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September 13, 2007

UPT prof launches peace project

Prompted by U.S. Rep. John Peterson’s statements that the war in Iraq is not an issue in his congressional district, a Pitt-Titusville professor is spearheading an effort to mobilize residents of northern Pennsylvania to speak out against the war.

Mary Ann Caton, assistant professor of history and political science, has launched the 5th District Peace Project, a nonpartisan effort she hopes will motivate others in the 5th Congressional District to express their opposition to the war.

The project, which includes a plan to organize public meetings on Sept. 27 in each of the counties in Peterson’s district, is gaining momentum with several meetings already set. Among them is one at 7 p.m. in the Heritage Room in UPT’s McKinney Hall.

Caton said the seeds of the idea “just sort of evolved” in response to her conviction that she needed to take action. “I’ve been against the war since before it started,” she said, adding that she has long been passionate about civil rights and civil liberties issues.

Citing a dearth of communication about Iraq from constituents, Peterson was quoted during his campaign for re-election last year as saying that the war was “not really an issue” in his district, a comment Caton said has stuck with her since she first heard it. “I decided I needed to do something and didn’t know what it was I needed to do,” she said.

A report in a local newspaper this summer outlining the divergence between Peterson and his 3rd District Republican counterpart Phil English’s views on how the Bush administration is handling the war reiterated the statement, rekindling it in her mind.

“Maybe we in this district have not said enough,” she conceded. “If that’s the case, we need to change the perception. Maybe we can change his mind. The citizens of the 5th District need some way, some forum, to speak as one.”

Caton stresses her efforts aren’t an attack on Peterson, who is not only her representative but also a fellow resident of tiny Pleasantville, Venango County. “We share a lot of the same interests,” she said of her neighbor. “We may diverge on this one.”

Peterson in July voted against a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. combat operations in Iraq and has held firm in his stance against a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Peterson spokesman Travis Windle said the congressman would like to see American troops home as soon as possible. But he said the stakes are too high for an immediate withdrawal, adding that it’s the in-country generals who ought to be making strategic decisions about troop levels.

Windle said Peterson’s office has not seen any spike in constituent correspondence on Iraq, adding that while the congressman does receive letters about the war, the issue still trails others such as Social Security, health care, immigration and the proposed imposition of tolls on Interstate 80.

“The congressman is glad to hear from any constituents,” Windle said. “We look forward to hearing from any and all on this issue or any other.”

Although Caton isn’t shy about circulating word about the Sept. 27 events on campus, she said she keeps from talking much about it in the classroom. “It’s not my role as a classroom teacher to impose my political views on students,” she said. “I want them to come to their own views.”

She wants the peace project meetings to focus strictly on the war and for each group to decide how they can most comfortably express their feelings to their congressman. “It’s very open-ended,” she said. “We’re not trying to tell people what to do to make themselves heard.”

She stressed that the issue is not partisan, liberal, conservative or middle-of-the-road. Nor are the meetings aimed at soliciting donations of any sort. There is no budget associated with the volunteer effort, she said. “It’s just expressing views on the war.”


The sprawling nature of the district — which stretches through 17 counties and includes the region from Oil City, Bradford and DuBois to State College, Lewistown and Lock Haven — complicated any effort to mobilize groups in the sparsely populated region.

Caton began by emailing friends, who in turn emailed their friends. A like-minded priest passed the word to fellow Catholic clergymen. Caton said she met others opposed to the war during a town hall meeting sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter on the UPT campus in mid-August.

When the story of her efforts made the local paper in late August, Caton’s phone began ringing. She got calls, emails and visits from people who said they thought they were alone in opposing the war. “‘Isolated’ is the word they used,” she said. “I tapped into something that was there all along.”

Caton credits the availability of the Internet and local newspapers in the many small towns that dot the rural district with helping spread the word. A web site,, set up by her husband, is garnering dozens of hits. “It’s happened faster than I thought it would,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

While Caton long has written her elected officials and signed petitions about issues she cares about, going public with her anti-war efforts is a new development.

She mounted an impromptu protest on campus last April during a visit by the Army to UPT. She stood alone for an hour near their truck on the campus oval with a hand-lettered sign reading “End the War” and “Out of Iraq,” and later joined several students who invited her to stand with them in protest. In June, she traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Day of Action to Restore Law and Order, a rally aimed at restoring the habeas corpus rights eliminated in the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

She recently began staging her own weekly peace vigil. She and another like-minded Pleasantville woman stand with “Support the Troops — End the War” signs near a main crossroad in the town for an hour each Friday night.

She admits it’s “scary” to stand on a corner with a sign. Although most passersby are respectful, she is dismayed by the occasional negative hand gestures she encounters. Still, she said she’s garnered less opposition than she expected.

Caton acknowledged that for many Americans, phoning their representative’s office, particularly with an opinion that differs, can be intimidating.

She also noted that it can be difficult in such a large country as America to think that an individual’s opinion could make a difference.

Caton said a speaker at an anti-war rally in Erie this summer impressed her when he encouraged his audience to take visible action in hopes of emboldening others to do the same. She’s since placed an anti-war sign on her lawn, hoping it might encourage others who have been afraid to do so. “One yard, one, house, one family at a time, when people are not afraid to step up and speak their minds,” she said, then people may begin to believe they can make a difference.

Caton also said that the lack of a military draft and the fact that most Americans have not made individual sacrifices associated with the war contribute to many people’s reticence to speak out.

“Too many Americans can go about their day-to-day life and can forget about it,” she said. “For most of us, our lives haven’t changed measurably. I can still buy gas for my car, even though it’s more expensive; I can still buy food. I’m not suffering in any way. It’s hard to get people’s attention under those circumstances.”

While Caton said she isn’t well acquainted with anyone serving in Iraq and, like most Americans, is not personally affected in her everyday life, she still feels the need to speak out.

“This is an issue of principle,” she said. “If you feel strongly about an issue, step forward and try to do something about it.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 2

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