Bristol, R.I., bills itself as the most patriotic town in America. Independence Day is celebrated for nearly a month. A red, white and blue stripe runs down the center of Hope Street (with special permission of Congress), the town's main drag. It marks the Fourth of July parade route, the town's 224th, making Bristol the host of the nation's oldest continuous Independence Day parade.
So, at a time when residents are divided over the Iraq war and worried about the economy – like many Americans – the flamboyant celebration is something to rally around.
"It draws the people together, you know?" says Martha Costa, whose front porch looks out on Independence Park, where a pre-July 4 concert attracted more than 1,000 spectators. "We've just got to put up with the noise."
"You feel it's your home," says Samira Elharchaooi, who moved here from Morocco a few years ago and will celebrate the holiday with other Moroccans. "It's your second country, you live here, you have kids here, they go to school here, so it's like your country."
For some, the three-week string of red, white, and blue activities – including a carnival, band competition, baseball games, and a beauty contest – is an opportunity for a good time. "It's probably just another excuse to hang out and have a huge party" says Marriah Genness, a student listening to a pre-July 4 concert from a pier.
For others, the Fourth of July represents something more.
"The holiday is realizing where you live and that we have ... a lot of freedoms," says Ron Seagrave, a financial manager in town.
For a town that started celebrating Independence Day in 1785, the thirst for freedom stretches a long way back. The Bristol Train of Artillery, the local militia that protected the town against attacks by the British during the Revolutionary War, is still active. These days, they mostly stick to parades. On a recent afternoon in the run-up to July 4, they were holding a clambake.
"I think [patriotism] means staying loyal to your country and to your town," says Peter Ferreira, a militia member and high school senior. "It means remembering where you're from." For him, growing up in Bristol and being a part of the Bristol Train of Artillery were key in his decision to enlist in the military when he graduates next year.
With ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military plays a prominent role in the annual celebration. For the first time this year, Ed Castro, chief marshal of the parade, selected veterans from eight US conflicts to accompany him in the parade. In another tribute to the troops, he held a ceremony for the families of Bristol's soldiers at the opening concert of the festivities.
"We have the utmost respect for the soldiers oversees as well as, most importantly, the veterans," says Tammy Mjkowski, whose house is festooned with three flags, five bows, patriotic bunting, and another flag made of lights. "We wouldn't have what we have, our freedom or our rights, if it wasn't for them."
"The War Veteran's Memorial – it has the names of hundreds of Bristolians who have died in each of the wars: World War II, the Korean War, Iraq," says David Barros, who was in the town hall to get a resident parking sticker in anticipation of the large crowds for July 4. "That's what it's about: all of those people who sacrificed their lives for us."
Not everyone agrees with the military focus of Bristol's celebrations.
"I'm very much in favor of patriotism," says Nancy Hood of the East Bay Citizens for Peace, a local group that holds monthly peace vigils. "My definition is really believing and caring enough to speak out when you think that things are happening that are wrong, like the war in Iraq, torture, detaining people, tapping their phones."
Another member of the group, semiretired writer Julia Cooper Smith, objects to "the knee-jerk patriotism ... and the people who use it."
Nevertheless, she plans on taking her grandchildren to Friday's Civil, Military and Firemen's Parade and the fireworks display. "It's just fun. The children have a nice time. You know, the Fourth of July is about hot dogs and fireworks. We all have those memories.... You want to give people that little continuity to hang on to."