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Hometown U.S.A.: Corvallis, Ore.

In Oregon, an eight-year antiwar protest

The day the Afghanistan war began in 2001, several dozen people held a candlelight vigil in Corvallis, Ore. Every afternoon since, the protest has continued.

October 18, 2009|Kim Murphy

It started the way things do in a small town. It was the autumn of 2001, New York's World Trade Center had been attacked, there was talk of the U.S. military invading Afghanistan, and people here were calling one another, huddling over camomile tea at the Sunnyside Up coffee shop, asking what could anybody do?

Some of the professors over at Oregon State organized seminars to explain who the players were.

"They talked about the histories of Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. They brought in experts on Muslim fundamentalism, and they made it quite clear there was not a clear connection between Islam and terrorism," said Mike Beilstein, a City Council member and retired chemist.

On Oct. 7, the day after bombs began falling on Kabul and Jalalabad, several dozen people got together and held a candlelight vigil against the war in Afghanistan.

The next day, Beilstein stood with an antiwar sign outside the Benton County courthouse. Two other people showed up with signs of their own.

The next day, more protesters came.

Since then, a war has started in Iraq, a new president has been installed in the White House, and the Taliban has been beaten back, only to regroup.

Yet in Corvallis, they're still saying no to the war in Afghanistan.

They have been there seven days a week, 365 days a year, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., since that autumn day in 2001.

"Some days, we have 100. There's never been just one. Usually, it ends up with at least five or six people by 6 p.m.," said Ed Epley, 72, a retired phone company worker who has been the mainstay of the vigil over the years.

He donates most of his afternoons to the cause, and uses his 1961 Volkswagen van to transport banners and signs back and forth to the sidewalk protest site.

Drivers often honk in support as they pass by. They drop off cookies or ice cream bars or, as on one recent day, gas money for the VW.

Sometimes people park and pick up a sign or a flag.

Other times, insults -- or worse -- are hurled out of car windows.

"Disgusting things, like cups with human sputum," said Carol Alexander, 63, a longtime environmental activist who has often joined the vigil.

"We've had ice cream cones thrown at us. Hamburgers," Epley said.

"We had a rash of moonings for a while," Alexander added.

By and large, however, the response has been positive, the protesters said.

"It's because we're united. . . . I think 80% of Americans now think it's a bad idea to be in Afghanistan. And in Corvallis, it might be 95%," Beilstein said.

There have been counter-protesters, who set up across the street or on the other end of the block, usually waving American flags and signs about supporting the troops.

Cars sometimes roar past, playing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" at full volume. Some college students spent one recent afternoon waving "Honk if you hate hippies" signs.

Lou Copes, a retired insurance agent, said she and fellow counter-protesters try not to get into it with the peace vigil supporters.

"A couple weeks ago, one of those guys had some kind of bubble thing, and he was blowing bubbles in my face," she said.

"They're very argumentative," added Betty Robidart, a retired school bus driver.

The point is not to be for or against the war, the counter-protesters said, it's to support the men and women who are fighting it.

"America has this wonderful history of defending freedom . . . and not being imperialistic, and our troops are out there doing all that," said Jane Newton, 80.

"Yet they come home, and they get these lukewarm responses from people."

On Oct. 7 -- the war's eighth anniversary, as President Obama mulled the possibility of dispatching more troops -- the Corvallis ralliers' numbers swelled to 75. Their new postcard campaign calls for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops.

When asked if the protesters ever imagined that they would still be standing on the sidewalk eight years later, Charlie Miller, a retired professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, said, "No. We thought the war would eventually end."

Added Epley: "We didn't have an exit strategy. And we still don't."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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