Protesters bare all in name of peace

URBANA - The women planned the protest as a cheeky way to make a point about what they consider a chilling prospect - war with Iraq.

Defying the elements Sunday afternoon, they stripped to the buff to spell out their message in the snow.

Their message: PEACE. Their method: form the word in the snow with their naked bodies and take a picture to publicize their commitment to the concept.

They call it ?baring witness,? and it's catching on all over the world, they say - especially in warmer climates.

?It started in California, but this is the Midwest, the heartland,? said Margaret Kosal, a Champaign resident who participated. ?We're saying even in the heart of America, people are horrified by the threat of war. We're so horrified by the prospect of war we're willing to risk the shame of nakedness and to get really cold.?

With the wind chill about 6 degrees below zero, the protest was brief - about five minutes - but exhilarating, say several of the 15 participants who gathered at a home in Champaign County to plan their actions before they shed coats, boots, gloves and everything else and leaped outside to fulfill their mission.

?There was the excitement of trying to figure out how to do it, and the challenge of not thinking about the cold,? said Susan Parenti of Urbana. ?There was a lot of leaping. Many of us were out yesterday protesting on Prospect Avenue, and it was brutal there, even with gloves.?

Several of Sunday's protesters are members of AWARE, which stands for Anti-War Anti-Racism Effort, a community group that protests war efforts from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday afternoons at the intersection of Prospect Avenue and Marketview Drive and helped spread the word about Sunday's protest, which follows a worldwide Web-based ?Baring Witness? effort.

Local organizers plan to post the picture shot Sunday by Champaign resident Benjamin Grosser at that Web site, www.baringwitness.org, where other groups have posted pictures of their protests.

Kosal said the 15 participants and five helpers met at an Urbana home to work out protest details before they staged it. They ranged in age from 20 to 62, and they included scientists, journalists, a teacher, mothers and others, all from the Champaign-Urbana area, she said.

?We did each letter on the floor inside, then we went out in the snow fully dressed to figure it out out there, then we gathered back inside and made sure everyone was feeling good and confident,? she said. ?Then we put on bathrobes and flip flops, went outside, got into our letters and gave our robes to the support people.

?There was so much adrenaline, so much purpose, we weren't cold, although our feet got cold. We were down there about five minutes, and when he said he got the shot, we ran back in. We weren't waiting for anything. We did it for an important reason, and our spirits were high.?

She said women in Salt Lake City staged a similar protest, and one is planned in New York next week.

?The idea is growing,? Kosal said. ?Folks in Antarctica are doing another one, but they're wimps. They're not getting naked.?

?Now we're all warmed up, but the adrenaline's still flowing,? Kosal said. ?Now we have to do the rest of the work, get this information spread, the image and the message that we're doing this for peace. We want people to see how much women from the heartland, which is more associated with corn and soybeans, are worried, so concerned that we're getting naked in subzero weather to make a statement for peace.?

?When I first heard about the protest, I though it was a fantastic idea,? said Raia Fink, a University of Illinois student. ?Our message about peace is not getting through, and I thought it would be a good idea to use a different medium, something people would pay attention to.?

Parenti just returned from the Caribbean on Saturday, but she was following e-mail discussions about the protest while she was there and made her decision to join in.

?It's something to tell people at dinner, to tell your relatives, your prudish aunt,? she said. ?I'm 52, no spring chicken, and we were remembering 1968 when women stopped police harassment by taking off their shirts. It got people's attention. We hope our action makes people look at what's going on with these war threats.?

Kosal said the group's planning another activity, this one more public, within the next week or 10 days.

?It's going to be even more creative,? she said.

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