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Protest Has Opened Old Cultural Rift

Dispute: Teacher's march against U.S. killing of Afghan civilians angers some in small town.

September 06, 2002|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILLITS, Calif. — Outraged by a misguided U.S. military attack on a civilian wedding party in Afghanistan, a young schoolteacher staged a one-man protest on Main Street during Willits' annual July 4 Frontier Days parade.

The singular act of dissent did not sit well with some in the crowd. Hecklers taunted 28-year-old Anthony Melville, some offering him free passage to Kabul for his trouble.

One stocky woman bolted from the sidelines and tussled with Melville as she tried to grab his sign. A man driving a tractor in the parade attempted to herd the protester off the street.

As cultural clashes go, it was a minor dust-up. No complaints were filed with police. The sign-grabber eventually offered Melville an apology.

Yet the incident has left a bitter taste. The town still dwells on it in the letters columns of the local newspaper and at the tables of the Willits Cafe, where the town elders hold court.

Old fault lines have been reopened between traditional ranching and logging families, and the countercultural settlers who arrived during the late 1960s and early '70s.

Like many American towns and cities caught in the heightened sensitivity after Sept. 11, Willits finds itself struggling over what constitutes patriotism and appropriate expression of dissent a year after the terrorist attacks.

Said Alan Schlosser, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California: "I think in the post-9/11 period, and now that we are moving into a potential war with Iraq, there is considerably more controversy and polarization. This comes at a time when it is most important that there be a robust free speech."

Schlosser said the ACLU has followed several reports, notably on university campuses, involving challenges to free speech.

Maria Brook, a 54-year-old social activist and retired midwife in Willits, explains it this way: "I don't think it would have even been an issue before Sept. 11. In previous July 4 parades, we've had no-nukes people pulling rainbow-themed floats and even a giant pro-marijuana truck. But, like people all over America, many here felt sucker-punched and confused by 9/11. The media really played up the jingoistic elements."

Bob Hagan, a retired military communications specialist, thinks Janet Lively, the 36-year-old mother of two who attempted to grab Melville's sign, "should have been given a medal."

"I represent the silent majority," said Hagan, 55, interviewed as he sat on a picnic bench under towering redwoods at Brooktrails golf course. "What happened on July 4 is very representative of the ideological differences that exist here. I believe that 9/11 has finally lowered the tolerance level of people for this kind of behavior."

The main target of Hagan's wrath, expressed in newspaper letters and public statements, is Lanny Cotler, a local screenwriter and political activist. Cotler, 61, a veteran of the 1964 free speech movement as a student at UC Berkeley, sprang to Melville's aid during the parade and walked alongside the protester, carrying an American flag emblazoned with a peace symbol.

Letters to the Editor

"I hope any red-blooded American would have done the same thing," said Cotler, who moved to Willits from Los Angeles in 1984. After the incident, Cotler, who was born on the Fourth of July, penned an impassioned defense of dissent that was published in the Willits News.

Cotler wrote that when he saw Melville, carrying his large black-and-white sign, he regarded the protest as an act of personal courage. The sign referred to a July 1 incident in which an American warplane struck a wedding party in a central Afghanistan village, killing 48 people, all but three of whom were women and children.

"I said to my daughter," Cotler wrote, "there goes a man with a morality-based grievance and the courage to express it peacefully in public."

Cotler's editorial page article outraged Hagan and others in the community of 5,000, divided about equally between old-timers and new settlers.

"Your form of social terrorism is wearing pretty thin in this town and across the nation," Hagan responded in a July 31 letter to the editor. "Do us all a favor and take me up on a free one-way ride to the airport."

Hagan, who moved here seven years ago, said his newspaper broadside appeared to touch a nerve among fellow Willits conservatives, some of whom are newcomers like him.

"My right hand is still sore from all the people shaking it," he said.

The impact of the war was brought home in January when a Willits Marine was killed in a helicopter crash near Kabul.

Willits High School graduate Dwight Morgan, 24, whose wife and two small children live here, was one of two Marines killed when a CH-53E Super Stallion went down.

Still, Hagan's sentiments were not universally embraced. His letter prompted a wave of responses defending Cotler, including one letter, notable for its own free-speech implications, attacking the newspaper for publishing Hagan's views.

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