War and opinions collide at Palm Springs peace vigil

by on April 19, 2008 · 0 comments

in Organizing, Peace Movement, War and Peace

[Ed.: The nation-wide antiwar demonstrations held on March 19th also included Palm Springs, where the following report says 100 antiwar demonstrators appeared. Only a half dozen counter-protesters appeared. Another vigil is planned for today, Sat., Apr. 19th.]

By Julia Glick / The Press-Enterprise / April 15, 2008

Two groups of Vietnam-era veterans squared off at a peace vigil on the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, with bikers who support the war snatching an American flag from anti-war demonstrators in Palm Springs.

In the tumult, a war supporter stomped on the peace group’s symbolic cardboard coffin and one peace activist says he was badly bruised. Both sides say they were verbally abused. And an older woman running across the street to intervene in the struggle for the flag was hit by a pickup truck. She was not seriously hurt.

Although both sides — each composed mostly of Vietnam-era vets and baby boomers — were arguing over Iraq, they have not closed the wounds of a war that ended more than 30 years ago.

Now, the chaos of the March 19 event has Palm Springs police drawing up plans to keep the peace at monthly peace vigils. The next one is planned for Saturday. [Ed.: Sat., April 19, 2008.]

The Riverside and San Bernardino counties chapter of Veterans for Peace says it will seek a restraining order against Andy Grow, a member of Gathering of Eagles, a group of veterans and bikers who greet returning Iraq veterans, support the war and protest anti-war demonstrations as damaging to soldiers’ morale.

Grow, 63, a Vietnam veteran, said in a telephone interview that he took the flag to stop peace activists from desecrating it.

Grow said he and other returning Vietnam veterans were treated disgracefully years ago. “We are not going to allow that to happen to those kids now,” he said.

The Veterans for Peace chapter, based in Rancho Mirage and founded by Marine Corps veteran Tom Swann, says it supports the troops but not the war and seeks an end to American military involvement in Iraq.

Both sides want the best for the men and women fighting in Iraq, so it’s sad that there is so much hostility between the groups, said Bill Caine-Gonzales, 50, a member of Veterans for Peace who saw Grow take the flag at the vigil.

“We want the troops to come home. That’s all,” he said. “They believe that by saying that, we are somehow not supporting the troops.”

Five-Year Anniversary

About 100 anti-war demonstrators attended the event last month organized by Veterans for Peace at the corner of North Palm Canyon Drive and East Tahquitz Canyon Way downtown, said witnesses from both sides. Fewer than a half-dozen bikers with Gathering of Eagles and another group, the Patriot Guard Riders, showed up, said Rhonda Sweitzer, 49, one of the a counter-protesters.

Tracy Turner, 50, a member of Veterans for Peace, was affixing an American flag to a cardboard coffin meant to represent that of Army Spc. Jonathan Castro, of Corona, who died in Iraq on Dec. 21, 2004. The Veterans for Peace chapter is named for him, and his mother Vickie Castro has been active with the group.

Turner said two counter-protesters approached him, one man yanked the flag away and another stomped on the cardboard coffin, denting it. Turner said he received a 6-inch bruise in the struggle.

An older woman who was part of the vigil ran across the street to help and was struck by a vehicle, police said.

Authorities did not pursue charges against Grow because he brought the flag to the police station the next day, said Palm Springs police Capt. Mike Hall.

“I took the flag,” Grow said. “I was a little mouthy but I never touched anybody. Not a little mouthy, I was a whole lot of mouthy.”

Sweitzer, a Vancouver, Wash., construction worker who spends her winters in North Palm Springs, said she saw no violence, but peace activists provoked war supporters.

“They kept coming up in our faces,” she said. “They were really hostile.”

Members of the peace group told the Palm Springs City Council that the bikers were threatening them and shouting obscenities.

They said they worry that the bikers’ behavior could become more violent and could deter residents from attending vigils and exercising their right to free speech.

Wounds Reopened

Gathering of Eagles, based in North Carolina, has 15 organized state chapters and as many as 3,000 active members, said Coby W. Dillard, assistant to the group’s national director.

It is a nonviolent and non-confrontational group that seeks to ensure that returning soldiers are not scorned or forgotten as they were in the Vietnam era, he said.

Gathering of Eagles’ Web site describes the group as “a call to action for every American who chooses to stand and say ‘No more!’ to those who would spit on our veterans and ridicule their service to our nation.”

Grow said he was not at the event in his role with Gathering of Eagles but as “just an irate American veteran.” He became enraged when he saw the flag on a box on the ground, he said.

“That is so disrespectful. You’ve seen the picture of that plane with all those coffins coming off it. That is my brothers and my sisters in there,” he said, adding, “I will not allow people to desecrate the flag. It was just more than I can bear.”

Turner said the flag-draped coffin, meant to remind people of the war’s human cost, never touched the ground. His group always treats the flag with respect, he said.

It was offensive that the man wadded the flag up instead of folding it properly when he stashed it in the saddlebag of his motorcycle, anti-war group members said.

“Their concern is that troops could come back and be viewed in a hostile way, and in today’s culture, I don’t see that as a reality. I think people recognize the extreme sacrifices soldiers have made,” Turner said. “It is like they are wanting to relive that war and not realizing that the comparisons don’t really ring true.”

Peace group members also compare the Iraq War to Vietnam, however, saying it could drag on just as long.

“Everybody wants the war to be over,” Sweitzer said. “But we want the boys to complete the mission and come home as heroes.”

The Next Vigil

Palm Springs police made no arrests but are gearing up for the peace group’s monthly vigil this weekend.

In the past, downtown bicycle patrols checked on the peace rallies, which have been ongoing for the past few years. Occasionally, a confrontation occurred but never any real problems, Hall said.

“People would either come by and give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down … but there has never been a situation where somebody has been hurt and property stolen,” Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Ginny Foat said.
In the future, at least two officers will be stationed at the vigils and opposing sides will be kept separate, Hall said. [For the article, go here to a blog that had posted it.] Link no longer available.

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