The march was scheduled for a Good Friday, the day Catholics commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. This was as strategic as everything else planned by Britain’s Direction Action Committee against Nuclear War (DAC) in 1958. A day of suffering for Christ, absorbing a burden shared by every human on the planet. The threat of nuclear war was a similar weight that those working to end the threat of world destruction, too, felt that every human shared.
A year before, the DAC began planning one of their most ambitious campaigns: a massive protest march from London’s Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, a nuclear manufacturing facility located 52 miles outside of the city. The cross that Jesus carried to his own death centuries ago on that Friday marked in Catholic scripture became a symbol of suffering and hope. The DAC protestors brought their own version of a cross with a new symbol meant to also signify the thin, intolerable line between suffering and hope: the peace sign.
Gerald Holtom produced the design. Holtom was a professional artist, designer, and graduate of the Royal College of Arts. During WWII, Holtom was a conscientious objector; understandably he had strong opinions about what might happen to the world if everyone started cranking out nukes like Twinkies. Holtom took his inspiration from semaphore—a way of communicating that involves holding flags in various positions to generate letters. And we complain about how long it takes to text. Holtom used the semaphore positions for “N,” two flags in an inverted “V,” and “D,” one flag held straight up, another held straight down. He superimposed them together and drew a circle around the lines to give us the trisected image we shorthand for peace that has literally made its way onto the landscape of our lives for nearly 60 years.
For that first DAC march, organizers took Holtom’s insignia and burned it onto white clay badges. As the website of the history of the CND explains: “They were distributed with a note explaining that in the event of a nuclear war, these fired pottery badges would be among the few human artifacts to survive the nuclear inferno.” When it came to peace, these people were not fucking around. In 1958 they knew they could not afford anything less than an all-out-no-holds-bar hustle for peace. In 2016 we need the same memo.
Pakistan. Ankara. Brussels. Mali. Tel Aviv. Mogadishu. Paris. San Bernardino. Right now, in this moment these words sit on the page, in the seconds you read them sharing the same seconds with someone somewhere preparing themselves to be the next rip in the seam of humanity.
The wash of Facebook and Instagram in images of doves and hearts and clasped hands after Brussels sent me searching for the peace sign in lieu of any actual sign of peace. As I read about the symbol’s origins, I realized that I’m as anemic as the next person when it comes to pursuing peace. I didn’t grow up in an activist-oriented part of the country or in a family who felt strongly about exposing their kids to social organizing events like rallies or protests. As an adult, I once heard a woman talk about attending a Proposition 8 rally with her wife and their young son. She called it one of her most favorite “family outings.” I admit I felt a twinge of envy.
The peace movement of the 1960s and early-1970s was filtered through pop culture—Laugh-In, Hair, Cheech & Chong, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “bed in” demonstrations (“Christ we’re only trying to get us some peace!”), and almost every item of clothing and accessory in 1987. It all made the concept seem like its own kind of relic. As if we could handily repurpose peace as something nostalgic, quaint even. That? Oh yeah, we had to do that for a while, but we’re good now. As if harmony just spontaneously generates in our society like a starfish growing a new limb. I knew the peace sign at a distance because I never had to fight for peace up close and personal.
As the world continues to wobble unsteadily, a toddler with legs that threaten to betray her with every step, I see peace that peace is a pursuit. It is a measured choice; it’s an action as deliberate as brain surgery, as profound and consequential as childbirth. It’s something we need to consciously stitch into the cloth of our everyday lives in big and small ways. We need it to be the norm and not the road side flares left at the site of the highway accident.
The DAC protestors were literally and figuratively roving signs of peace. It was impossible to not bear witness to them then, to deny the call to work together in service to peace. It should be just as impossible now.