"We don't have bad publicity about the war here in Fayetteville until out-of-town folks bring protests here," says John Lancaster, Fayetteville resident, Korean War Army veteran and 30-year Navy man. We're standing in the "American Zone," situated across from the anti-war demonstration in Rowan Street Park, separated by a street and a steadily increasing number of cops.
Notwithstanding the presence of Lancaster and others, the majority of the counter-demonstrators seem to be outsiders, as well. One such interloper is Steve Rosenthal, who travels frequently from his home in Virginia to lend his bulky frame to pro-war demonstrations. He tells me that soldiers are dying for the right to protest.
No one I speak to in the American Zone seems to be able to explain why the right to protest, once secured, should not be exercised. Best embodying the confusion are the local representatives of Rolling Thunder, Inc., a group of leather-clad bikers sitting along the curb.
"We prefer not to be called bikers," says one. "We're a POW/MIA nonprofit group," he says, telling me that he is apolitical, and that soldiers should be supported once the political decision has been made to go to war. Walking away from the not-bikers, I'm struck, as always, by the strange sight of people dressed up as shit-kicking nonconformists who nonetheless reject political agitation as a legitimate activity.
There's a puzzling presence of Cubans and anti-Castro sentiment here. I never figure out what two Cubans, who say they only just got out of Castro's prison, are doing here. They hold up pro-Bush signs. One of them, Randolfo Zamoya Suarez, shows me the American flag he has tattooed on his neck. Despite the language difficulties, I do my best to figure out how they got to Fayetteville. Suarez is saying something about a "pasaje" when a middle-aged, mean-looking white man approaches and whisks them away from me.
Most of the counter-demonstrators have been rallied through freerepublic.com. Among them are those particularly exercised by Medea Benjamin and Code Pink. Their huge pink banner reads, "Code Pink Kills American Troops Giving $ to Terrorists." I chat with their leader, a well-informed woman who works in radiology in Tacoma Park, Md. As always, I admire the dedication of people with ordinary jobs who travel for hundreds of miles to participate in loud but lonely demonstrations.
Things start to deteriorate when three Code Pink women, two of them wearing pink cardigans, venture into the American Zone to pose for pictures in front of the banner. Insults are exchanged. The cops shoo the girls away and forcibly remove an angry, burly, pro-war guy. Then a nasty piece of work in a Michael Savage "Savage Nation" T-shirt approaches and shoves an electronic bullhorn in my face. Feeling like a victim of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, I nonetheless play the straight man and shout questions over the blaring jingo country music. Yes, he is a veteran, the thug said. When? "What difference does it make?" he snarls, leaning into me.
A cop decides he has seen enough and escorts me away. Another cop escorts me over to the main protest. "That's their side and this is yours," he says. "Trust me, you're safer over here."
I spend the next hour just a few feet away from the counter-demonstrators, in the safe company of "our side," but I feel the huge chasm of political and cultural loyalties in this country. Everybody's excited here, but it doesn't seem like anyone's listening. Especially not in Washington.