Students Walk Across America For Peace
by Dana Nichols
Sunday, Jun. 24, 2007 at 10:32 AM
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SAN ANDREAS — Michael Israel didn’t walk in his high school graduation here on June 1.
Instead, he’s walking across the continent.
Israel, 18, of Jackson opposes U.S. military forces in Iraq in particular and violence in general. So he decided it was more important to join a peace march that began May 21 than to attend the Mountain Oaks Charter School graduation held in the historic Ben Thorn mansion in San Andreas.
“I was hoping a march like this, maybe this could be something big, something people could see or hear about and it could raise awareness about what is going on in the world — Iraq, the genocide in Darfur (Sudan).”
Actually, the march is partly a pedal. After walking across California, he and march organizer Ashley Casale, 18, a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., are currently using bicycles to cross Nevada along Highway 50, sometimes called America’s loneliest highway.
They are the only two marchers who have been with the protest every step of the way, even though the march is receiving support from large peace groups, including Code Pink and Not In Our Name.
Those who know Israel said he’s always been politically passionate but that they were stunned that he decided to spend months pounding pavement to make a statement.
“I was just surprised that he would go that far that young,” said his aunt, Connie Israel, 59, of Stockton, “But now that I think about it, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. He is just really outspoken. He volunteers at his local food bank. He is very outspoken about his beliefs about the war.”
Anne Coleman was Israel’s mentor-teacher at Mountain Oaks, a school that provides a variety of services to families that home-school their children. She said Israel served as the student representative to the Mountain Oaks governing board and noticed the day she met him that he was keenly tuned to politics.
"The first meeting I had with Michael I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said he wanted to be the leader of the free world," Coleman said. "And I asked him if he had a plan."
Coleman said Israel told her he'd start with Cuba, which has an ailing dictator, is close, and easy to invade.
"I never could figure out if he was serious or not. But the amount of thought that went into it was amazing to me," Coleman said.
Casale, then a freshman at Wesleyan, had the idea for the march last year. She made a Web site announcing her plan. Israel saw it and signed up. Although the march started with three people, the other person has since dropped out, leaving Israel and Casale to face the continent at a pace of 20 to 30 miles a day when they are on foot.
Their plans include a rally July 14 at the half-way point in Omaha, Neb., and to join forces when they arrive in Washington in late August with another march starting June 21 in Chicago.
"I hope that it will inspire a lot of people to think seriously about peace and how we can be more peaceful," Casale said during an interview by cell phone while she walked near Placerville last week.
Meanwhile, folks in Stockton, Lodi, Jackson and San Andreas have been following Israel's progress.
"I keep track of where he goes on the Web site for 'Not in our Name,' and his numbers are on speed dial in my cell phone," Coleman said. "He is such a sweetheart, he really is."
Some of the other 35 students in Israel's class got a life-sized cardboard figure from a video rental store, pasted a photograph of Israel's face on it, draped a graduation gown over it, and brought it to graduation.
"The only clue that it was not Michael was that there were high heels underneath," said Linda Mariani, co-administrator for Mountain Oaks. "Someone carried him in and he sat with the class. In absentia he received his diploma."
Meanwhile, Israel, speaking by cell phone, says he's adjusted to life on the road and finds that this kind of low-tech travel is inexpensive. And he finds that many other Americans are expressing support for his anti-war views. "People will just stop their cars and come with us."
Both Israel and Casale say they don't identify with any particular political party.
"I'd just say I am a peace activist," Israel said. "The most important thing for me is to try and end violence, to promote peace."