February 6, 2003
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Local business owner Ken Simon has distributed signs to other downtown businesses expressing opposition to the pending war against Iraq. A handful of businesses have displayed the 8 1/2 by 11-inch pink signs. .

Ken Simon—
Protesting Iraq war, 1 sign at a time

Like many people, Ken Simon feels troubled by the state of the world and like many, he often feels powerless. Once a political activist, he has, in the past few years, felt increasingly discouraged by both local and world events. In the past few months he watched as his country prepares to make war on Iraq, a war he strongly opposes, and believed he could do nothing to make a difference.

“I had pulled back,” he said in an interview last week. “I felt increasingly hopeless about the world.”

But recently Simon worked his way through his hopelessness and found something to do. He took an action, a small, local action, but one he hopes might help empower other like-minded people.

A Yellow Springs store owner for more than 20 years, Simon created bright pink signs that say “We Oppose Our Country Making War on Iraq,” and distributed the signs to other Yellow Springs stores to display in their windows.

His purpose was not to argue, or to try to convince anyone of his view, Simon said, but simply to offer a way for shop owners or employees who oppose the war to express their views.

“I wasn’t trying to get people who support the war to agree with me or to say that they’re bad people,” he said. “But if there are people who agree with the sign, it’s time for them to say so.”

Simon said he opposes the war on several grounds. He opposes the United States making a pre-emptive strike on another country without what he feels is just cause, and he fears for the loss of both American and Iraqi lives. He is also concerned that a war will further inflame Arab hatred of this country and thus increase, rather than decrease, terrorist acts.

“I think the decision to make war is an enormous one and will affect millions of people for years and years to come, everywhere,” he said.

Helping to spur him past hopelessness was Simon’s participation in a local discussion group which is studying the book Hope’s Edge. The book, by Frances Moore Lappe, tells stories of people worldwide who, when confronted with large problems and feelings of powerlessness, took small actions that resulted in change. Simon’s decision to focus on local merchants grew from his belief that the most effective political actions arise from people’s lives and concerns.

“I don’t think there’s any way to take an action that doesn’t come from one’s own passion,” he said. “It needs to be something you feel like you want to do, that feels personal and close to home.”

For Simon, that personal thing is his store, Gemini World Music and Art, which he opened 22 years ago. Formerly a philosophy professor at Central State University, Simon initially focused his store on framing pictures and selling art prints, then expanded to include musical instruments. Now his shop features African drums, Australian didgeridoos, hammered dulcimers, kazoos and musical spoons along with paintings, some his own, on the walls.

“I decided a long time ago that this place is not just a store,” he said. “It’s me.”

Simon also chose to distribute the signs to shop owners because he believes that small business owners like himself are a “big, untapped source of power” in this country. Ninety percent of American businesses employ four employees or less, he said, and more than half of the country’s wage earners work in small businesses.

And store owners have a unique and visible location, he said, since they’re often located in the center of a community.

Simon hoped that the signs, displayed in storefront windows, might help empower other people who also oppose the war but perhaps haven’t found a way to speak out. In his daily life, he said, he finds many more who oppose the war than who say they support it. Perhaps, he had hoped, the Yellow Springs merchants’ signs might spark a similar action in other towns or might lead to different sorts of protests.

So far, things haven’t turned out as he’d hoped. Although he passed out about 50 signs, only a handful have gone up in store windows. But Simon felt encouraged last week when the sign went up in Current Cuisine, due to its central location, and also felt encouraged when Tim Rogers, a pharmacist at Town Drug, called to say his employees had decided to modify the sign by changing the “We” to “I,” then to display it in the window with the signatures of employees who oppose the war.

“I was so happy to hear that they’d sat down and discussed it,” Simon said.

Prompting discussion about the war, giving people a place to express themselves, is what he wants most of all, said Simon. Several customers have engaged him in conversation since he put up the sign last week, most who agreed with him and one who did not.

“The more people who put up the signs, the more people will talk about it,” he said.

The timing was right for Gail Lichtenfels, owner of Epic Bookshop, who displayed the sign in her window. Recently, she said, she had finished reading local resident Luisa Owen’s memoir about growing up during World War II, which, Lichtenfels said, made her more aware of “the nitty-gritty of war, what it’s really about.”

“I know a lot of merchants are afraid of offending customers, but I felt ready to take a stand,” she said. “I just immediately got the tape and put it up.”

After devising a way to put up the sign and still honor the opinions of his employees, Rogers chose to display the sign in the window of of Town Drug.

“My feeling is that this [the Iraq war] is probably the most important thing that will happen during my lifetime,” he said. “Although I think it’s usually poor business practice to take a political stand, this is so important that it has to be done.”

Simon doesn’t think the signs will keep people from shopping in stores that display them, since he believes out-of-town customers tend to be aware of Yellow Springs’ liberal image and to shop in the village because of it. If anything, he said, he believes the signs will help local business.

But most important, Simon believes, are the signs’ effect on those who walk by and see them, people who, for a moment at least, might think and wonder about the war on Iraq, might find the courage to express their own fears and doubts, and might be prompted to protest the war themselves.

“It might seem hopeless,” Simon said. “But who knows?”

* * *

Anyone who wants a sign is encouraged to contact Simon at 767-7602.

—Diane Chiddister