LITTLE COMPTON, RI — On a Sunday in late January 2003, a group gathered on the Town Common to protest a potential war in Iraq.
It was made up mostly of ex-Vietnam War protesters who carried signs of peace and waved to passing cars from the small grass triangle behind the Congregational Church.
Betty Torphy had organized and timed the event to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but realizing that President George W. Bush would deliver his State of the Union address the following week, Torphy rallied the group to go to the “common one” more time” the following Sunday.
Nearly 20 years later, Torphy and the group, now called the Sakonnet Peace Alliance, have organized a weekly vigil to advocate for everything from Middle East peace to gun control and, most recently, stronger climate action.
Torphy said the group only lost two weekends in that time.
They have a snapshot of themselves holding signs during a hurricane – after the photo was taken, Torphy said they packed up and went home almost immediately. During the darkest days of COVID, Torphy and another member would sit in the Common, far apart and masked, pretending not to know each other so they wouldn’t get in trouble for gathering.
Although it was two blizzards and the resulting statewide driving bans that made the vigil, they still had one member of the group ski at a meet before.
Much has changed in the last two decades, from the weather to the politics, but the group sticks to a precise routine.
Shortly before 9:30 a.m. every Sunday, cars begin to line the street near the Common, and people gather in weather-appropriate attire, ready to spend 30 minutes on the grass.
On Sunday, November 20, the group consisted of about a dozen people, dressed in hats and scarves, gloves and mittens. There are more people in the summer, someone said, before the part-time residents leave for their permanent homes and when the weather is a little more forgiving. Each week, while the rest of the verse contains a changing collection of signs, someone reads a poem or speech. Last week, the speech thanked Mother Earth.
As the reader listed resources for which to be thankful, the wind softened his voice and fluttered small flags on the Common that had been laid on Veterans Day. When the poem finally satisfied the wind, a gust blew through the crowd and everyone clutched their banners a little tighter and laughed.
Shortly after the group began meeting on the Common, a cafe called the Art Cafe opened up the street and became a de facto meeting place for the alliance.
Last Sunday was also a warm reprieve from the wind and wintry temperatures. Seated around the table, some of the vigil’s regulars talked about their memories of the past two decades and how the group moved from peace to environmental issues, which many of them noted are intertwined.
When the group started meeting in 2003, it wasn’t very popular. People passing by were cursing their car windows or making rude hand gestures. If someone stopped by the Common to reprimand the group, Torphy would try to strike up a conversation with the person and see if they could find common ground.
As the war dragged on, and each week the group read more and more names of those who had died overseas, the invective ceased.
Most of the group’s members said their favorite memory of the past 20 years happened during a Memorial Day parade, when they marched down the street with “sheets as long as the table” filled with the names of dead soldiers, Torphy recalled.
As they marched through the parade, behind the Boy Scouts and other marchers, Sheila Macintosh, one of the members of the weekly vigil, said she could see from many of the parade participants that they “had the air knocked out of them.” Macintosh recalled that the moment was “very emotional”.
For Abigail Brooks, another member of the alliance, the faces of the World War II veterans remained that day.
From time to time, the group expanded to other activities and even to other days of the week. Members hosted movie nights on peace and climate change topics, such as showing Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” almost as soon as it came out.
For a time, members expanded their vigil to twice a week, adding Wednesday mornings to their schedule to catch the crowd dropping off kids at school across the Common.
They once seized a high-powered magazine for a gun and smashed it with a hammer to protest mass shootings and advocate for gun reform.
Although the peace alliance still protests the war, since the pandemic began and the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, their signs have increasingly represented green peace ideas.
“We have some really good banner makers, so if something big comes up, by the next day, we have a banner,” said Bill Mackintosh, another member and Sheila Mackintosh’s husband.
Most of the banners the group held up on Nov. 20 were green, with messages like “COMPOST,” “MAKE PEACE WITH THE EARTH” and “PROTECT VEGETABLES AND PLANTS.” The inclusion of anti-climate change messages was natural, many of the group’s members said.
“It felt like all of these issues were directly related to human violence in some way, either with the planet or with each other,” Brooks said.
Beyond advocating for major international action on climate change, group members said there is much locally, even within Little Compton, that they hope to see accomplished.
A new proposal to install solar panels on municipal buildings appears to be in the works, and the perennial issue of affordable housing to accommodate the workforce needed in the agrarian city is front and center.
Despite the endless turmoil and constant onslaught of new issues, one thing is almost certain: There will be a group on Little Compton’s Town Common bringing awareness to it next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that…
Colleen Cronin is a Report for America staff member who writes about environmental issues in rural Rhode Island for ecoRI News.