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April 19, 2006

Peace Rally Not Entirely Peaceful


The first warm weekend afternoon turned momentarily hot on Saturday as tempers flared during an antiwar demonstration in East Hampton Village.

Twice, Village Police Chief Jerry Larsen scuffled with protestors who refused to stay inside a designated demonstration area. In all, five people were arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, and violating the strictures of the gathering permit.

The demonstration was specifically scheduled for April 15 — "Income tax day, to remind you where your money is going," organizer Betty Mazur of Amagansett explained. About 135 protestors lined up in an approximately 100 foot long area along Main Street holding signs and displaying huge boards with the pictures and biographical information of over 2500 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the group North Fork People of Conscience made the boards.

Others carried signs with slogans like "Not in our name. Not with our $." Julie Penny of Southampton created a display depicting the cost of the war using figures compiled by the nonpartisan education and advocacy organization the National Priorities Project. "Besides the blood of our soldiers, the war is costing" the sign said, listing the price in Suffolk County at $3 billion; $2.4 million in East Hampton.

Peggy Backman inked a placard with the words "Deport Rumsfeld." Not affiliated with any of the organizations that rallied — including East End Vets, The Coalition for Peace and Justice, War Resisters League, Witness for Peace and Pax Christi — Backman said she came out for the rally because "I wanted to come with my own issues. We have to get a change in the administration."

Tony Villar echoed the sentiment, carrying a long pole with a sculpture of a foam chicken with the face of President Bush. While demonstrators massed along Main Street, East End Vets created a display on the Village Green at the windmill. A banner stating, "Stop the War" ran the length of the windmill's base. A single flag-draped coffin added to the statement.

Gerry Mooney was among the organizers of the event. He noted that besides members of the peace organizations the venue drew "Democrats and Republicans, people who want to do something to try to end the insanity that's going on."

"People always get nervous when there's a demonstration," Mooney offered when asked if he'd had any problem with getting permission from village officials. "A little give and take is what it's all about." About 45 minutes into the planned two-hour event Lieutenant Mike Tracey of the village police described the rally as "dignified, smooth, and peaceful."

Moments later, however, the characterization disintegrated. Local activist Dan Steiger attempted to carry his sign outside the designated area, encouraging others to begin to march. But the rally permit didn't allow for marching. Sergeant Dave Griffiths attempted to dissuade Steiger, asking him three times to stay inside the barricade. When he defied the warning Griffiths and Larsen grabbed the protestor, Larsen holding him in a headlock as Griffiths took the sign and cuffed him. Beyond charges listed above, Steiger was also booked for resisting arrest.

A short time later Griffiths confronted three women carrying signs across Main Street in front of Starbuck's. The signs were confiscated and the trio was hustled down Eastman Way into a waiting patrol car to complaints of "You're kidding!" and "You're really unbelievable" from pedestrians.

"You're putting handcuffs on a little girl?" one woman asked incredulously. "Yeah, that's what we do," Griffiths replied. Charged were Kathy Engel and her 19-year-old daughter Ella Engel-Snow of Sagaponack, plus Paola Agudelo, 20, of East Hampton.

As the three women and their signs were loaded into the patrol car, back across the street a fifth protestor broke ranks, stepping outside the official demonstration area. "Keep your signs above your head," he yelled, exhorting others to march. "This is the United States of America," he shouted, as he was cuffed and hustled off to headquarters. A resident of Sag Harbor, the arrestee, Conor Wolfe-Milne, works for Steiger's landscaping business.

For the most part, those demonstrating observed quietly as the arrests took place, with just a modicum of grumbling. One protester complained that in a free country people have a right to walk where they want.

"Not in the road," Larsen replied, warning, "If you don't get behind the rope, we'll arrest you too."

"We asked him three times to stay behind the barricade," Larsen said of Steiger. Protestors marching with signs impede the clear passage of the sidewalk, he said, adding that it's "not fair" to others on the street.

After about 90 minutes Larsen allowed the group to line up and march to the windmill. A quiet procession ensued and ended without incident. Arrestees were held at the station until the rally was over, then released on bail.

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