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Life During Wartime

By Corinne Asturias

LAST WEEKEND, as thousands prepared to amass in the world's major cities to protest the United States' planned rampage on Iraq, and Americans flocked to hardware stores in search of duct tape, Biter decided to escape to the countryside. After a brief battle for survival on Highway 580 on a Friday night, we miraculously ended up alive and listening to a Ben Kweller CD in the rolling hills of Sonora.

Biter had heard that there would be a protest march in this Sierra hamlet, a quaint little gathering of hippies, transplants and a token clown. We anticipated a nice quiet affair, maybe the kind with an "e" on the end, an "affaire," where there would be salads and homemade cookies afterward. Maybe even wine.

Unexpectedly, even for the event's planners, a throng of humanity showed up: elderly people in suits, hippies in hats, yuppies, teenagers, people carrying babies in those Baby Bjorn things and dogs, some of whom sported knitted sweaters. Signs proclaimed: "All Wars End in Funerals," "How did our oil get under their sand?" and Biter's favorite: "I hate crowds. Impeach Bush so I can go home." The clown, named "Greenleaf," distributed a list of chants--"The evidence is just too vague / For Bush to start a global plague"--that simply did not catch on.

This motley procession ended up at the Tuolumne County Courthouse, the same place where, in the 1990s, a woman named Ellie Nesler shot and killed a man for molesting her son. On the spreading lawn under majestic trees, more than 1,000 protesters gathered, which was substantial considering that the sign leading into the city reads, "Population: 3,004."

Across the street from the park, in front of the Veterans Hall, stood an entirely different group of demonstrators. Outnumbered, probably 30 to 1, this smaller group had their own signs: "Support our troops!" They had no babies or dogs, but they had one thing the peace marchers didn't have: angry teenagers in pickup trucks driving round and round the block, blaring their horns, plastered in signs reading, briefly, "Let's kill 'em all, and let God sort it out later."

Down the middle of the street, a procession of puzzled-looking tourists drove through town (what does one do when all one wants is to get to the snow, and there's a sign on either side saying, "Honk if you're on our side!"). Divided by two lanes of traffic, most of it in vehicles that get fewer than 15 miles to the gallon, the two sides of this thing tried to outlast each other.

The local police, who don't even have horses to ride or riot gear to wear, even if they wanted to, looked kind of worried. The wrinkles on their faces flattened considerably after the peace group, which also had a public address system, fired its opening salvo: "Let's all give a hand right now, to show our appreciation to the people across the street, who are largely responsible for the fact that we live in a free country where we can hold protest marches like this."

At which point the crowd of 1,000 turned, let out a huge roar of appreciation and applause that left the veterans looking desperately in need of a coffee from the cafe next door.

Biter, too, entered the Heart Rock Cafe, a Christian sandwich shop that was feeding protesters from both sides and offering a free coffee to anyone who could answer the biblical question of the day, which Biter sadly could not. "I probably shouldn't say," the woman making sandwiches told a customer in military medals, "but I was, you know, singing with the peace people."

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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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