a record number of volunteers, Herman led the group in role plays using communication skills, such as active listening, designed to keep people calm.
On the first shift of the first day, Biesack got the first taste of animosity when a man stopped briefly and made a comment about the current war: "I think we should force peace on them by shoving bombs down their bloodthirsty throats," he said.
After more than 10 years volunteering in the booth, Biesack, a mother of three young daughters, says she wasn't surprised by the man's angry remarks. "We expect people to give us comments like that so it doesn't particularly upset me. It just seems so thoughtless."
While Biesack was unfazed, some volunteers from past years were a little worried. Long-time volunteer Maureen Chambers of Chatham County admits she was a little weary of having to work this year in the midst of a war. Chambers, who worked her shift with several students from Exploris Middle School, says the group heard comments such as: "I don't see how you can work at this booth after all that's been done to us," and "I don't believe in this because I am a Christian."
A single mother, who came to the fair with her 13-year-old son Vincent Santoemma, Chambers says there was a lot less interest in the Peace Booth this year because the recent terrorist bombings and the war are making people feel more vulnerable.
"In other years, people would talk to you about it very freely," she says. "This year I think people came to the fair to have fun, and this was just too intense for them to have a reminder, 'It's here. It's real.' Right now [war and violence] is just so present to us."
But Walt DeFoor, a 13-year-old Carnage Middle School student who calls himself a pacifist, says his first experience volunteering in the Peace Booth was positive. Instead of angry people, DeFoor encountered reasonable people during his shift.
"I was expecting much more angry responses, more cussing," he says. "Instead I got understanding people who were very polite. It made me think better of society; as individuals they don't have that mob mentality that is predominant at this time."