Climate & Social Justice

Hardy Little Compton Alliance has Held Outdoor Vigils Every Sunday for the Past 20 Years


The Sakonnet Peace Alliance has held a weekly vigil on Little Compton's Town Common every Sunday for the past two decades. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — One Sunday at the end of January 2003, a group gathered on the Town Common to protest a potential war in Iraq.

It was mostly made up of former Vietnam War protesters, who carried signs with messages of peace and waved at passing cars from the small triangle of grass behind the Congregational Church.

Betty Torphy had organized and timed the event to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but realizing that President George W. Bush would be giving his State of the Union Address the following week, Torphy rallied the group to go to the Common “one more time” the next Sunday.

Nearly 20 years later, Torphy and the group, now called the Sakonnet Peace Alliance, has held a weekly vigil to plead for everything from peace in the Middle East, to gun control, and most recently, stronger climate measures.

Torphy said the group has only missed two weekends in that time.

They have a snapshot of themselves holding up signs during a hurricane — after the photo was taken, Torphy said they packed up and scuttled home almost immediately. During the darkest days of COVID, Torphy and another member would sit in the Common, far apart and masked, pretending not to know each other so they wouldn’t get in trouble for gathering.

Although it was two blizzards and the resulting statewide driving bans that did the vigil in, they’ve had a group member ski to a meeting before.

A lot has changed over the past two decades, from weather to politics, but the group has its vigil down to a precise routine.

Just before 9:30 a.m. every Sunday, cars start to form a line on the street near the Common and people gather in weather-appropriate attire, prepared to spend 30 minutes out on the grass.

On Sunday, Nov. 20, the group consisted of about a dozen or so people, bundled in hats and scarves, gloves and mittens. There are more people in the summer, someone said, before part-time residents have left for their permanent homes and when the weather is a bit more forgiving. Every week, while the rest of the line holds up a changing collection of signs, someone reads a poem or a speech. Last week, the speech thanked Mother Earth.

As the reader listed the resources to be grateful for, the wind softened her voice and shook little flags on the Common that had been placed for Veterans Day. When the poem eventually thanked the winds, a gust blew through the crowd, and everyone clutched their banners a little tighter and laughed.

Soon after the group started meeting on the Common, a coffee shop called Art Cafe opened down the street and became a de facto meeting spot for the alliance.

Last Sunday, it was also a warm reprieve from the wind and winter-like temperatures. Sitting around the table, some of the vigil regulars talked about their memories of the past two decades and how the group moved from peace to green issues, which many of them noted are intertwined.

When the group first started meeting in 2003, it wasn’t very popular. People driving by would curse out their car windows or make rude hand gestures. If someone stopped at the Common to berate the group, Torphy would try to start a conversation with the person and see if they could find common ground.

As the war dragged on, and every week the group read off more and more names of those who had died overseas, the invectives stopped.

Most of the group members said their favorite memory over the past 20 years happened during one Memorial Day parade, when they marched down the street with “sheets as long as the table” filled with the names of the dead soldiers, Torphy recalled.

While they walked through the parade, behind Boy Scouts and other marchers, Sheila Macintosh, one of the weekly vigil members, said she could see from many parade-goers that they had “taken the air out of them.” Macintosh recalled that the moment was “very moving.”

For Abigail Brooks, another member of the alliance, it was the faces of World War II veterans that day that have stuck with her.

From time to time, the group has expanded out to other activities and even other days of the week. Members have hosted movie nights with topics of peace and climate change, like showing Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” almost as soon as it was out.

For a while the members expanded their vigils to twice a week, adding Wednesday mornings to their schedules to catch the crowd dropping kids off at the school across the street from the Common.

Once, they got their hands on a high-powered magazine for a gun and smashed it with a hammer to protest mass shootings and advocate for gun reform.

Although the peace alliance still protests war, since the pandemic started and the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, their signs have increasingly represented ideas of green peace.

“We have some really good banner-makers so if something big comes up, by the next day, we have a banner,” Bill Mackintosh, another member and Sheila Mackintosh’s husband, said.

Most of the banners the group held Nov. 20 were green, with messages like, “COMPOST,” “MAKE PEACE WITH THE EARTH,” and “PROTECT TREES AND PLANTS.” The inclusion of anti-climate change messaging was natural, many of the group members said.

“It did feel like all of these issues are directly related to human violence in some way, either to the planet or to each other,” Brooks said.

Beyond advocating for major international climate action, members of the group said there is a lot on the local level, even within Little Compton, that they hope to see accomplished.

A new proposal to install solar panels on municipal buildings seems to be in the works and the perennial issue of affordable housing to accommodate the workforce needed in the agrarian town is on the forefront of their minds.

Despite endless turbulence and the constant onslaught of new issues, there is one thing that’s almost certain: there will be a group on Little Compton’s Town Common bringing awareness to it next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that …

Colleen Cronin is a Report for America corps member who writes about environmental issues in rural Rhode Island for ecoRI News.

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