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A Laboratory in Democracy: Revisiting the Great Peace March



Steve Brigham

Copyright 1999


Twelve years ago I was a part of a remarkable group of 400 people who gave up nearly a year of their regular lives to walk across the country for global nuclear disarmament. That's right we gave up our nine-to-fives, one-bedroom apartments and two-story homes, cars in the garage, neighborhood friends, and summer trips to the beach to spend nine months walking eighteen miles a day through blistering heat, drenching rain, and miles of desert and farmland expanse to help make the world safe from nuclear weapons.

Although the walk -- called the Great Peace March or GPM -- finished long ago, it has lived inside my colleagues and me ever since. Part of what lives on are the incredible friendships we formed and vivid memories of the adventures we had. What lives, as well, is a march that quickly evolved from a high-visibility media event to a living, working democracy, far from the limelight, that depended emphatically on the development of a healthy, vigorous, though tempestuous, community.

Our original vision: 5,000 people walking in a glitzy, high-profile, protest march across the country to bring attention to the insanity of the arms race. Through their walking and outreach they would reach tens of millions of Americans along the way, carrying the message and creating the political climate necessary to achieve their goals. At the end of their journey, one million people would join them for a rally in Washington, D.C. to demand world leaders end the nuclear madness. That was what was supposed to happen. However, it was far from the reality.

The Great Peace March did begin on schedule, March 1, 1986, but the glamorous Hollywood-style march imagined never materialized. Instead, on March 14 -- when the march was just 120 miles and fourteen days out of Los Angeles -- the organizer, PRO-Peace (national peace group), announced its collapse. Although the national media read the march its last rites on that day, 400 of the original 1,200 marchers reorganized, intent on completing the dream of a cross-country trek. With determination and ingenuity, these 400 die-hard pioneers conceived a new organization and march, which set out from Barstow, California, March 28. I was among the pioneers.

From Barstow to Chicago, we spent most of our time walking through sparsely populated deserts, mountain ranges, prairie, and farmland. When moving through towns of a few hundred or a few thousand, we were front-page news, having palpable impact -- mostly positive, occasionally negative. The big cities, in contrast, never paid us any mind. Because we were just getting our footing and because the potential for outreach in those areas was minimal, we spent countless hours in conversation among ourselves. During these five months, mid-March to mid-August, we built a community committed to democracy, dialogue, openness, and fairness.

We called our mobile village Peace City. We had a kitchen, operating twenty hours a day that could comfortably serve as many as 1,000 breakfasts and an equal number of lunches and dinners. We had two forty-foot storage trailers -­ one for dry goods, one refrigerated. We had a dedicated volunteer maintenance crew working six or seven days a week. We had departments for finance, data entry, sanitation, and transportation, more than thirty formal and informal departments in all.

Advance teams regularly traveled ahead to secure campsites, publicize our impending arrival, arrange speaking engagements, organize rallies and benefits, and spearhead potluck dinner committees. Our festive camp atmosphere, with its hundreds of colorful tents and fleet of large vehicles, would attract locals each night who came to tour our village, listen to a speaker on the arms race, or enjoy songs performed by our own musicians. It was an exciting place to be.

The march finished eight months after its phoenix-like revival, in mid-November 1986, just as temperatures in the East plummeted to levels uncomfortable for full-time, outdoor living. Some 15,000 people from around the nation joined us for a rally at Lafayette Park in front of the White House and then a celebration at the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Within the week, 800 proud but exhausted people (the march had doubled in size in its last four months) dispersed in every which direction to pick up their lives where they had left them or to start new ones, all emboldened to pursue and launch the projects, activities, organizations, and other dreams that the march had inspired in them.


A Laboratory in Democracy

I was twenty-four when I joined the march and thought I understood democracy, knew largely what it meant, superficially how it was applied, and what the ins and outs of its limitations were. Until the GPM, however, I had never thought of democracy as a daily practice. Democracy had implied many things to me -- freedom of speech, the press, and movement; equal rights for all citizens; due process under the law; and, participation, direct or indirect, in local/national decision and lawmaking. But I, like most of us who live in a democracy, had taken much of it for granted, mainly because it allows most of us to do as we please. Democracy, then, takes place around us, often without requiring much effort of our own. The GPM changed my views about what democracy can mean. On the march, I watched democracy emerge -- in a palpable way -- into something more workable and participatory than I've ever experienced before or since.

