40 Antiwar Activists Confronted by
40 'Support Our Troops' Persons
at Historic Amherst Common
 

By Izzy Lyman
April 16, 2003

It had to happen sooner or later.

There, on the first Sunday of April 2003 in historic, downtown Amherst, forty activists gathered with signs, "No blood for oil" and "No more wars." Directly across the street, another forty activists took their places, signs saying, "Support Our Soldiers."

For nearly twenty-five years, a weekly peace demonstration has been held on the Amherst common at this time and place. Was this a challenge?

Those supporting the U.S. military appeared to keep to themselves - waving Old Glory and receiving the lion's share of approving honks from motorists. Then the peace protestors tried to hand them literature. One of the protestors, Gordon Fletcher-Howell, a Vietnam vet and one of Amherst's most outspoken opponents of Operation Iraqi Freedom, paraded in front of the counter-protestors, carrying a placard that read: "What does it mean to support the troops?"  
    An unusual sight in downtown Amherst; a Support the Troops Rally.

"Do you think every single troop thinks it's the right thing to do?" he asked. "You can support the troops and disagree with the policy," he continued. Fletcher-Powell also said that the Bush administration's decision-making process would have long-term repercussions. "How many people are we alienating by the way we did it? [There's been] a lot of bullying rhetoric, and the alienation will cost us," he complained.

Karl Oeky, of Belchertown, said he respected Fletcher-Howell's service to his country, but thought it was a little late to be making foreign policy pronouncements.

"I'm supporting the troops because they are there," noted Oeky.

Jane Croston, of Leverett, has a son in the Coast Guard - Matthew Tefft - who is in the Persian Gulf aboard the U.S.C.G.C. Wrangell. She held a poster adorned with pictures of her son but described herself as a long-time peace activist

"I do not believe in this war, but I believe in the young people who are there," said Croston of her decision to stand with those Amherst residents who were supporting the troops.

 

Toward the end of the rallies, an altercation ensued between a female, who was verbally harassing an elderly, male veteran, and Kevin Joy, an Amherst resident.

"I asked her if she was willing to die for this country," explained Joy. "She had nothing to say."

Even in Amherst, the love-the-USA counter-protestors sometimes have the last word.

Peace Protestors in Amherst center have been gathering regularly for nearly 25 years.  

Started in Late March

It all started in late March, when Larry Kelley went before the Amherst Select Board to request that the twenty-nine American flags that the town purchased in 2001 be flown - immediately - to show respect toward U.S. troops and POWs in Iraq. (These commemorative flags are displayed only during designated holidays, and their next tour of duty would occur on Patriots' Day, April 21.)

Kelley pitched his request to Carl Seppala, the chair of the select board. Seppala, who is a U.S. Navy veteran, told Kelley that "one-hundred percent of the board supports the troops." Case closed, right? Not quite. Seppala recently participated in an anti-war parade, so he only offered to "consider" the flag request.

"To even hesitate for a moment about displaying those flags for our fighting men and women is embarrassing," said Kelley of the select board's lukewarm response.

Kelley then issued a challenge: "If the board refuses to allow municipally-owned flags to appear in the town center, townsfolk will do it with their own flags."

And that's exactly what happened. On Tuesday, April 2, after Kelley received a phone call from an Amherst Bulletin reporter asking for his reaction to the select board's decision to not fly the flags ahead of schedule, he took action.

On the evening of April 5, Kelley, accompanied by Amherst residents Dave Keenan and Kevin Joy, executed a "stealth attack." After consulting with a local A.C.L.U. attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, the trio hung eight American flags on utility poles throughout downtown Amherst - the same poles that are plastered with flyers advertising the latest International A.N.S.W.E.R. Stop-the-War demonstration.

"These liberals are constantly tearing down the flag and all it represents," said Keenan, a former select board member, of his decision to get involved.

 
  Latter-day minutemen in Amherst take matters into their own hands hanging American flags in Amherst Center.

"Let's see if they [the select board] have the guts to take the flags down," added Kelley.

Solidarity for Soldiers at UMass

Another rally for the troops had been held the week after UMass anti-war protestors staged a vigil on campus and briefly occupied the Wal-Mart in nearby Hadley. This encouraged a coalition of UMass/Amherst student groups, including The Silent Majority and the Republican Club, to stage their rally.

 

During the rally - held on the steps of the Student Union - organizers encouraged other students to send American soldiers in Iraq care packages and pray for their safety. Yellow ribbons were distributed, and short speeches were made.

Jeff Krohn, the UMass football quarterback, stated, "They're there fighting. We need to show our support now and when they come home."

UMass quarterback Jeff Krohn supports the troops at a Student Union rally.

Yasaman Pourati, a UMass junior from Iran, injected a personal note: "I have experienced the brutality of war and oppression. I value the freedom our troops are fighting for. Believing in our troops is a no-brainer."

Chris Carlozzi, a UMass senior, made an observation about the anti-war demonstrators: "Most of the protestors' hatred for President Bush is, unfortunately, stronger than their love for their country."

While the campus affair was low-key (no star-spangled wigs or clichés about 'shock and awe'), two men stood in the middle of the crowd holding a prominent, "Support our troops. Bring them home," sign. One of the pair, Ryan Coughlin, a senior at UMass, said he was concerned that veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome had been ignored by the federal government. "Supporting the troops means giving them health care when they need it, not just rallying around the flag," stated Coughlin.

Nearby, Yuval Sivan, an anti-war protestor and UMass senior, manned a table that featured copies of the Socialist Worker. Sivan occasionally heckled the speakers. At one point, he yelled that the SCUD missiles Saddam Hussein kept were for purposes of self-defense.

Sivan was not impressed by the rally. "All they're saying is 'support our government, support our military.' The idea of supporting our troops is ignoring the reason they're fighting," he said. He described the war in Iraq as "one part of a big line of imperialist wars to take control of the region."

"They're going to send the troops to Iran, to Syria, to North Korea and destroy the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers," opined Sivan.

Barely 48-hours after the UMass rally took place, Jeffrey Napolitano's letter appeared in the Daily Collegian, the campus newspaper, with this headline: "Support our troops rally turns into pro-war statement." Napolitano, a UMass student, wrote that there was an "underlying jingoistic feeling to the rally." He complained that the event turned "political" because one of the speakers (a Marine) read "a letter from a soldier which derided peace protestors in the United States."

The Marine in question, Jim Bancroft of Bristol, CT, fired back. He quickly crafted a response to Napolitano, and sent copies of his letter to the western Massachusetts media.

"To say that the letter of someone who is there fighting against this monster [Saddam] is political, that is absurd," riposted Bancroft.

But in the end, even in enemy territory, that UMass SOS rally met little resistance.

Izzy Lyman can be reached at ilyman7449@aol.com.



 




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