Anti-War Vote Hits a Nerve in Arcata
January 22, 1991
On the sunny plaza at the center of this seacoast college town, the full sweep of America's ambivalence about the war can be grasped. New flags fly above the shops of business people who support the war. A protester stands in the square with a sign asking that his son come home alive. Inside the doors of Plaza Design, store owner Julie Fulkerson tries to make sense of the death threat left on her answering machine.
"They think if you disagree you're un-American, that's the sad part," said Fulkerson, a recently elected Humboldt County supervisor who opposes the war. "This has created our own little war in this community."
Arcata is the kind of clean, green place that city folks dream of escaping to some day. The town has a redwood grove and stunning views of the Pacific, 275 miles north of San Francisco. Disagreements about the war, six days old, have opened wounds that people fear will not soon heal.
The emotions of war -- fear, patriotism, anger, sadness -- are no different here than those anywhere in America. Within hours of the first U.S. bombs falling on Baghdad, however, the Arcata City Council turned up the intensity of local feeling by declaring the city a sanctuary for military deserters and others opposed to the war.
The vote, though purely symbolic, seemed to set off a social convulsion in this town of 15,000 and in surrounding areas. Merchants say business plummeted, flags began to be hoisted, and ads appeared on the radio calling Arcata's elected council traitors. The reaction was so swift and so immense that Mayor Victor Schaub, who introduced the sanctuary motion, called a town meeting for Wednesday at which the new policy probably will be softened. "I'm certain there will be at least 1,000 people there," Schaub said. He has received more than 130 phone calls, including some death threats.
Rival petitions began circulating almost immediately after the vote. One petition, found mostly in businesses, demands that the council reverse its decision "to make Arcata a sanctuary for protesters and political dissidents." Outside the Arcata Co-op, an anti-war petition invites signers to defend the sanctuary vote. "This does not mean we do not support the troops," the petition reads in part.
Opponents of the council vote are informally headquartered in New Outdoors, one of about 50 shops on the plaza that has been the social center of Arcata for 140 years. The store's owner, Kirk Conzelmann, said he has gathered more than 2,000 signatures and also has placed ads in the Eureka Times-Standard calling the vote an embarrassment to Arcata. "The council has no business at all involving themselves in this," said Conzelmann. "They turned their backs on the troops. The only thing we can do, sitting back here at home, is give them support. I'm upset by the war . . . it scares the hell out of me. But Saddam (Hussein) has to be stopped." Bob McMullen, a local forester, spent $240 to buy time for a radio ad in which he accuses the town's leaders of being traitors. "To me it's just an outrage," McMullen said.
The plaza is also the center of anti-war protests, which began when the United States started to amass forces in the Persian Gulf, and have become a daily occurrence since the bombing began. "I don't want people to hurt the way I have," said Robert Owem, a 43-year-old Vietnam vet who says he has been disabled by traumatic stress since he returned from Asia. "The aftereffects of a war stay with you all your life. It's no fun killing a 6-year-old girl, which I had to do in Vietnam. I think about that kid 20 times a day."
In some ways, the sanctuary vote came as no surprise. The city, home to Humboldt State University and a bastion of environmental activism, has one of the most liberal voting records in California. It voted four years ago to become a nuclear-free zone, and the City Council had a sister city arrangement with a Sandinista town in Nicaragua.
Arcata also has no military facilities nearby, except for a recruiting office in Eureka six miles away. Only one local product is known to be in the gulf region -- not counting Alann Steen, a former editor of the Arcata Union weekly newspaper and ex-Humboldt State professor, who on Thursday marks his fourth year as a hostage in Beirut. Doug Schlobohm, whose son Erik is in the Army in Saudi Arabia, has been demonstrating every week in the Arcata plaza. He says his son knows that he is protesting the war and understands. "I think it's a terrible waste of human life," said Schlobohm, 45, who served in the Navy in the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War but saw no combat. "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to go through in my life."
Even supporters of the sanctuary concept agreed that the Arcata council aggravated the community's split over the war by passing the measure without debate, the same night as the first attacks. This past weekend, three council members apologized at an emotional impromptu gathering that drew more than 200 bystanders.
"In my own opinion, as one council member, I feel that I made a very large mistake," Sam Pennisi, who runs a bed and breakfast inn, told the crowd. "I want to look you all in the face and give you a formal apology." Councilwoman Lynne Canning said that they should have simply asked for a moment of silence, and a prayer for peace, and gone home. "We were all just totally flipped out and wanted to make some kind of statement," said Canning, who personally is strongly opposed to the war.
The divisions in Arcata go back to past political fights, she said -- over environmental controls on logging, the Redwood Summer protests last year and local elections. But the reaction to the war is the most powerful force she has ever seen here, Canning said.
"For a couple of days there I didn't want to go into any restaurants," she said. "I didn't feel real safe. People are reacting at such a gut level. Either you're for us or you're against us."
©Los Angeles Times 1991
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