How did it emerge on the march? We must first take a closer look at the collapse of PRO-Peace. In the twelve months prior to the march, it had assembled a centralized, paid staff of ninety, then operated -- largely -- as a top-down corporation, run by the founder and a few of his executive-level managers. It had confidently expected big corporate donations, endorsements from every major and minor peace and disarmament organization, the fawning of the local and national media, and the adulation of the American public. The December before the march was to start, its leaders knew the march was in big trouble. They had fewer than a quarter of the expected number of marchers, the money they had counted on hadn't shown up, and only a handful of the national peace organizations had expressed interest in lending a hand.

Once the march started, PRO-Peace realized that their troubles were not solely financial -- and these additional ones quickened their demise. As the participant count scaled up from 100 overwhelmed and somewhat green staff to 1,300 staff and marchers, the march inevitably began to take on a life of its own. Many marchers began to demand more control over PRO-Peace's policies and daily operations. PRO-Peace staffers gave in on some matters, but resisted on many others.

Crises reigned. One night we lost our campsite and were forced into homes. One day, we were ill-prepared for a heavy rainstorm and eight marchers were treated for hypothermia. On another, we ran out of operational funds and had to stay put at a remote desert site. On the fourteenth, the march's founder drove from L.A. to our site in the Mojave to announce that PRO-Peace had gone bankrupt, the march was over, the dream dead.

But a funny thing had been happening during this stress and turmoil. Individuals and groups, anticipating the demise of PRO-Peace, began to set up their own task forces and policy board to fill the vacuum. By the time PRO-Peace abandoned us, replacement structures were already beginning to emerge. A growing band of people continued to believe that the dream was still alive, albeit smoldering. The central conversation in camp was: Were you going to stay and rebuild, or abandon ship entirely? Nearly 800 left, either convinced a march would never restart or unwilling to stomach the chaos and uncertainty another day longer. But 400 stayed to see whether they could mount what seemed a minor miracle. Many people, I among them, did not believe we would start again but couldn't bear to leave without trying.

When PRO-Peace folded, we did not know what governance we would create, but we were certain it would not resemble the just-please-do-what-we-say style of leadership that had just crumbled. For two weeks in Barstow, we debated and argued into the wee hours of the morning: Should we proceed with as many people as possible, or break up into small, self-contained groups? Should we appoint a primary leader to run our affairs, or build our own democracy that would attempt, collectively, to run its own affairs?

A policy board, composed of members from each of the four towns of Peace City, facilitated the deliberations. A board of directors had also been created as a requirement of incorporation, and in its original composition consisted of three former PRO-Peacers who had resigned to support our fledgling group. Neither board would last for long.

The day before we left Barstow for the Mojave Desert and points east, we voted to replace the policy board with an elected city council (operating on consensus, whenever possible, not the customary majority vote). Soon thereafter, eight members were elected to the council.

Within a week of being on the road again, the legitimacy of the board of directors was called into question. Because marchers so distrusted any connections to PRO-Peace, it was agreed that four marchers would be added to the board, through city-wide elections. From this point on, the Board of Directors would be in charge of general March policy relations with the "outside world" -- but internal matters and daily March decisions were the City Council's responsibility. But as with everything on the march, even this new board's status was not permanent. In early June, just two months later, all board members were asked to resign, and there was yet another city-wide vote and seven new members were instated. Ironically, two anarchists -- running with a slate of candidates on a platform to abolish the board altogether -- were elected, joining a body they didn't believe in to help it set policy and direction for the entire community. This new board served the March the rest of the way.

Debate is at the heart of democracy and, as you might imagine, there was no scarcity of it in Peace City. For example, the march was a nine-month-long deliberation among those who believed it would be most effective if operations were more centrally organized, those who advocated city-wide consensus be used for all decisions, and those who were somewhere in-between.

Controversies abounded. In Barstow, there was a plan, drafted by a Mescalero Apache marcher, promoting an alternative, more southern route for the march through an area called Big Mountain, Arizona where U.S. marshals were in a major confrontation over land-holdings with Native Americans (we kept to our original route). Also in Barstow, a charismatic farmer declared his intention to join the march and donate a fleet of tractors and vehicles, but only if he were to become CEO of the whole operation (he was turned down). Many on the march favored civil disobedience, on occasion, to make an important statement for our cause; many others didn't. Ultimately, the march as an organization refused to endorse such actions, but allowed individual marchers to commit acts of civil disobedience on their own.

