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Protests for peace in a military stronghold: Virginia Beach

From mock trials to social-justice salons, an ardent group of activists presses forward.

By Emily BadgerContributor / September 1, 2008

And the verdict is: ‘Judge’ Joe Fillopowski presided over last month’s mock trial of Karl Rove outside Ruth’s Chris Steak House, where Mr. Rove was attending a fundraising luncheon. The mock trial included a bailiff, an activist playing the role of Valerie Plame, and a Rove figure with devil horns.

Courtesy of John H. Sheally II/The Virginian-Pilot

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Virginia Beach, Va.

Virginia Beach, Va.

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Karl Rove was on trial outside Ruth’s Chris Steak House here on a Friday morning a few weeks ago, charged with misleading the country into war, exposing a covert CIA agent, and orchestrating the firing of career US attorneys from the Department of Justice.

He smirked beneath his devil horns, flanked by a bailiff, a pair of robed judges, even outed CIA operative Valerie Plame – all of them playing to a jury of a few dozen peace activists.

And how did they find the defendant? Guilty as charged!

Mr. Rove – the real in-the-flesh Rove – was dining inside the steak house at a fundraiser for local US Congresswoman Thelma Drake. He would later sound nonplused by the court case as well as the protestors.

“ ‘I was sort of upset,’ ” Rove joked in the next day’s local paper, the Virginian-Pilot, when asked about the mock trial.

“ ‘There should have been more people.’ ”

But this group of activists has been called far worse things than, in Rove’s words, “ ‘anemic.’ ” To them, there is something both isolating and exhilarating about preaching peace inside one of the country’s most militarized zones. Every branch of the military has at least one base – including the world’s largest naval installation – within 50 miles. Also in the area: the CIA’s training “farm,” NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, and the headquarters of security contractor Blackwater.

“This area is so straight,” muses a middle-aged consultant who had come down from his office to see who was banging the tambourines. “It’s nice to see it bent a little bit. All around here, it’s just military, military, military.” He grins at the sight of the trial. “And that’s why I can’t give you my name.”

By sheer math, nearly everyone here is linked to the military – through co-workers, employers, deployed relatives of next-door neighbors. There are 100,000 active-duty service members in the area. Many here feel that to protest the war is to question their sacrifice.

•••

The activist community in and around Virginia Beach is a small one: The same faces turn up for the political documentaries at the Naro Cinema in Norfolk, at the peace vigils held by the Norfolk Catholic Worker, and at the social-justice salons Tom Palumbo hosts once a month.

They tell stories of signs plucked from their lawns and bumper stickers peeled from their cars. Dorene Lake, who is frustrated by a trend she describes as the coopting of religion by some conservatives in the debate over war, once had a two-page, hand-written diatribe left on her windshield, protesting her interfaith bumper sticker.

She, like some other peace activists here, has an almost counterintuitive view of her role in the political minority.

“I really feel like my voice has to be heard here,” says Ms. Lake. When she realized no one would speak for her, she turned from a check-writing activist to a sign-wielding one.

Mr. Palumbo, a part-time nurse and 13-year Army veteran, has a similar calculus. “It would be easier in a different city, perhaps, but at the same time, where should we be?” he asks. “This, to me, is the front lines.”

Palumbo had never attended a protest until he hopped on a bus to a 2002 antiwar march in Washington with a homemade “Veteran For Peace” sign.

“Someone said, ‘Are you with the group?’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘There’s a group?’ ”

Like many of these people, he has become an “accidental activist” – someone nudged off the couch by what he or she considers the misleading premise of the Iraq war, by the Patriot Act, or by Bush’s 2004 reelection.

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