Rally redux

photos by Heather Erson

Where else in America could you have two rallies espousing fundamentally differing viewpoints while ostensibly promoting the same concept (support for U.S. soldiers), staged simultaneously within 100 yards of each other — a formula fraught with the potential for ugly confrontation — and have the whole day come off without a hitch?

On March 1, Asheville lived up to its reputation as a city that incorporates (albeit sometimes uncomfortably) wildly varying lifestyles and opinions by peaceably accommodating said diversity. On that warm, sun-soaked Saturday, two groups of people collectively flexed some First Amendment muscle — and, to the relief of many (and despite concern in both camps), nothing calamitous happened. At City/County Plaza, a red-white-and-blue-bedecked crowd waved flags and sang the praises of God and country at the Support our Soldiers rally. At the adjacent Vance Monument, an equally colorful crowd gathered for a peace rally whose organizers dubbed it Support our Soldiers: Bring Them Home!

And though opinions abound over exactly what these two events accomplished (besides preaching to their respective choirs), one could make the case that Asheville is, after all, a great place for a soldier to visit for a little R&R (despite opposing views about Bush administration policies, both rallies publicly affirmed a support for U.S. troops that bordered on adulation). What’s more, despite the two groups’ obvious differences, they somehow found a common ally. Organizers of both gatherings have praised the Asheville Police Department’s crowd-control methods. Although city police and Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies turned out in large numbers, they opted for a soft approach, eschewing riot gear and maintaining a comfortable distance from the two groups.

The success of this approach, and the lack of significant disruption in the two demonstrations, may raise questions about any attempt by Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino to follow through on his stated goal of implementing a more restrictive public-protest ordinance.

Annarino, however, told Xpress he still sees a need for a stronger ordinance “if we can do a better job of ensuring public safety, which is what it’s all about.” Arguing for an enhanced police role at the front end, he continued, “Time and place issues for protests are important; we need to be part of the planning process.”

But why, when things appeared to go so well under the current law — despite the potential for conflict? “I don’t look at them as protests,” said Annarino. “They were rallies promoting peace.”

At the same time, the chief also handed out a few pats on the back, attributing the day’s relative calm to “our community and the training of our officers, as well as who we’re hiring. We’re fortunate to have officers who are good at dealing with diverse populations and diverse political views — and we’ve had a lot of practice.”

To help capture the flavor of the day, Xpress had a number of reporters on hand at the two rallies. Here is some of what they saw:

• Three young women — one of them shrouded in a blue burka and another hoisting a sign depicting a peace symbol, a U.S. flag and Arabic lettering — stroll into the SOS rally. As the crowd parts, several police officers head their way. But a tall, skinny, bearded man wearing a mesh cowboy hat intercedes, sidling up to one of the women and speaking into her ear. The women then drop their signs and quietly file out. Later, the man (who jokingly identifies himself as “Sam Aritan”) says he told the women that they were in the midst of a number of people who’d been trained to do harm, adding that if the women stayed, “They were likely to end up causing something they did not intend and they would regret.”

The SOS rally, he says skeptically, is “basically calling for a proselytizing crusade.”

• Vietnam veteran Kam Parker, addressing the peace rally, asks for a show of hands from the veterans in the crowd; a scattering of raised palms sparks a burst of applause. “The war against our Constitution rages on,” declares Parker, adding, “I took an oath to defend that Constitution.”

• At the SOS rally, Asheville resident Molly McGlamery-Hickens stands amid a sea of American flags, toting a sign that reads, “Army Brat for Peace.” Attached is a photo of President Bush with duct tape over his mouth. Describing herself as a “child of the ’60s,” she notes, “I do support our soldiers, but I don’t support the war.” McGlamery-Hickens explains that her deceased father was a veteran of both World War II and the Vietnam War, and that she is attending the SOS rally to “honor his memory.” When asked if anyone has hassled her about her sign, she responds, “They wouldn’t dare.” Then, laughing, she notes, “No, everyone’s been very nice.”

• In the middle of one of the many public prayers intoned at City/County Plaza, a woman starts hollering: “George Bush is a mass murderer! Jesus Christ would never fight this war!” As she’s escorted from the rally by several Asheville Police officers, a tall man with a shock of white hair (who later dons a Vietnam vet cap) calls out, “How’s it feel to be a slut?”

• While many veterans and families with sons and daughters on active duty attend the SOS rally, Nancy Mansfield of Burnsville makes a different choice. Toting a sign that reads “Military Mom Against the War,” she opts to attend the peace rally, declaring, “I’m here to be seen.” Earlier that morning, Mansfield tells Xpress, she’d added a purple heart to her poster after learning that her son had been injured in Afghanistan while riding in an armored personnel carrier that struck a land mine. “I don’t see how you can support a soldier by sending him off to war,” says Mansfield, noting that her son has escaped with a concussion and a damaged eardrum.

• SOS rally organizer Bill Fishburne, introducing fellow organizer Chad Nesbitt, comments on how much Nesbitt has done to help pull the event together. “He has done more work for this by a factor of 10 than I ever have,” proclaims a beaming Fishburne, adding, “He is an inspiration to me, and I’m so proud of [him] I can just spit!”

• About an hour before the start of both rallies, a Beanstreets customer who doesn’t plan to attend either one shrugs them off as equally useless, saying, “I just think they’re a waste of time.” The 48-year-old Candler resident, who identifies herself only as Andrea, says she believes it’s this country’s moral obligation to go to war with Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. “Bush feels Saddam Hussein is a serious threat to this country, and nothing is going to change the way he thinks on that matter.”

• After attending the SOS rally, local attorney Ed Krause heads over to the peace rally, which his son, a 22-year-old Western Carolina University student, is attending. “We disagree,” says Krause en route, adding that that’s not a problem. “After all, he’s riding with me, and I’m paying the bills!”

Frank Rabey, Tracy Rose and Brian Postelle contributed to this story.

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