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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    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.
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Virginia Beach, Va.

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.

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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.

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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.

“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.”

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.”

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