Dying for peace
By Alex Babcock
A rally to support American troops in Iraq became a spectacle of bloody shirts, insults and verbal sparring between pro- and anti-war factions in front of the Student Union on Tuesday.
At noon, students and campus visitors waving American flags gathered at the Student Union stage, eager to hear a keynote speech by radio talk-show host Shannon Burke. Just as College Republicans and Rebuilding On a Conservative Kornerstone - the two conservative campus groups co-hosting the event - took the stage, a counter-demonstration derailed their plan for a pro-troop rally.
Through the audience weaved a line of students dressed in torn white T-shirts soaked in fake blood. The students, members of UCF's anti-war group Campus Peace Action, filed past the black platform full of baffled speakers.
A member of the crowd shouted "[Expletive] you!" at the red-stained group, sparking a barrage of similar verbal attacks.
The line of silent, bloodied students stopped at the side of the stage and fell to the ground in a form of protest called a "die in."
Dark-clothed supporters of these simulated war casualties waved anti-war signs and returned shouts in defense of the now still bodies that baked in the sun on octagonal bricks.
One man, who covered his face with a black cloth, beat a drum throughout the protest. Another women in a thick red veil held a sign reading "We will all one day be casualties of this war!"
Anti-war protester Meggan Jordan, 21, said the insults shouted by angry pro-troop students made her emotionally numb. "I felt like a true minority," she said, comparing her treatment to the experiences of the first black students integrated into white-only colleges.
"I was hated," she said. "A guy kept calling us faggots, saying 'You make me sick.' "
While anti-war protesters displayed signs like "Death toll 5,422," the rally continued. Burke energized the crowd with praise for their support of the troops. He said UCF's support shows that the campus is far from an ordinary college campus, which he said are mostly left-leaning.
"I was amazed at the conservative voices out there," he said. "It's not easy being in college and loving your country these days."
The rally was planned as a non-partisan event, but the arrival of Campus Peace Action shifted the focus to a sparring match between two polar opposites. Speakers on stage repeatedly exchanged insults with protesters below.
Some war supporters accused the peace activists of being terrorists. Conversely, activists and crowd members against the war accused the speakers of ignoring the cost in human lives.
"War is serious stuff," said senior David Rotz, 25. "That seems to be forgotten. The big picture is, people are dying - Iraqi troops, American troops, civilians and children are dying."
Rotz, a Campus Peace Action member, said anti-war activists have been threatened at past protests on campus.
"The last time the conservatives were in our face and threatening to kick our asses," Rotz said. The group asked UCF Police to provide security at the event, mostly to protect the protesters from anticipated conflicts. Police spent most of their time observing an orderly crowd, with the exception of a near-violent confrontation over an American flag.
Eliot Lemoncelli, 22, said he lost his temper when he saw another student wearing a flag on his head. Anti-war slogans written on the flag further troubled Lemoncelli.
"This guy wrote on my flag," he said. "Now he's wearing it wrapped around his head. That I find extremely disrespectful to my country and those that died to protect my country."
Lemoncelli said nine members of his family are in the military.
He said he asked the protester, Campus Peace Action member Jonathan Leto, 22, to take the flag off his head. When Leto refused, Lemoncelli said he grabbed one of the poles Leto had held the flag above his head with; Leto called for a police officer, and Lemoncelli backed away when threatened with a misdemeanor.
Lemoncelli said he whole-heartedly supports the First Amendment and the right to free expression, even if it means abusing a flag. But, he added, "just because you can doesn't mean you should."
Along with the main event on stage, the rally also included tables with literature from groups sympathetic to the pro-troop cause. A dunk tank near the stage gave students a chance to soak students disguised as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and international terrorist Osama bin Laden. Proceeds from the tank will benefit the Red Cross and buy phone cards for troops overseas.
Music filled the air during rare calm moments, courtesy of radio stations WJRR and WTKS. The Central Florida Blood Bank also was on hand with two buses to collect blood, which the blood bank touts as a way to support the troops. The buses will remain on campus through April 9.
As the rally pressed on, speakers continued to elicit approving yells and applause from the crowd that numbered in the hundreds.
Junior Heather Smith, 21, a co-sponsor and organizer of the event, said she was amazed to see so many people, but also said she knew the support was there among the UCF student body.
Smith, the president of Rebuilding On a Conservative Kornerstone, said over half of her group's 70 members attended the event, many waving pro-troop signs.
Group Public Relations Director Jennifer Hartzler, 18, expressed frustration that UCF's anti-war element had misread the intent of the rally. It was supposed to be non-partisan and pro-troops, she said. She was pleased, though, to see a move away from the prevailing anti-war trend on campus.
Members of Campus Peace Action have manned an anti-war table in front of the Student Union four days a week for three months, said Campus Peace Action Public Relations Director Matt De Vlieger.
Senior Kyle Considder, chairman of College Republicans, helped organize the event, which he hesitated to call "pro-war." "We are not pro-war in any way, we are pro-operations to bring peace in the Middle East," said Considder, 25.
Among the sea of faces filling the main path into the Student Union, Smith noticed a man holding a sign with the phrase "Semper Fi" - a Marine Corps slogan that means "always faithful." She invited the man, Joshua Roe, 20, to address the student crowd, which he captivated with pro-war rhetoric and with occasional jabs at the demonstrators lying on the brick path below the stage.
Roe, a two-year veteran of the Marines, echoed Lemoncelli's feelings; he too condemned Leto for writing on the flag. He said the actions of the peace activists helped his cause, though.
"It's always good when your opposition makes themselves look foolish," he said, noting the group of activists lying on the ground nearby.
De Vlieger countered that suffering motionless in the sun for two hours exemplifies the peace activists' commitment to America and its troops.
"Everyone agrees we're fighting to protect the Constitution," he said, "but nobody wants to fight at home for it."
In a crowd of polarized opinions, Steven Hankins, a UCF graduate student who dressed as bin Laden for the rally, offered a voice of compromise. As a member of Rebuilding On a Conservative Kornerstone, Hankins supports the war and the troops, but said he sees truth in some peace activists' words.
"They have some very valid points," he said. "They remind me that I should think of the Iraqi people too. I'm praying that the Iraqis will have good leadership after the war."
Hankins said he has fasted as a personal means to show support for the lives of those in jeopardy during the war, both American and Iraqi.
Once the speeches ended at 1:25 p.m., the crowd thinned. The dunk tank, activist tables and anti-war protesters hung around until 2 p.m., when the rally officially ended.
On the hour, the die-in protesters rose to their feet, sweaty from two hours of baking on hot bricks. Three of the red corn syrup-coated students nearly fainted from the ordeal, Rotz said. The group steadied themselves a moment, then marched away.
After considering the conflict and opposing values of the groups at the rally, Burke said he decided everyone wanted the same thing.
"When I looked at that crowd today, and I looked stage right and saw the die-in, and I looked to the left and saw the pro-war people, I realized something. We all want peace, but the problem is that peace doesn't just happen on its own. It's not an anomaly that just occurs; you have to go and make peace."
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