Campus / News / October 10, 2008

War veteran voices concern for right to protest

Vietnam veteran and peace activist Paul Appell spoke with a clear message at The Center last Friday: the United States of America is being threatened, and its biggest enemies are domestic.

“I never thought in my lifetime I’d be labeled an anarchist just because I defended the constitution,” said Appell, telling a group of approximately 25 Knox students and Galesburg residents about his experience protesting at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. last month.

Appell participated in three marches during the convention with Veterans for Peace [VFP] and Iraq Veterans Against the War [IVAW]. Both groups are dedicated to nonviolent protest.

Government action began even before the convention. Appell said the FBI infiltrated protest groups like the RNC Welcoming Committee, whose members are currently in jail facing terrorism charges.

“With infiltrators, it’s not just that they find out what’s going on. Usually, they also provoke. You can pretty much spot them because they’re the ones telling people to be violent,” Appell said: the agents wanted to spur the activists to break the law so they could arrest them and have them out of the way before the convention began.

Appell told stories about the “police state” imposed on St. Paul by the presence of the FBI, SWAT teams, military helicopters, unidentifiable armed figures Appell thought might have been CIA or Blackwater, and the St. Paul police, who took out an insurance policy prior to the convention to protect them from lawsuits.

He saw many protesters and journalists arrested, including a producer from Democracy Now who was made to sit on a lawn with her face to the grass while the next-door neighbor invited the media into her yard to watch. A SWAT team showed up at the hotel where Appell and other protesters were staying, but the hotel staff refused to let them conduct a search because they had no warrant. Appell likened preemptive raids to preemptive wars, quoting Eisenhower calling preemptive war “an invention of Hitler.”

“I’m sure our founding fathers would be rolling in their graves if they knew this had happened,” he said.

But the blame for the situation in St. Paul did not lie only with the federal government and the police. Being a former member of the military, Appell said he felt “some empathy” with the police and believed many of them were just out to do their jobs. A pro-war group co-founded by John McCain called Veterans for Freedom [VFF] contributed to the conflicts at the RNC, as they tried to provoke Appell’s group to violence with members of the police standing nearby. A protester with Veterans for Peace marched with an empty casket containing the uniform of his son, who was killed in combat in 2003, with a picture of him on the outside; a VFF member tore the picture from the casket and ran off with it. When the father went after him, the VFF member beat him.

Appell’s talk left people shocked and speechless, making the discussion afterward slow to start. He apologized to the younger members of the audience, saying his generation had learned nothing from Vietnam, and passed out citizen’s arrest warrants “just in case” anyone in the audience happened to run into George W. Bush or Dick Cheney in the near future. Center founder and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman said he felt “invisible” as someone who does not support the current American regime, and wondered, for the sake of provocation, whether nonviolent protest would ever get the same amount of attention as violent protest does.

Senior Samir Bakhshi, like Appell, still believes in the power of civil resistance. He brought up a protest of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund several Knox students attended last year. When the military police showed up to stop the protesters from blocking the delegates’ path into the building, he said it “scared the shit out of me,” but he still cannot wait for the chance to do it again.

“Everyone that goes has their own ideas, but we’re all American citizens doing this together,” said Bakhshi.

“This is the state of our country now. You don’t have to do anything wrong,” said Appell. “We can’t be like the good Germans were with Hitler.”

Deana Rutherford

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