Duckler: The state’s most visible peacenik is preparing to retire

  • Arnie Alpert finishes up after testifying in favor of SB 410, to raise the minimum wage in Room 100 of the State House on Tuesday, January 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Arnie Alpert talks with colleagues after finishing up after testifying in favor of SB 410 to raise the minimum wage in Room 100 of the State House on Tuesday, January 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • From left, Tom Westheimer, Beverly Westheimer, Arnie Alpert and Claudia Istel camp out in front of Gov. Chris Sununu’s parking spot on the back side of the State House last spring ahead of Sununu’s death penalty repeal veto. Sununu’s veto was overridden by the Legislature. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Arnie Alpert (far right), videotapes someone testifying in favor of SB 410, to raise the  minimum wage in the state at Room 100 of the State House on Tuesday, January 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Arnie Alpert (far right), videotapes someone testifying in favor of SB 410, to raise the minimum wage in the state at Room 100 of the State House on Tuesday, January 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Arnie Alpert walks down the steps of the State House last week after testifying in favor of SB 410, which would establish a minimum wage in the state. New Hampshire, which has no minimum wage, instead relies on the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Arnie Alpert talks with colleagues after finishing up after testifying in favor of SB 410, to raise the minimum wage in the state at the State House on Tuesday, January 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • In a scan of an undated photograph, Arnie Alpert is arrested amid a protest years after the original anti-nuclear demonstrations during the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power station. Courtesy Arnie Alpert

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/18/2020 6:35:55 PM
Modified: 1/18/2020 6:34:57 PM

Arnie Alpert looked at home at the State House last Thursday.

He sat in the front row of Room 100 with those familiar wired-rimmed glasses and unmistakable silver mustache, taking photos and notes for an upcoming newsletter, speaking in depth about why the minimum wage should increase.

He researched the subject thoroughly, like always, going further than others in support of Senate Bill 410.

Alpert had charts and data and numbers, analyzing how a 40-hour workweek at $7.25 an hour compared to monthly expenses, most notably rent.

“Now,” Alpert told the Senate Commerce Committee, “if you’re making seven-and-a-quarter an hour, you would need 3.6 jobs in order to be able to afford a median two-bedroom apartment in New Hampshire.”

And those details and lots of others came just six months before the state’s most principled, beloved, recognizable rabble-rouser ends his 40-year run with the American Friends Service Committee. Alpert is 64.

“A good time for me to move out of the way,” Alpert explained to me in the AFSC offices, before the wage hearing. “Let them move in new directions and let some new talent take over.”

The counterculture of the era had more influence on Alpert’s social activism than his father, Earl, a lawyer, and mother, Frieda, a housewife.

“I did not grow up in an activist family,” Alpert said. “They were hoping I would come to my senses and go to law school.”

The underdogs of New Hampshire are grateful he didn’t. His contributions, beyond organizational skills and an encyclopedic mind, include a fighting spirit that allows him to pursue change, be a pest, show up here, show up there, but never, ever, raise a hand to anyone.

He coordinated the 20-year effort to join the rest of the country and name a state holiday after Martin Luther King Jr. He led the charge during an equally arduous process to repeal the state’s death penalty. He trained fellow activists, calling them Bird Dogs. He prepared them to ask presidential candidates intelligent, probing questions about money in politics and immigration justice during our first-in-the-nation primary season.

Meanwhile, he’s been busted and cuffed, more than once, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Once, he was incarcerated for two weeks, unwilling to post bail so he could go home, refusing to compromise his principles. Especially since the potential danger of nuclear power was the issue.

He’s ignored orders to “keep off the property,” blocked work at construction sites and mastered the art of rallying his troops for battle. Arnie’s Army, if you will. His people dig in their heels, never surrender, armed with Alpert’s words and teachings and nothing else.

That’s the synopsis here, about a man retiring his olive branches and peace signs, at least in an official capacity. The plot has remained steady since the early 1980s. The one about the individual who’s as threatening in appearance and behavior as Pete Buttigieg, yet is as dogged in his determination as Tom Brady. The one about the slight man with giant thoughts, who listens to his conscience.

