Struggling with our emotions
Reno citizens gather to promote peace in the face of terror
“Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared. … I’ve directed the full resources for our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
—President George W. Bush, Sept. 11, 2001
Anger. Grief. Fear.
The emotions felt by people throughout the country were felt just as strongly by those gathered at Esoteric Coffee House and Gallery the evening of Sept. 11. Men and women spoke of terror and rage, over and over, on the quickly assembled public address system on the steps of the building.
But they also spoke of peace.
While President George W. Bush began mobilizing the United States’ military to “go forward to defend freedom” in wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., others in Reno were mobilizing, too. It began with a call by Esoteric manager Aaron Conkey, 23.
Conkey called Jen Scaffidi, a local musician and caseworker for adults with disabilities at High Sierra Industries. Scaffidi, 25, spread the word on the e-mail list she maintains to let people know about upcoming gigs. She also called Rory Dowd, a 27-year-old poet who also works at the Washoe Association for Retarded Citizens, and Dowd called everyone he knew.
At the time, no one involved was really sure what form the gathering would take.
“I didn’t really think about it. I just did it,” Conkey said.
“I did it without thinking. I just jumped to the call of action,” Scaffidi said.
By that evening, between 150 and 200 people had converged on the Esoteric steps. On the steps facing Sierra Street, a small group of men formed a drum circle. On the steps facing First Street, children and adults made posters. One read: “God Bless America!” Another asked: “What the hell is going on?”
There was a sudden burst of rain, and the crowd huddled under the shelter of the building; if there is a God, He or She has a sense of ambience.
As night fell, speakers began to approach the microphone. They told stories about loved ones in New York, and the frantic attempts to make sure they were OK. They read poems and said prayers that reached out to all religious denominations—to God and to the Goddess. Musicians brought guitars and sung songs of hope and strength, and a little girl, maybe 10 years old, sang a song about love.
“It was totally people from all walks of life … different religions, different social groups,” Dowd said.
And then, in the midst of peace, dissent.
A young man named Beau approached the microphone. Like the vast majority of Americans, he was angry. But unlike the vast majority of Americans, he was angry at America. He was angry that it took an event this catastrophic to wake up a nation. He was angry that Americans didn’t gather to lament the atrocities that happen every day in the rest of the world.
The audience didn’t take his criticism very well.
“You don’t win over a crowd by yelling at them,” Dowd said. “I totally agree with Beau on those things … I just have different tactics.”
Voices raised. Arguments erupted. Dowd approached a second microphone and tried to calm the situation, but the situation was volatile, and the two men yelled at each other at the top of their lungs.
“I was getting up there to be the voice of reason. I played right into the anger and tension, because it was a screwed-up day,” Dowd said.
Beau eventually gave up the microphone, and another man took over, speaking words of peace. But as high as their tempers had flared just moments before, Dowd, Beau and others were soon talking out their differences.
“Everyone who was on stage had a word afterward and apologized,” Dowd said. “I am glad that Beau was there to stir up a little shit, because we needed that. … It was even more beautiful that it ended the way it did.”
Now, Conkey, Scaffidi and Dowd, among others, are working to build on that night’s momentum by organizing more gatherings. A contact list circulated at the event produced about 100 names of people who support their efforts.
“I feel an obligation to do something positive and creative with that information,” Scaffidi said. “If I can change one person’s mind … not even change their minds, but make them contemplate a different opinion, then I’ve been a success. … I feel responsible for this. If you have the ability to do something, you have a responsibility to share. I can’t in good conscience let it rest.”
“Here’s all these great groups of people who all essentially want the same thing, but it’s very splintered. We just need to come together on a local level,” he said. “We plan on starting a gathering … a chance for the community to get together, no matter what crowd you’re a part of. Everybody wants to do something, but nobody can get together.”
A word that kept arising as the three people spoke was “opportunity"—the opportunity to speak and be heard, and the opportunity to make a difference with that speech.
“I’m always looking to encourage people to take advantage of their opportunities … to speak and affect everyone,” Scaffidi said. “Whenever you affect people and make them think, positive things come out of it.”
Conkey stressed that no one’s opinions would be censored, even if the opinions expressed were not popular.
“That’s what that night was about—people coming together no matter what they believe,” Conkey said. “I don’t want to get people thinking a certain way. … There is no truth. Everybody’s got to form their own truth.”
Those interested in joining future peaceful gatherings can e-mail Jen Scaffidi at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Aaron Conkey at 324-0260.