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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 29, 2005

Democracy at work

Last Friday, the day before Christmas Eve, Crossgates Mall was packed with last-minute shoppers and holiday revelers.

Canned seasonal music — The Twelve Days of Christmas, Jingle Bells, There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays — played in the mall’s food court as shoppers chattered over their meals at six o’clock.

Then faintly, from one end of the food court, real voices could be heard singing.

"All we are saying is give peace a chance," sang a motley crew of about two dozen.

Some of them were children, others gray-haired veterans of peace marches a half-century ago.

Stephen Downs was among the group with his 94-year-old mother, Eleanor.

Downs, a lawyer, had been arrested in 2003 after he bought a T-shirt at Crossgates Mall and had it lettered with "Peace on Earth" on one side and "Give Peace a Chance" on the other. When he refused to remove his shirt, he was arrested for trespassing. He insisted on his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. It was a cry heard round the world.

With the protests and world-wide media coverage that followed, the charges were dropped.

Downs wore a sign Tuesday and a large grin. "This is a big change," he told us. "The whole atmosphere has changed."

He has a suit pending in state court. "It impacts exactly what we’re doing here today — free speech in the mall," said Downs.

Downs had been inspired by an incident three years ago, just before Christmas in 2002, as our country was poised to go to war with Iraq. A small group of activists had worn shirts to the mall with messages that said "Drop Toys Not bombs," "Peace on Earth," and "Don’t Attack Iraq." At the behest of mall security, they were forcibly escorted out of the mall by Guilderland Police officers.

Downs wore a sign on Friday that said, all in capital letters, "Liberate Our Troops." His mother, too, wore a large sign. Hers said, "Wake up!"

As I talked to various protesters, taking notes and pictures, I was approached by an earnest man.

"Are you going to tell both sides of this story"" he asked me, saying he was offended by the protesters.

There are often more than two sides to a story, I told him; I tell as many as I can find. I coaxed him to give me his name, so I could tell his.

Brian Perazone of Roxbury told me he had recently spent a year in Afghanistan with the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division and a year in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. He had come to the mall to do holiday shopping and hadn’t expected to encounter peace protesters, he said.

"These people have never set foot in Iraq or Afghanistan," said Perazone of the protesters. He went on, "I’ve seen enough car bombs and been shot at. Protests like this just empower the enemy. It costs American lives....

"There isn’t one incident in history where protesting ever stopped anything."

I told him about a Quaker woman I’d just interviewed who participated in a seven-year-long vigil in front of the state capitol against the Vietnam War, and asked if protests of that war hadn’t helped to stop it.

"That was all political," he said.

But aren’t politics fueled by public pressure"

Perazone talked intensely for about a quarter of an hour while the peace walkers sang in the background. "Ain’t gonna study war no more," they sang as he said his complaint with George Bush was, "We’re not prosecuting the war the way we should be."

As we talked, a small group formed around us and one of the peace walkers, Gene Kotrba from Cleveland, Ohio, stepped into the fray. Perazone was offended by signs that said "Liberate Our Troops."

"Our troops don’t need to be liberated," he said. "They’re there of their own free will."

Parazone said he was part of $160 million worth of rebuilding projects in the Middle East. "People don’t understand the mentality of the Middle East," he said. "There’s a lot of violence. The criminal element is alive and well. No Americans are setting off car bombs."

"What about the initial bombing"" asked Kotrba.

"It’s a war," answered Perazone.

The two went back and forth — one man tall and thin, with graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, the other shorter and stocky with close-cropped hair.

Sometimes one or the other would shake his index finger as he made a point. No one pointed a gun, no one made a threat, no one called for security guards or police officers to make an arrest.

"The American press is saying we’re losing, we can’t win, we’re terrorizing women and children," said Perazone. "None of you have any idea of what’s going on over there...I saw it with my own eyes."

"I’m glad you came back...I’m glad you’re alive," said the peace protester, offering his hand.

There, in a mall, the modern American public square — the place now where people gather — a meaningful debate was taking place. And people were listening respectfully, perhaps learning. Democracy was at work.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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