Protesters in Amherst rally for peace — and an end to nuclear weapons

  • A rally Sunday in downtown Amherst denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and called for an end to any threatened use of nuclear wepaons. Photo by Steve Pfarrer

  • A rally Sunday in Amherst denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and called for an end to any threatened use of nuclear wepaons. Photo by Steve Pfarrer

  • Dr. Ira Helfand of Northampton, a longtime activist against nuclear weapons, speaks to a group on the Amherst Common, Sunday. STAFF Photo/Steve Pfarrer

  • Shaykh Mirza Yawar Baig, of the Hampshire Mosque in Hadley, said in war there are never any real winners and losers — but that weapon manufacturers “always make money.” Photo by Steve Pfarrer

Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2022

AMHERST — Joining millions of people around the world who have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, attendees at an Amherst rally this weekend called for an end to the war and also spoke to the renewed fears of nuclear weapon use that the conflict has raised.

Dr. Ira Helfand of Northampton, who has campaigned for years for the abolition of nuclear weapons, told about 150 people who gathered on the Town Common Sunday afternoon that Russian President Vladimir Putin had raised the specter of his country deploying nuclear weapons “three times in the last 10 days.”

“We all thought we had moved beyond [nuclear threats], but here we are again,” said Helfand, a longtime member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Both NATO and Russia must say unequivocally that they will not use nuclear weapons for any reason … The stakes are too high.”

Helfand was one of a number of speakers at the “Stand Together” rally, which was organized by the Immigrant Solidarity and Race & Class groups at the Mount Toby Friends Meeting in Leverett. It began with a vigil along South Pleasant Street by the common near Main Street, where people held signs protesting Russia’s attacks.

“Glory to Ukraine” read one. “Stop Russian Oligarchy!” said another. People waved and gave thumbs-up signs as passing motorists honked their horns in support.

“You can feel pretty powerless when it comes to huge world events like this, but it’s still good to know you’re part of these protests that are taking place everywhere,” said one attendee, who gave his name simply as Joe.

After about 20 minutes, attendees moved onto the common near Spring Street to listen to several speakers address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began Feb. 24. Peter Blood of Mount Toby Friends, a chief organizer of the rally, said he was encouraged by the turnout.

“I feel lucky to live in a place where people really stand up for each other, just like we’re standing up today for Ukrainians,” he said.

Shaykh Mirza Yawar Baig, of the Hampshire Mosque in Hadley, said the Russian invasion of Ukraine is sadly emblematic of larger worldwide problems: militarism, the big business of making weapons, and injustice.

“No matter who wins or loses [wars], weapon manufacturers make money,” said Baig. “We pray for the people of Ukraine and for peace … but until we have justice, peace can never happen.”

Naia Tenerowicz, of the grassroots environmental group Climate Action Now, pointed to the environmental destruction unleashed by wars, from the spread of dangerous chemicals used in many weapons to the poisoning of water sources, the destruction of trees and plant life and animals, and more.

“Our use of fossil fuels is inhibiting [the U.S.] effort to cut off our supplies of oil and natural gas from Russia,” Tenerowicz added. She and Blood urged rally attendees to accept higher gasoline prices as a result of the war but also to find ways to reduce fuel consumption.

After a performance by members of the Amherst Area Gospel Choir, Helfand spoke and urged attendees to sign an online petition, led by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), that calls for Russia and NATO to renounce the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict.

Though there’s little else people can do immediately to stop the war, Helfand said, he suggested the current moment might lead to a reprise of the efforts to reduce nuclear weapons that followed the frightening prospect of worldwide atomic war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

“We need to face the future with hope that Vladimir Putin, or whoever follows him, and Joe Biden will sit down and find a way to eliminate these weapons,” he said. “Let’s choose wisely.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.