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Takin' it to the "Streets"

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So you've spent the last few years protesting sanctions against Iraq, the last few months arguing against another military strike, and your birthday just happens to wind up at the end of President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam.

Happy Birthday, Andy Pearson.

For the 26-year-old, Chapel Hill-based peace activist, the situation posed a bit of a quandary. How the hell could he celebrate another year of life when the country was gearing up for an outpouring of death? Where to go for a birthday gathering as the bombs start falling?

Pearson came up with an ideal, if unlikely, locale: The Streets at Southpoint. On the night of March 19, he and some 50 other like-minded individuals visited Durham's premier shopping center and gussied-up town square, clad in T-shirts that bore a simple message: "END WAR."

"It's a bummer for your birthday to fall at the start of the most unjust war of the last century," Pearson says. "But what better way to celebrate than bringing the voice of dissent into America's most sterile environment?"

If sterile seems too strong a word, consider the reaction of Southpoint's management, which reacted to the shirted protestors as though they were some kind of viral infection. Squads of mall security officers swooped in to maintain order, with real cops waiting in the wings. "Move along," they said. "You must disperse." Dramatic language, for sure, but it seemed like their hearts weren't in it, and the milling activists mostly ignored them.

The people who were really up in arms were the mall's public relations staff, who descended in droves as I jotted down my observations in a notebook. "We've seen you talking to several people," Jeff Johnson, Southpoint's marketing manager, told me, after one of his assistants had failed to scare me off with polite injunctions to quit reporting. "If you don't stop, we're going to have to ask you to leave." He went on to say that Southpoint has "always had a good relationship with The Independent, and we'd hate to jeopardize that."

Some relationship. I didn't stop writing, and a few minutes later, a security guard tapped me on the shoulder: "Sir, I need you to put away the pen." He really said that. If I didn't, he said, he'd have to escort me out or have the police bust me for trespassing.

Anxious to get home and watch the war on television, I opted for the escort. "Don't worry," I said to the rent-a-cops before I left. "While I'm here, I won't talk to anyone. I won't write anything down. I won't even think."

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