As one marcher aptly described it, the march at times seemed like '500 shepherds in search of a flock.' We were never without controversy, or at least a good, nettlesome issue to debate. We argued over whether to concentrate attention on national media or local. Make decisions as a community or to leave it to smaller groups. Allow new marchers in or not. Impose a dress code or defer to the discretion, whim, or, in some cases, bad taste of each marcher. Democracy was tiring, it was messy, it was circuitous, and we didn't always do it well.

Yet, I don't think most of us would have had it any other way. Here was a place, finally, where we could express our opinions and know that we would be heard. Here was a place where we all had to think about our own governance, our own security, our own livelihood, and had to live with the consequences of the decisions we had made together.

In the thick of our chaotic beginning and tumultuous (but joyous) journey, it often felt like we were groping in the dark. Our commitment to democratic principles was the key to our adaptability, and at times, our survival. But democracy was not enough, by itself, to sustain us. If we had never evolved a committed and responsible community, our democracy -- and the march -- may well have faltered.


An Experiment in Community

Three things are missing from almost every organization a sincere desire to love each other in a brotherly way, an ability to incorporate spiritual values in their work, and an ability to do something physical together.

-- Ret. Lt. Col. Jim Channon, Task Force Delta

Four hundred people remained in Barstow that March committed to the same purpose but forced, as well, to learn deeply about the fundamental requirements of living as a peaceful community. Four hundred people with 400 sets of needs. With countless different ideas about what the march should do next. With a dozen different notions for how disarmament was tied to other critical issues (détente, peace in Central America, Native American issues, environmental issues, world peace, etc.). From nearly every conceivable background: upper class, suburban middle class, and working class; Southern, Midwestern, Northeastern, and Californian; Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and atheist; black, white, Hispanic, and Asian; from all fifty states, Australia, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Living and working in community -- in my experience -- doesn't just happen; in fact, it is rare. Yes, there was good feeling among marchers, as a whole, in the three weeks of preparation in California before leaving L.A. And, yes, in the first days of the PRO-Peace march we did begin to build a sense of community, mostly in response to the crush of daily crises that beset us -- loss of site insurance (and thus, loss of sites), heavy rains, frigid desert weather, food in somewhat short supply, the swelling of gloom-and-doom rumors. But real community did not begin to emerge until we had proven that we could put the march back together as a new entity. It meant first determining how many would decide to stay and to go -- you can't build community with those who are leaving tomorrow. It meant proving that we could create something of substance from the ashes of PRO-Peace. It meant coming to agreement about who we were and, how we were going to live together, govern ourselves, and move twenty miles every day.

To emerge as a community, in part, means you have endured hard times and come out the other side. What kind of community emerges depends on how you have treated one another during those times -- how honest you've been, how open you've been about thoughts and feelings, how committed you've been to see things through, how willing you've been to stay with a conflict until it's been resolved agreeably.

We quickly learned that community is not a destination you reach. On the march, time and again, when it seemed that an ease and stability were settling in, we would hit a new roadblock and the sweet feeling of community would subside. We would struggle, work through a next set of issues, and again community would be regained.

Our shared vision (walking across the country to demand an end to the arms race) and our commitment to dialogue sustained our community over time. Yet, what sustained us even moreso was the commitment we had to one another. The resurrection of the march left an indelible impression on all of us as we had stared a collective death in the face and found the will and wherewithal to persevere. Any crisis that emerged after Barstow now paled in comparison. It was this commitment that helped us all through the most blistering days of summer, through consecutive days of rain, through the daily fare of oatmeal and brown rice, through the lonely days away from loved ones back home.

But living and working as a community was not just about getting through hard times. It was about playing together and about becoming friends. It was about the dozens of groups that we formed, such as: three musical bands (one all-woman), a corps of seniors, a "town" of families, a performance art troupe, prayer circles and meditation groups, a few issue-advocacy groups, and a bunch of anarchists -- perhaps the most organized of the whole lot. Many of these "groups" were conspicuous by how they camped together -- in "neighborhoods," usually small prides of friends who set up their tents together nightly. These neighborhoods ranged in size from three tents to more than a dozen, and were quite fluid. Over the course of the march, a marcher might have belonged to three different neighborhoods. Thus, a single neighborhood might have started out as a band of eight tents, by midway through the march grown to a dozen, and by the end contracted to five or six.

