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Local protesters covet international spotlight

Santa Maria Peace Coalition adds a weekly rally at the courthouse during Jackson's trial



As Michael Jackson's black SUV rolled into the court complex parking lot on April 1, the din of sign-waving men, women, and children noticeably increased in fervor.

The shouts and chants weren't only from Jackson supporters. This time they were joined by about 50 members of the Santa Maria Peace Coalition, who took advantage of the international Jackson press corps.

Though BJ Hickman hollered at the top of his lungs - "Stop the trial! Jackson is innocent!" - his shouts were drowned by chants of "U.S. policy is tribal genocide!" and "Stop the media punditry!"

The local coalition has protested the war in Iraq for more than two years. Every Saturday at 10 a.m., coalition members wave antiwar signs and rally support at Perlman Park in Santa Maria.

"[We] are coming together to try and utilize the fact that there's international press there at the courthouse," said coalition member Dennis Apel before the April 1 rally.

Apel explained that the coalition and other groups marching at the courthouse don't have anything to say about the trial or Michael Jackson. Their goal is solely to gain media exposure.

"We'd like to make a statement that would be heard [someplace] other than on the corner of Main and Broadway that the war is illegal and unjust and needs to be stopped," Apel said.

Outside the courthouse, coalition videographer Zorro May said the group sent a letter to Jackson's attorneys explaining the planned protest represents nothing against the pop star or his quest for justice.

As the tide of demonstrators ebbed and flowed, coalition member Jim Murr said he was surprised by the turnout. People of all ages came from across Santa Barbara County and from as far away as Los Osos.

While the 50 or so banner-waving protesters caught dozens of camera wielding reporters' lenses, Los Angeles-based KABC-TV cameraman Bruce Weiner doubted that the event would make a huge splash.

"[It'll get] maybe five seconds," Weiner said, leaning against a metal barricade along Miller Street. "But probably not national news. Nothing big is going on today [at the trial]."

Within two hours of the protest, an Associated Press story about Jackson trial progress included a paragraph mentioning the antiwar group.

Before the gathering, Apel said the coalition plans to make the courthouse appearances a weekly event in addition to its ongoing protests.

Apel said attendance at those Saturday gatherings varies - sometimes it's only him or a fellow coalition member, sometimes they're joined by as many as 50. The largest crowd since early 2003 convened at the corner on March 19 for the Iraq war's second anniversary.

'We'd like to make a statement that would be heard [someplace] other than on the corner of Main and Broadway that the war ... needs to be stopped.'

Dennis Apel, Santa Maria Peace Coalition

"We feel like numbers aren't what's important," Apel said. "What's important is that we act on our ideals, act on our vision.

"It's just unthinkable not to have some kind of response to people dying," he continued. "The only question is what should be our response. To stand on the corner is the minimum, I would think."

And support, coalition members noted, has been increasing.

"We're getting an 80-percent approval from passersby," coalition member Roberto Armstrong estimated during a phone interview. "They honk. They're supportive. There's a strong feeling against the war and not many outlets for it."

He said recent media polls put numbers to the antiwar sentiment.

According to a March 15, 2005, Washington Post-ABC News poll (www.washingtonpost.com), "Fifty-three percent of Americans said the war was not worth fighting; 57 percent said they disapprove of the president's handling of Iraq; and 70 percent said the number of U.S. casualties, including more than 1,500 deaths, is an unacceptable price."

The flip side shows that 56 percent of Americans polled say they're confident in a future stable government in Iraq.

On the Santa Maria streets, Apel said there are still several people each Saturday who don't agree with the coalition's signs.

"There are a lot of people who flip us off or curse at us, but there are a lot who honk or wave and are glad we're there," he said.

Fellow coalition member Murr agreed that much of the heated opposition has subsided.

"There was a lot of anger toward us at the beginning," Murr said before the group's April 1 courthouse rally. "People still come by and say it's better to fight the terrorists in Iraq than in the U.S.

"But in the last six months," he said, "we've been getting a lot more positive [responses]."

In the meantime, Armstrong said that the peace coalition's members and supporters will continue to see Santa Marians at least twice every week.

"We'll continue indefinitely," he said, "until [we're] out of Iraq."


Andrea Rooks is the news editor for New Times' sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun. She can be reached at arooks@santamariasun.com.

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