Even before the war in Iraq began, a small group of peace demonstrators began gathering every Friday afternoon on M Street. These days, the group draws more peace signs than middle fingers.
But that wasn't always the case.
"It took a lot more courage to come out here in the beginning," says retired educator Tom Grave, carrying a sign that reads, "No war. No empire. No occupation."
"Things have changed a lot out here," adds another demonstrator, 57-year-old Kyle Stockard.
As America prepared for war in late 2002 and early 2003, Grave, Stockard and dozens of other Mercedians took to the street to denounce plans for war. About a dozen of them still show up at the corner of M and 22nd streets every Friday afternoon with signs ("War Is Not the Answer") and American flags.
From that corner, they say they've witnessed a gradual popular shift toward disillusionment with the Iraq war. In the weeks after the war began, people used to gather across the street to counter-protest. That doesn't happen anymore.
Now the demonstrators are met mostly by honks and peace signs -- even money. A few months ago, a man passing by stopped and handed Grave $100. He told the group he felt badly that he never joined them. They used the money to buy new signs.
"I guess we'll have to find something else to protest," Grave joked on a recent Friday. "We're getting too mainstream."
What a difference a generation makes.
In Merced, the peace movement is undoubtedly small. But it is here, and it has emerged much as it has across America: alive but far less visible than during the Vietnam era, far more diversified in its approach and, recently, more and more aligned with the opinions of most Americans.
"The number of people who think we should be moving out of Iraq is significant," said David Walls, an emeritus professor of sociology at Sonoma State University who has studied social movements for four decades. "The (public) concern is definitely there. And the energy is there. But it's manifesting itself very differently."
Massive anti-war protests in Vietnam era
The movement against the Vietnam War gained national prominence in 1965, six years after U.S. involvement in the war began. In October 1967 more than 100,000 people -- about 600 of them were subsequently arrested -- gathered for the March on the Pentagon.
By 1969, the anti-war movement had gained enough strength to stage the biggest peace demonstration in the nation's history. An estimated 300,000 protesters jammed Pennsylvania Avenue and poured onto the National Mall in October of that year. In May 1970, five years before the last American troops left Vietnam, National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio and two students at Jackson State University during protests of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
In Merced, however, the tone was far more subdued. Though plenty of people here opposed the war, most traveled to larger cities, such as Fresno and San Francisco, to voice those objections by joining larger demonstrations.
"There was really very little here," recalled Merced City Councilman Jim Sanders, 60. He was a senior at Merced High School in 1965 when a group of his classmates staged an anti-war walkout. "I think we set one trash can on fire. The police didn't even show up," said Sanders. "That's all I really recall ... The anti-war feelings were definitely here, but most people protested out of town."
Though several large anti-war demonstrations have been staged in the U.S. over the last five years, none has paralleled the scale of the national movement that raged in the years before the American withdrawal from Vietnam. But that doesn't mean people now are apathetic, experts say.