People bearing the coffins followed thousands of protesters who rallied in Fayetteville, calling for an end to the war in Iraq. As they marched toward the park, another, smaller, group of protesters was standing on the sidelines, shouting at the anti-war activists.
But the counterdemonstrators – about 200 of them – were drowned out and outnumbered by war protesters who chanted, waved banners and beat drums. The group was led by a bagpiper and included everyone from belly dancers to a
young girl carrying a sign that said, ”Support my dad, not the war.”
Peace activists expected a much larger crowd for the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, and Fayetteville police say they got it. Officers estimated 2,500 protesters attended the rally that went on for much of the afternoon. Chuck Fager, the director of Quaker House who helped organize the rally, put the total at 4,800. That would make Saturday’s protest the biggest peace demonstration in Fayetteville’s history. An anti-war rally at the same park during the Vietnam War drew a crowd estimated at 2,000 to 4,000 people.
Saturday’s rally was sponsored by local peace activists working with a number of national groups, including the umbrella organization United for Peace & Justice.
The counterdemonstration was organized by the state chapter of Free Republic. Both demonstrations drew participants from far outside North Carolina.
The anti-war rally was more organized than the protest last year, with entertainment held behind the Cumberland County Health Department, the starting point for Saturday’s march. Volunteers in red ”hospitality committee” T-shirts handed out an information guide for the day’s events.
Dozens of Fayetteville police officers were ready. They had help from lawmen across the state and from South Carolina. The day passed peacefully, with the only confrontation between groups the shouts they exchanged.
Police reported one arrest. Rann Bar-On, a speaker at the rally and an Israeli activist who runs the International Solidarity Movement in Durham, was charged with resisting a police officer. Police said Bar-On jumped the fence at Rowan Park and was headed toward counterdemonstrators across the street when they stopped him. He was released after he was processed by a magistrate.
People on both sides of the yellow police tape said they rallied Saturday to show that they support troops. But the counterdemonstrators – holding signs with slogans such as "American Hatriots on Parade" – called the anti-war rally a slap in the face to soldiers, especially with Fort Bragg a few miles away.
”You think you’re doing good, walking the streets,” a man shouted to the war protesters. ”You should know that your organization is sponsoring troops who kill our troops.”
Speaker after speaker at Rowan Park said real support for troops means ending the war in Iraq. The lineup included military wives, parents and veterans – more than two hours of anti-war speechmaking. The crowd listened to a Democratic U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, the brother of a Spanish journalist killed during a U.S. attack in Baghdad and a man whose brother died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Some on the Rowan Park stage were colorful, including a troupe of men in drag. And some of the speakers did not have a connection to the war in Iraq at all, including an organization that led a boycott against Taco Bell.
But most focused on the war.
Kara Hollingsworth, the wife of soldier serving in Iraq with the 18th Airborne Corps, received a standing ovation when she told the crowd, ”I cannot remain silent … I can’t slap a yellow sticker on my car and call it supporting my troops. It’s time for us to bring our troops home.”
Joshua Despain and Hart Viges wore camouflage jackets with 82nd Airborne Division patches. Both men said they served in Iraq and have left the Army. Despain deserted for three months after he returned to Fort Bragg. He said a friend was killed in Iraq and he swore that if he ever made it home, he was going to leave the military.
Viges said he worked for 10 months before he received conscientious objector status. He joined the military after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but a year in Iraq changed everything for him.
”I got back and it hit me,” Viges said. He said he could no longer pull a trigger.
”I was a good soldier,” he said. When he said he could no longer fight, he said, ”they knew I was sincere.”
As speakers took the stage on Saturday, groups set up booths and handed out leaflets. People decorated umbrellas for a project called Peace Parasols and gazed at the 90 coffins arranged on a hill. The coffins represented men from North Carolina who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A solemn moment
Jean Chapman carried one of the mock coffins to Rowan Park.
”The moment I picked one up, it became so real. To me, it’s very solemn. This is what it’s about – bodies, broken bodies, dead children, families devastated.
”When all the rhetoric is gone, it comes down to death and destruction.”
Many of the protesters were from out of town and came to Fayetteville on Saturday and left after the rally. Others, part of military-linked national peace groups such as Iraq Veterans against the War and Military Families Speak Out, were staying for conventions to be held in the city today.
Anne Roesler, a college professor from California who is a member of the Military Families group, is staying in her son’s apartment. It has been empty since he left Fort Bragg for Iraq.
Roesler, who was wearing a pair of her son’s desert camouflage pants at the rally, said her son and other soldiers support her for speaking out against the war.
And the efforts are paying off, she said.
”If you had asked me six months ago, I would said I wasn’t sure," she said. "Now, there’s a definite shift in the wind.”