Then he acts, creating bills, staging protests, coordinating an effort that causes eye-rolling among lawmakers, especially Republicans. He’s been writing progressive views in the Monitor for decades, addressing issues well before Bernie Sanders had even gotten a whiff of the national political stage.

Alpert has always employed strict guidelines on how to do this line of work, how to right a wrong through nonviolence, stay cool, avoid a conflict. He is, without a doubt, the face of the state’s peaceniks, and he’ll forever be known – well before dedicating his life to altruistic causes – as one of 1,400 protesters arrested in the spring of 1977 for trying to block the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant from opening.

Ask Alpert who he’s voting for next month in the Democratic primary and he won’t budge, saying: “We’re not involved in electoral politics. But I will be voting.”

Ask him about Seabrook, though, and Alpert remains open, enthusiastic and proud. He was a senior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and it was his first real taste of issue-oriented action. This was a grass-roots effort, with no assistance from the internet.

“Nuclear power, from what I read, was going in the wrong direction,” Alpert said. “When I heard about the protest, that it was geared in nonviolence, I became interested. This was an occupation by all of us at the plant’s construction site.”

And it was a lot more. It introduced Alpert to the Clamshell Alliance, an organization that early on voiced strong opposition to the building of nuclear power plants. It also led to his arrest for trespassing, a two-week stay at the National Guard Armory after declining to post bail, and, eventually, the dismissal of the case, simply because it proved impossible for the state to stage jury trials for more than 1,000 defendants.

“It came across with good spirit and discipline,” Alpert said. “I learned that if it’s well done, we are able to shift perception from a conflict about order vs. disorder, to being about justice vs. injustice.”

The incident fueled national attention. Plus, it hit Alpert hard, once he had the event in context.

“I did not think of this as a career path at the time, but it ended up that way and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Alpert said. “To engage in action with a philosophy of nonviolence.”

And no matter how many times Alpert declares himself to be an independent, with a non-political voice during protests, the Republican Party certainly finds itself at odds with his thinking more than Democrats.

That doesn’t mean, however, that hostility exists, and that’s refreshing these days in such a tense, partisan environment. Former state Sen. Bob Clegg of Hudson said that Alpert’s sense of humor would emerge when the two agreed on something.

“Not a bad guy, actually,” Clegg said, laughing. “When we agreed, he would say, ‘I have to question my stance because we’re on the same side.’ Then we would laugh.”

“The thing with Arnie was you knew he was on every liberal thing that happened, but he was never disagreeable,” Clegg continued. “This was not Arnie looking for a fight. He was looking for a political discussion.”

His own people look to Alpert for leadership. He was joined by allies – Voices of Faith, the Alliance for a Moral Economy, the United Church of Christ, the State Employees’ Association – at last week’s Senate hearing addressing the minimum wage.

Gail Kinney, a pastor in Meredith, stood outside the hearing room, in the narrow hallway across from the gift shop, a painting of Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Stark hanging high on the wall.

She called Alpert an “icon,” adding: “He’s an articulate champion of civil rights, human rights, environmental rights. Tremendous instincts to get things done, and he understands that getting the right thing done takes a long time, but he will stick with it.”

Eileen Brady of Nashua, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, said “Arnie is a gift to New Hampshire, and we’re very lucky he chose to come here.”

His work as a full-time staffer with the AFSC ends in June. He’ll hang out with Judy, his wife of nearly 40 years, and he’ll keep an eye on current events.

I asked Alpert if his mischievous, rebellious spirit will remain active. After all, this is a man who showed up at the Mall of New Hampshire 30 years ago to pass out leaflets promoting human rights, after he was told by a mall official that he’d be charged with trespassing if he did.

Alpert went to the mall anyway. The Manchester police arrested him and locked him up.

“I’m sure I will find new roles for social justice and peace,” Alpert said.

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