Historic Golden Rule peace boat stops in Port of Rochester, advocates for nuclear disarmament

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — For the past eight years, a small boat with a peace sign on its sails has been making stops at ports up and down the west coast.

Locals at each port are welcomed aboard, given a tour, and are taught about the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. While this is the Golden Rule’s first stop on the east coast, the small sailboat has decades of activist history.

“It was originally launched in 1958 with four Quakers who tried to stop the above-ground nuclear bomb testing in the Marshall Islands,” James Schwarts said.

Schwarts is the president of Veterans for Peace’s Rochester Chapter. The international nonprofit acquired the historic vessel in 2010.

“Over five years of rebuilding and getting it back in shape to start the mission — of what the original mission was,” he said.

In this current trip, the boat’s mission is to hit 100 ports, educating locals on the destruction of nuclear war. Captain Kiko Johnston-Kitazawa joined the crew when the Golden Rule sailed into his hometown in Hawaii.

“The Golden Rule is kind of a symbolic and effective conversation opener,” he said.

In Hawaii, Johnston-Kitazawa said that many families have ties to Japan – and the province of Hiroshima, an area decimated by World War II’s atomic bombs. When the area was sealed off to all members of the public, information on the bomb’s effects was slow to reach the American public.

“Very early on, Hawaii people knew the horrors. Other people took good guesses, but Hawaii people knew,” he said.

Modern-day Hawaii still feels the sting of nuclear weapons, he said, which made it easy for him as a professional boat to join the Golden Rule.

“Whereas in most parts of America, when you say that maybe that shouldn’t have been done, to bomb civilians,” he said. “You’ll get a vigorous debate of ‘Oh we had to because in Hawaii, it’s much more like no, that’s not okay, that was a war crime.’”

Veteran and organizer Mary Beth Knowles spent twenty years in the United States army. She said what pushed her to join Veterans for Peace was her colleagues on the front lines.

“The PTSD and the war wounds that they live with physically, mentally, spiritually, are life changing in a very horrible way,” she said. “[The United States is] the biggest proponents of pushing toward the wars and keeping them alive and threatening the nuclear weaponry to fight those wars. It all needs to stop.”

For Schwarts, he spent time on the front lines during his six years in the Navy. He participated in the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.

“When I was in college in Geneseo, after my service, I was in a political science class and learned why I was in that invasion,” he said. “Between that and then the massacre at Kent State, completely flipped me over to realize the threats that we are imposing militarily all over the world, and the unjustifiable wars that we are sending young men, and now young women, to die for no reason in.”

Veterans for Peace advocate for all kinds of disarmament and non-proliferation. In other words, they do what they can to stop the spread of weapons and war. The Golden Rule is their focus on nuclear wars, which is something that research analyst Connor Murray says is necessary.

“Nuclear weapons represents one of the biggest existential threats to humanity, I would put it right up there with climate change,” he said.

Murray, who works for the nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that the war in Ukraine does elevate tensions, but it’s not yet time to stock up a fallout shelter. But he believes it’s always time to start the conversation on reducing weapons, nuclear or otherwise.

He said that Thursday’s release of Oppenheimer is currently bringing nuclear weapons into mainstream conversations, in a way that hasn’t happened for a few decades.

“I would encourage everyone to see the movie,” he said.

But he doesn’t want viewers to go in with an uncritical eye, as a lot of the atom bomb’s story is missing from the movie.

“[Oppenheimer] and others involved in the Manhattan Project, after they developed these weapons, became pretty strong advocates against the expansion of nuclear weapons.”

Regardless of whether there’s a war going on, or whether there’s talk of nuclear weapons, Murray said that research supports constant talks of disarmament and peace treaties.

“Increasing international cooperation, increasing dialogue, having these people talk to each other, it’s been proven time and time again that that’s the best way to keep the worst things from happening,” he said.

The Golden Rule is in the Port of Rochester through Sunday, July 23. After that, the ship sails up to Toronto.