Friday, August 25, 2006

Antiwar protesters' battle shifts

Detroit Free Press
Antiwar protesters' battle shifts
As driver support grows, cops pose new problems
By Frank Witsil

For nearly four years, Kim Bergier and dozens of other protesters have braved cold and heat, wind and rain, angry shouts -- and even, in one case, fists -- to deliver a simple message: They are opposed to war.

Every Monday evening, they've been gathering at the intersection of 9 Mile and Woodward in Ferndale to hold signs -- "Impeach Bush," "No War" and "2,611 U.S. killed in Iraq" -- and flash peace signs.

In the beginning, the demonstrators acknowledge, they got more middle fingers than thumbs-up.

But, now, the activists say, as the war in Iraq drags on, they're getting more support from passersby but are getting static from the police.

"The vigil empowers us to put our feet where our mouth is and take a stand," said Bergier, 55, of Madison Heights, who began protesting on Dec. 12, 2002, and has been returning to the same corner nearly every week since. "But as the death toll goes up, there is increased tension."

Last month, two protesters -- Victor Kittila, 55, of Eastpointe and Nancy Goedert, 73, of Ferndale -- were charged with disorderly conduct and inciting motorists to honk. Their cases, which are before 43rd District Judge Joseph Longo in Ferndale, were rescheduled from Tuesday to 1 p.m. Sept. 26.

That same month a third person, Joe Plambeck, 27, of Ferndale, was ticketed for tooting his car horn in response to the protesters.

Plambeck, who faces a $110 fine if convicted, appeared for a hearing in 43rd District Court Wednesday and is scheduled to return on Sept. 26.

Deborah Choly, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild in Detroit who represents all three in court, is seeking to have the charges dismissed.

"Our position is it is protected speech, both to hold a sign and to honk," she said Wednesday.

However, Ferndale city officials said the protesters, who have garnered national attention through Internet chats and support from activists such as "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore, are attempting to use the disorderly conduct charges to turn a public safety issue into something else.

"We have no intent to stop the protest," said Ferndale's interim City Manager Warren Renando. "We've had that protest forever."

Ferndale Police Chief Michael Kitchen, who said that the city was working to resolve the two public-disturbance cases, added that the two protesters were charged with misdemeanors after the city received several complaints because protesters were blocking walkways and inciting motorists to honk, which is illegal.

"The sound was deafening," Kitchen said of the honking, before the charges were brought.

Since then, the protesters stopped carrying signs that urged motorists to honk "if you want Bush out."

Demonstrators said they selected this corner of Ferndale because it was not far from the headquarters of the Peace Action of Michigan, one of the organizations involved in the protest.

On Monday, more than 50 gathered from 4:45 p.m. to well past 5:30 p.m. Many said the recent charges have only hardened their resolve.

Jim Grimm added that the possibility of criminal charges are tame compared with what he already has endured. Within the past year, he said, someone who did not agree with his views attacked him. Fortunately, the 78-year-old World War II veteran from Clawson said, passing motorists came to his aid, and the Ferndale police arrested his attacker.

"I took an oath to protect this country," he said. "And that's what I'm doing." And Susan Alderman-Wuchte of Ft. Gratiot said the demonstration was a civics lesson for her two children, Hayley, 12, and Clara, 8, whom she brought to the protest on Monday.

The 46-year-old mother said, "This is our way of standing up for what we believe in."