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Epicenter of Dissent

Near South Coast Plaza is the site of choice for peace activism -- the same corner where the Vietnam War was decried

December 23, 2002|Vivian LeTran | Times Staff Writer

Protester Mike Mang peers through his gasmask at the sea of headlights coming at him during rush-hour traffic, with horns blaring like a discordant symphony.

"This big opera of horn honkers is music to my ears," said Mang, an antiwar activist and retired high school teacher, who can distinguish the horns of hostile drivers from those against war on Iraq.

"A year ago, they were flipping us off, but I think they're warming up to us."

Mang is one of about 100 rain-or-shine demonstrators at the corner of Anton Boulevard and Bristol Street in Costa Mesa each Friday night, rallying for peace and continuing a long tradition of demonstrations at this spot since the Vietnam War.

How this corner emerged as Orange County's soapbox central for liberal-minded causes has stumped local historians. Some say the corner is strategic because it's along an access route to three major freeways. Across the street loom South Coast Plaza, ritzy restaurants, five-star hotels and an arts center, where pedestrians bustle.

The stylish holiday shoppers loaded down with parcels are a stark contrast to Mang and his cohorts. Take protester Chuck Anderson, a key organizer who wears a beret, a body bag and a sign that reads "No War for Oil." Or Silvia Soto and Sandy Hill, who drape themselves in black burkas, mourning bloodied baby dolls wrapped in bandages to call attention to women and children devastated by war.

The faces of grass-roots activists young and old, students, teachers and parents who have committed one hour of every week to call for peace at this corner have caught the attention of passersby.

"This is one of the only spots I know of in Orange County where there's a lively populace voicing their freedom of speech," said Cris Gross, a daily commuter who works nearby and usually honks in support. "Since I moved here 20 years ago, there have been protesters there looking for support with some kind of message, and they're doing it in a really tough market.

"They're kind of a regular thing there now, but they haven't lost their impact," he added. "Whether you agree with their message or not, it's their enthusiasm that you pick up on."

Protesters say this vibrant, progressive pulse began in the 1960s and continued sporadically through the next decades over a variety of issues: Kosovo, Somalia, the Persian Gulf, abortion rights, animal rights, the nuclear arms race, aid to the Contra rebels.

The Left Bank it's not. And it lacks Berkeley's peacenik vibes. But Mang recalls how this nondescript intersection helped shaped his grass-roots activism 30 years ago.

"Somehow, during the Vietnam War, this got to be the place people came to rally for peace," said Mang, 62, of Corona del Mar, who first stomped the street corner in anger over that conflict.

Then, Orange County still had large swaths of rolling fields of lima beans and strawberries, and livestock grazing the bluff side. It was the place where Richard Nixon earned his political chops. The hard-line conservatism ran so deep in the heart of Orange County that one of the left-leaning challengers to Nixon for the U.S. Senate, Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, dubbed the "Pink Lady," had fruit, eggs and tomatoes thrown at her during a 1950 campaign visit, Mang recalled.

"We were very conformist and conservative [in] the establishment. It was a time when a Democrat was considered almost a Communist," said Mang, who grew up Republican on wealthy, conservative Lido Isle and staunchly supported Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Vietnam as Impetus

Back then, Mang was teaching U.S. government and world history. From 1968 to 1975, the Vietnam War was the primary topic in his high school classroom.

"A lot of my students were up for the draft, and they had a vested interest in what was going on in Vietnam," Mang said. "They were open-minded, and as a government teacher, I wanted to present all political views. And one of the views was activism, the protests out at Anton and Bristol at the time."

Mang switched to the Democratic Party in 1969, and in 1988 to the Green Party.

"There was no place in suburban Orange County for people to come together and congregate in large numbers, and it seemed like a good place to demonstrate," Mang said.

The crowds would eventually fade, then sprout up again as a new issue emerged. The latest spate of demonstrations began with the bombing of Afghanistan.

"That's what brought me back," said the white-bearded Mang. "After Sept. 11, the Bush administration wanted to go after Osama, which was fine. But then when we expanded into Afghanistan and bombed a lot of innocent civilians -- that's what got me going. I don't want to sit around and feel helpless to all the injustices and wars I read about in the headlines."

Some protesters demand broader justice in the Mideast, such as for Palestinians.

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