Peace Rally in Military Town Ignites Heated War of Words
Dozens of antiwar protesters find their message unwelcome in a community whose base trains more than 50,000 Marines a year.
By Hugo Martin
Times Staff Writer
February 23, 2003
TWENTYNINE PALMS -- About 100 peace advocates and counter-protesters faced off during an emotional antiwar rally Saturday in this military community in the southern Mojave Desert.
More than 60 protesters opposed to a war in Iraq marched in front of City Hall, chanting, "Support our troops, bring them home," and carrying signs that read, "Pray for Peace" and "Win Without War."
Organizers said they wanted to make it clear that although they oppose a war in Iraq, they support American troops stationed abroad.
But that message did not appear to resonate with about 40 counter-demonstrators across the street who shouted, "We support our troops!" and carried banners reading, "Shame."
The gathering, which statewide activists said they believed to be the first one held in a California military community, was nonviolent. But periodically some in the smaller group -- which included Marine wives and Vietnam veterans -- crossed the four-lane street to engage in heated debate with the protesters.
Al Marquez, an Army veteran whose shirt bore a POW/MIA emblem honoring prisoners of war and those who went missing in action, marched in the antiwar group.
"We are not opposing our troops," he said. "We are opposing what our government is doing."
On the other side of the street, counter-demonstrators said the peace rally sends a damaging message to local Marines who are preparing to ship out.
Amie Clark, the wife of a Twentynine Palms Marine, waved a placard reading, "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." She said the peace vigil suggests that America doesn't have the resolve to fight a war.
Chris Drake, a former Marine who said he served in Japan, strode across to the peace demonstrators and waved a Marine uniform in front of them. "This is what it's all about: the red, white and blue!" he yelled.
Several demonstrators shouted back: "We are not against the troops; we are for peace!"
Two police officers kept an eye on the event, which took place about 50 yards from the police station.
Twentynine Palms, a city of about 26,000 residents, is home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, which measures 935 square miles.
Some protesters said that because of strong ties between the base and the community, they were surprised to see so many demonstrators against the anticipated war.
The base, with hundreds of acres set aside for live-fire exercises, trains more than 50,000 Marines each year.
The local economy relies heavily on the Marines, who eat, shop, bank and relax in the tiny desert community. Much of the town's population is made up of retired Marines and military families.
City leaders and many merchants strongly condemned the demonstration.
"It doesn't belong in a military town," said Dean DeMarrow, a retired Marine who owns a jewelry business in town.
Earlier in the week, Twentynine Palms Mayor Jim Bagley had criticized those planning to demonstrate, saying they were "stirring up a hornet's nest." He likened the protesters to actor "Martin Sheen and all the limousine liberals in L.A."
One of the organizers of the event, Joseph Matoush, a Twentynine Palms pastor and retired Navy chaplain, said he expected such criticism but was surprised at the degree of ire his critics displayed.
On Thursday, he said, he found a flier on his church door with drawings of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat and the words: "These are your friends. Why don't you leave America?"
The signature was "Patriots for God, Country, Bush and U.S. Troops."
Matoush, who served 18 years in the military, including a stretch in Operation Desert Storm, said he opposes a preemptive strike against Iraq because he believes that a peaceful solution is still possible.
"We want to show that some people in Twentynine Palms [would like] to see a peaceful resolution," he said.
He declined to identify his church or denomination, saying he does not speak for his congregation or its leadership.
Meanwhile, the antiwar demonstrators marched and chanted for about an hour, then put down their signs for a moment of silence. The group then began singing John Lennon's ballad "Give Peace a Chance."
They concluded the vigil with a chorus of "God Bless America."