On Friday, the local group ACTIVATE held their fifth protest outside of the Armed Forces Career Center located in the Celebration Cinema complex in Grand Rapids. Around twenty protestors held signs and chanted while calling for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq and expressing support for those soldiers that are resisting participation in the Iraq War.
Upon arrival at the recruiting center, the protestors were met by members of the local chapter of Rolling Thunder, a group made up primarily of military veterans that ride motorcycles. Rolling Thunder is a national organization that organizes around issues pertaining to prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action (POW/MIA) and advocating for increased benefits for veterans, according to the organization’s website. The group also speaks to youth groups “about the honor of serving their country.”
The actions of the bikers were clearly provocative and were in many cases violent. Just as recruiters have pushed doors into protestors and physically threatened them at previous protests at this recruiting center, the bikers and their small group of supporters occasionally shoved protestors, tried to knock signs out of their hands, ripped bandanas off their faces, and challenged protestors to fights. Their presence was characterized by jingoistic and macho posturing, with the bikers repeatedly using homophobic insults towards the protestors, calling male protestors “girls,” and calling protestors “sissies.” For the most part, the protest was essentially a shouting match, occasionally interrupted by the bikers revving the engines of their motorcycles in an attempt to drown out the protestors’ chants. As is frequently the case with folks representing a reactionary point of view, the bikers collectively demonstrated a lack of understanding about the war, arguing that Iraq and al-Qaeda were linked, that the war is necessary to protect the United States, and that more people were killed under Saddam Hussein than under the United States’ occupation. Whenever they were queried about matters such as the United States’ support for Saddam Hussein, the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to US-imposed sanctions in the 1990s, or the killing of 655,000 Iraqis since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the bikers either hurled homophobic insults, made quasi-racist comments disparaging Muslim people, or responded with asinine statements such as telling the protestors to “name them” when they told the bikers that 655,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed.
Of course, while these situations are never conducive to reasoned debates or discussions, it was clear that the bikers’ view that the protestors were “anti-troop” was rooted in a misunderstanding of why they were there. ACTIVATE held the demonstration as part of its ongoing work challenging military recruiting but also to express support and raise awareness about those soldiers who are resisting the Iraq War and questioning the wisdom of the United States’ continued presence in a country occupied after an illegal invasion. The group’s signs and banners reading “Troops Out Now,” “Bring them Home Now,” “80% of Iraqis Support and Immediate Withdrawal,” and “Walter Reed?,” highlighted their contention that the best way to support the troops is by immediately ending the occupation of Iraq. With the continuing occupation and the recent escalation of the war by President George W. Bush, 3,245 soldiers have died in Iraq, more than 24,000 have been wounded, veterans have been given dismal treatment at Walter Reed Hospital, and many Iraq veterans are coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These facts make a compelling argument that US soldiers could be best supported by an end to the occupation. During the protest, the group distributed leaflets calling on people to support those soldiers that have resisted the Iraq War. These include more than 1,700 soldiers that have signed an “Appeal for Redress” calling for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq, Lt. Ehren Watada who refused deployment to Iraq because of the illegality of the war and occupation, and Spc. Suzanne Swift who refused redeployment to Iraq because of sexual harassment and threats of rape. Additionally, antiwar veterans and military families groups have formed, including Iraq Veterans against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Gold Star Families for Peace.
When the Grand Rapids Police Department showed up, it was clear that they were on the side of the bikers and the military recruiters. While the bikers got a simple wave of the hand to stop revving their engines, one protestor was immediately singled out and given a 10 second warning to leave or be arrested. As the person was leaving, the police officer grabbed him at which point a man wearing an Army shirt and hat claimed that the protestor had spit on him. Eventually the protestors were told that they had to leave or be arrested, despite the fact that the bikers–some of whom were standing in the road in clear violation of the law–were not told to leave. After the warning, the protestors made the decision to leave. The protestor that was detained was later let go without any charges.