Probably our greatest tests to becoming a "community" on the GPM were the greatest ones for any community: who to include and exclude. Early on, we had a dilemma in camp: We knew that at 400 people, we were too small to capture notice from the media, so we knew we needed to grow. Yet, 400 was a comfortable size, and to grow might upset the delicate balance we had arduously established. Finances were also a factor here. With our bare bones budget, we could barely afford our current numbers in camp.

Some of the early incidents seem comical now, but at the time appeared more serious. For example, a man who called himself "Jesus" joined the march in Nevada and insisted we play host to him and his followers. Although we did not admit him, he stayed for a number of days, and at one city council meeting pronounced that he had made the council null and void. There were other lower-profile incidents as well. Eventually, after the early struggles, the entrance/exit became a straightforward process. Most people who expressed a genuine interest in joining the march were allowed to do so after receiving a clean bill of health.

Thus, the crisis of PRO-Peace's bankruptcy presented us with a serendipitous gift -- the opportunity to create something new from the ground up. The subsequent creation of our community played a central role in our success. It gave us great strength during difficult times and great joy during our successes. It also strengthened our commitment to democracy, giving it wider latitude to grow and deepen. The march became a place to bring not just our political self or our work self but our whole self. In the end, we built a respect and love for one another deeper than in any other group I've ever been a part of. This respect and love resulted from intensive time spent together, everyone pitching in, the freedom to express a full range of human emotion, and doing something physical together. Like walking 3,500 miles across the country.


A Worker's Paradise?

Community and democracy are commendable ideals, but how would the work all get done? Countless factors were at play, but perhaps the greatest of those was our willingness to trust the constantly evolving, ceaselessly changing dimensions to our work and life. We allowed units, departments, or workgroups to undergo frequent self-renewal or develop periodically into new structures. Yet, despite this ever-changing organizational kaleidoscope, the march remained largely unaffected, and continued its halcyon journey east.

Thus, the rules and restrictions on the march were few, yet the March did seem to manage itself around a few tacit, yet well-understood principles:

Everyone works and everyone walks. This first principle was actually official city council policy, but even it wasn't terribly enforceable. A primary reason many marchers joined the March -- aside from their passion about the issues -- was the sheer adventure of traveling across the continent on two feet. So, everybody walks was an easy principle to enact -- unless hindered by blisters, aching muscles, or general sore feet, most everybody wanted to walk. Everybody works? Well, the vast majority of marchers were eager to make regular contributions to the cause. After all, this was our march, our city, our community. But, as would be expected, there were some who performed less work than their share -- folks referred to as "march potatoes." But, aside from the occasional poke or prod, these "deviants" usually became merely the discrete butt of jokes by other marchers. Fortunately "potatoes" were a very small minority, certainly not enough to justify a secret police that made sure everyone worked.

Contribute where you feel like you can best do so. There was never a shortage of work to be done, and as the march progressed we took on still more tasks. In April, in the deserts of Utah and the western lowlands of Colorado, we focused on internal operations -- making sure we were able to move easily and smoothly from campsite to campsite. But as we began to pass through towns more regularly, we saw the need to create new offices: a speakers bureau, special events, reception, direct mail, a ceremonial mayor position, merchandising and the camp store, band bookings, the peace academy. Groups formed around greenskeeping, lost and found, tent repair, bookkeeping, schooling, dance, theatre, wellness, and spiritual guidance, as our internal needs became both more cosmopolitan and more practical. These groups on the whole were not mandated. Most were self-generated by individuals or groups either out of immediate concern, new opportunity, or the creative spirit.

Although marchers were expected to work at least two days a week, no one dictated which job a marcher should do. Marchers selected the departments and type of work they were most interested in. Some jobs required considerable preparation and training, other tasks were obvious and straightforward. Certain jobs were ongoing -- they needed to be performed daily -- but the personnel to execute them were highly rotational. A subset of jobs was transitory -- serving a specific purpose for a specified period of time.

