Pro-war veterans group and anti-war adversaries warily promise peaceful event
In late January, protesters swarmed onto the steps of the US Capitol and spray-painted antiwar slogans during a rally to pressure President Bush and the Democratic Congress to wind down the war in Iraq. That was the tipping point for Charles Gant, a disabled Vietnam combat veteran from Greensboro who volunteers his time with others who have served in the US armed services.
“The silent majority is tired of the extreme left-wing viewpoint,” Gant said in a recent interview. “The silent majority is speaking up at last…. I don’t know if you saw this on the internet but there is some punk who needed to be soundly thrashed and beaten within an inch of his life. There’s a picture of him defecating on a flag.”
Veterans and other patriots angered by the drumbeat of antiwar protests took note of what one veteran called “loose talk” on leftist websites about vandalizing military memorials some time after the infamous incident on the Capitol steps. So in mid-March during an antiwar rally to commemorate the 4th anniversary of the war, disgruntled counter-protesters gathered around the Vietnam memorial to fend off would-be vandals. The group known as Gathering of Eagles was born.
Their second engagement? Governmental Plaza in Greensboro on Saturday.
The occasion will be a speech by antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq, at a rally organized by the World Can’t Wait. In Gant’s view, Sheehan aspires to the status of Vietnam-era actor and activist Jane Fonda, whom he believes should have been hanged for treason. Members of the patriotic group are also angered by what they view as the less-than-transparent role of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA in the World Can’t Wait, a broad-based group that aims to end the war and defeat many of Bush’s initiatives.
And the Gathering of Eagles looks with suspicion on the antiwar group’s choice of location for their rally: a plaza named in honor of Army Pfc. Phill G. McDonald, who died in combat in Vietnam in 1968. The plaza is also home to a small Vietnam veterans memorial.
Lawrence Hoffa, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant from Greenville who identifies himself as the group’s national executive officer, made the call to arms in an April 7 post to the Gathering of Eagles website.
“Eagles need to soar and gather!” he wrote. “Notice is short, but the need to rally the troops and be ‘in their face’ is necessary.” As is his habit, he signed off in all capital letters: “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK…. ‘EAGLE UP.'”
Members of the group have responded with promises to attend from across North Carolina and as far away as the Cincinnati area. They have expressed confidence that they’ll be able to draw superior numbers and drown out the antiwar message. Bob Chamberlain, an electronic design engineer and Vietnam veteran from Raleigh, urged fellow members in a Tuesday bulletin board message to “help us push it over the top! We have an excellent chance here to hand Cindy Sheehan a virtual slap in the face. One that might discourage her from appearing at future WCW-organized events.”
Given Greensboro’s history of difficulty on the matter of balancing free speech rights and public safety – Klansmen and Nazis shot to death five communist demonstrators here in 1979 as police convened nearby – Gathering of Eagles’ bellicose language has raised concerns among some observers.
Both the World Can’t Wait and their pro-war adversaries have said they do not seek confrontation, but have expressed conflicting expectations about logistics for the dueling events. Capt. Robert Flynt, who as commander of the special operations division is tasked with planning police coverage of the event, said he has reviewed comments by the Gathering of Eagles members, adding that the police will ensure that the World Can’t Wait will be able to hold its rally as “rightful permit holder” and that police are taking precautions to prevent conflict.
“These people represent such a tiny minority that there’s nothing possible to gain from engaging them verbally,” said Scott Trent, a World Can’t Wait organizer who took out march permits with the city of Greensboro and received authorization from Guilford County to use the plaza. “We do want the police to enforce our permit. We haven’t gotten any indication that they won’t do that. I do have assurances from the county that if we hold the permit, they don’t have the right to be anywhere on the plaza.”
Tim Hopkins, a Greensboro activist who is also active with the World Can’t Wait, added: “We’re not about a confrontation. We’re about impeachment and ending the war. We don’t expect any problems. The bottom line is we have a permit for the entire plaza. None of us knew that there was a Vietnam memorial there. Frankly we wouldn’t at all want to desecrate any memorial. We want this war to end and we want to prevent a war with Iran.”
Hopkins imparted his desire to avoid engaging with the counter-protesters to NC Anti-Racist Action, a militant anarchist group that has gained notice for showing up at protests with bandannas veiling mouths and noses.
“Tim took me aside and said, ‘I know how you ARA guys can get a little frisky,'” said Matt, who started the North Carolina chapter in January 2006 and who declined to give his last name. “If they want confrontation, we’re going to avoid it, turn the other way, avoid profane language…. More or less, I told Tim, ‘We’re going to be on our best behavior.'”
Ben Lassiter said the UNCG chapter of the International Socialist Organization, a Trotskyist group that is a rival to the World Can’t Wait within the spectrum of Marxist groups, will have a presence at the rally, including a literature table.
“We definitely don’t have any bones about trying to demoralize our opponents,” he said, “so we will chant, yeah.”
Chamberlain, the Raleigh veteran, characterized Gathering of Eagles’ bellicose language as an effort to “whip up the horses a little bit just to make sure people will make the effort of coming out. We have absolutely no intention of physical or verbal confrontation with anyone.”
In interviews and internet postings, members of Gathering of Eagles said they plan to encircle one or two memorials and stand on the highest tier of the multi-level plaza.
That will not happen, said Lt. Danny Ingram of the special operations division.
“They will not be on the plaza because the World Can’t Wait has a permit from the county to be there. They have exclusive rights to use the plaza.”
He added that the counter-protesters will be allotted an adjacent space.
“We will have officers and staff available to do our best to maintain order, Capt. Flynt said. “We will set up barriers. With that comes the challenge of identifying who’s in what group. If a person attempts to interfere in either area in a criminal manner, then we’ll be forced to take the appropriate action.”
Gant said Gathering of Eagles will cooperate with the police on Saturday, adding that he has already communicated with a police detective about the group’s plans.
“I forgot to tell him that the only thing that would cause any problems – we really do not promote violence – that would be the burning of the flag,” he said.
“We booed [Sheehan] down while she was speaking on the PA so no one could hear her,” Gant continued. “That’s our First Amendment right. Totally nonviolent. That’s our first rule. No obstruction. Let that obnoxious bitch get up there.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.