Protests for peace in a military stronghold: Virginia Beach
From mock trials to social-justice salons, an ardent group of activists presses forward.
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“I remember losing a lot of energy after that, feeling like I was drained,” Chris Jaramillo, a systems analyst, recalls of the 2004 presidential election. Ironically, he says, “the person who inspired me was George Bush, when he said, ‘And now I intend to use my political capital.’ That fired me right back up.”Skip to next paragraph
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Palumbo is now an unofficial leader, organizing by Saul Alinsky’s 1971 classic “Rules for Radicals,” a playbook for liberal activists. To Palumbo, the Karl Rove theater was as much for the participants’ benefit as for the entertainment of any spectators – or for Rove himself. Mr. Alinsky’s Rule No. 6: “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
The scattered response to the protestors varies, of course, from joyful approbation to jeering disdain. And then there are the more complicated exchanges, intensified in this military town where debates over armed conflict can seem far more personal than a political tug-of-war.
Key among those sentiments is the idea that the war “must mean something,” says Jonathan Phillips, assistant professor of history at nearby Old Dominion University. Some active-duty service members here “remember well people they’ve seen who died in Afghanistan, in Iraq. They get a feeling that if this war is bad, if this war is wrong, if they’re critical of it, this will have been in vain.”
Outside the Rove luncheon, protesters shouted to those who’d paid to hear Rove speak, “Shame on you!”
“Shame on me?” one gray-haired donor yelled back. “A 31-year Navy veteran?”
Jaramillo dashed after him, bristling at the suggestion that peaceniks relax at home while US troops defend their right to protest.
“Hey!” Jaramillo yelled. “I’m a 25-year Navy veteran!”
This group has tried hard to project a nuanced message – honor the warrior, not the war. Support the troops: Bring them home.
But in the battle of perceptions – here and around the country – many feel the American flag has been made a symbol of the right, and protest deemed incompatible with patriotism.
“At what point did peace become a politically incorrect term?” Palumbo asks. “After a while, it really was. And we’re reclaiming that.”
So these activists try to resplice the images: a peace patch sewn onto the shoulder of an old Army uniform, an American flag with the peace symbol in place of the stars. They want to limit the ammunition against them and avoid labels that have dogged their more radical predecessors – abrasive, obscene, confrontational – as well as the dismissal that often follows. Before an Aug. 2 demonstration outside Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, Palumbo e-mailed the protestors a code of conduct.
On that Saturday afternoon, their message was aimed mostly at passing cars on the main road that runs around the base’s perimeter. Several drivers honked for peace.
“What’s real cool is when you get a car that comes by and honks and it’s got a base sticker on it,” says James Bailey, a 12-year Navy veteran who now works for a commercial shipyard in town. “Then you know those people are active duty.”
Most counterprotesters did little more than yell out of car windows. But Coby Dillard parked and walked over. A Navy veteran who now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Dillard belongs to a veteran’s group called “The Gathering of Eagles.” Their mission is “nothing less than total, unqualified victory in the current conflict.” Dillard doesn’t believe you can honor the warrior without supporting the war.
“To me, it’s one and the same,” he explained. “The military ... is probably the most neutral organization in America. They’re completely apolitical. Those guys are simply out there doing their jobs. And if you’re going to support them, you have to support what they’re doing.”
Palumbo invited Dillard to the postprotest picnic.
“We just want to have a dialogue,” Palumbo says the following week. “We’re not the dangerous ones.”