Thus, there was a freedom in our community not found in any organization I've heard of or been a part of since. For example, during the march I was head of the campscape department (setting up all of the large public tents, roping off the camping areas), co-director of the bookkeeping office, a regular speaker in schools and churches, and coordinator of the advocacy group for a comprehensive nuclear test ban. I could have stayed in one position the entire time or worn even more hats. Some people on the march chose to be primarily workers, easily putting in more than forty hours a week. Most of them, however, found they could only maintain that kind of schedule for three to four months, and would then ease up. Others chose the bare minimum, perhaps even testing the limits for what was considered "work."

Everyone is a Leader. Just as we chose to govern ourselves as part direct, part representative democracy (without a single, charismatic leader or a trusted cadre of executives) after the collapse of PRO-Peace, we favored a bottom-up approach, as well, when it came to creating working departments.

Many departments essentially started as informal teams of people in and after Barstow responding to a variety of glaring as well as subtler needs. It was much rarer for one person to start and consequently run a department on his or her own. Thus, the creation and maintenance of most departments was a shared responsibility. Sure, a department here and there had a benevolent autocrat at its head, but most departments worked on cooperative principles. Even the higher-level jobs were only filled temporarily, so departmental autocrats and democrats alike were managers only for relatively short periods. Only a few people held the same department head position for the duration.

Whereas businesses would fret over such high turnover, the marchers accepted it and instead simply made recruitment a central and ongoing task for almost every department, office, team, and group. In light of this, workers regularly empowered themselves to make their work activities more efficient and effective. Staff within many departments collectively juggled the schedule to meet the competing needs and desires of individuals. Training was done on the job by workers who knew that job inside and out. Opportunities for advancement were plentiful for those interested because of the high rotational nature, in general, of the work on the march.

Although marchers distrusted or resented those who wanted to impose power over them, they embraced those who demonstrated situational leadership -- stepping forward to make important contributions at an appropriate or necessary time according to one's ability. Thus, dozens of marchers engaged in acts of leadership every day. And, the complement of leaders constantly changed. We had unsung heroes, like the maintenance crew, who rarely walked and worked long into the night on our cobbled-together fleet of vehicles. We had highly visible leaders, for example, city managers, who were in the thick of important logistical decisions being made throughout the day. Additional examples would fill a dozen pages.

No, the march was not quite a worker's paradise. Periodically, the patience of department and shift supervisors was tested at times. Occasionally, marchers forgot to or just didn't show up on their assigned work day. It was difficult, for example, to recruit workers to pump the portable toilets. Maintenance workers regularly felt underappreciated. City council members felt "meetinged" to death. Certain jobs were high burn-out. Yet most work was done in close colleagueship, was flexible, allowed for an individual's unique gifts, and had a direct, visible, and meaningful impact on the everyday life of marchers.

Because everyone cared so deeply about what we were doing, but more importantly, about who we were living with, the fact that no one person or small group of persons was in charge and that everyone needed to act as a leader resulted in accountability of the highest sort. In sum, the march embodied the idea that 'a community is a group of all leaders.'


A Year of Making a Difference

As I look back, I see the march as an extraordinary political, social, and spiritual education for me. It taught me patience for the political process, tolerance for diverse views, endurance when within chaos, resilience during despair, trust in people's good intentions, and new skills I wouldn't have found elsewhere.

The original vision for the march -- a world free of nuclear weapons, a cross-country trek involving thousands -- proved critical in keeping us together when PRO-Peace disbanded and in keeping us focused on getting to Washington that November. By valuing people and using a democratic process, once we passed through our initial crisis, our community bloomed. By encouraging dialogue, experimentation, and diversity, we learned to trust chaos, ambiguity, and a degree of flexibility we wouldn't fathom in our regular lives. Such trust gave people a tremendous sense of ownership for the organization as a whole, allowing hundreds of leaders to emerge over the course of nine months.

What really lasts for most people, though, is the feeling that 1986 was the most significant year of their lives, in which they sacrificed so much but were rewarded with an otherwise improbable or impossible experience: A year practicing democracy with a passion foreign to most Westerners. A year living in community as intense, challenging, and rewarding as anyone is likely to experience. A year of thousands of footsteps west to east. A year of making a difference.

See also It All Began in a Fertilizer Factory by Tom Atlee