STOP THE WAR


                      

For nine years we have had no problems living and working in Rosalie, Nebraska.  This is small town [pop. 200], rural America.  Out here it is not customary to lock doors unless you leave town.  Our crime waves are petty juvenile and "the neighbor's dogs."  Stop The War seemed a simple request, one that many agree with and the numbers are steadily growing.  As a lifelong pacifist, and having lived a dozen years in New York City, I felt the pain of September 11, 2001 keenly, as did my companion who holds similar views, and who also had lived a long time in "the Big Apple."  On the First Anniversary of that event we put up a window display and no one seemed upset.  People stopped, looked and read the articles. The main feature of our display was an American flag hung upside down as a backdrop to a photograph of the World Trade Centers taken from an old poster.

Winter came upon the High Plains and of necessity, we covered our Main Street display windows with plastic and thought no more about it until Spring.  By this time the war in Iraq was about to start, in spite of the massive global protests against it.  My companion and I decided to change the window to protest the war.  We left the flag upside down -- an international distress signal -- and placed in the forefront an old rocking chair on a bamboo mat, with a pink bunny rabbit sitting on a woven blanket in the chair, with a fat tear coming from its eye and a hanky in its paw.  On the back of the chair was a bumper-sticker-sized sign that said "Support Our Troops, Send Them Home" while at its foot on a rag rug of blue lay a child-size skull with its top missing beside a black plastic automobile engine oil container  To the right was a vase of cloth flowers and an unlit but well-used candle while to the left was placed an old-fashioned typewriter dating from the 1930's with a piece of paper listing the names of our congressional representatives and their addresses and telephone numbers, asking people to contact them to stop the war.  This section was framed with an ancient scythe.  A Vietnam Vet -- Marine 1966-68 -- saw what we were doing and volunteered his "Stop the War" lawn sign he had received from the 35 year-old group, Nebraskans for Peace.

The first objection came from a retired fellow who lives a block west from us.  He called our window display an "Iraqi flag".  Then a born-again Christian descended upon us and demanded to know what the window was about. My companion explained that we felt the United States was in distress and were expressing these views in an artistic way.  After a prolonged discussion which changed nobody's mind, they parted company.

A week or so later, I was talking in my backroom office with my Vietnam Vet friend when we both heard a commotion out front.  Running to the gallery I was surprised to see a police officer standing in my kitchen doorway with a young juvenile with him.  He explained that he was "checking out a call they had gotten that someone in the building was in distress because the flag was flying upside down."  I told him that in fact, it was an art display protesting the war.  We walked up to the display and I pointed out the symbolism of each object.  He wistfully suggested that I hang the flag sideways instead and I refused, since it would change the meaning of the art piece.  Then he looked at it for a long time and finally said, "I'm a Vet from the first Iraqi war and you are absolutely right.  All this is, is a fight for their oil.  It was then too."

Now I could have raised a ruckus over the fact that the cops had no right to enter my house without a warrant or to bring unknown juveniles in with them while investigating a potential problem.  But this is a small town and doing things "by the book" is different out here.  So I let it slide.

A couple of other townspeople asked us to remove the flag, "...now that the War is over."  One was a vet and the other the son of the gentleman who originally called it an Iraqi flag.  My companion turned them both down.

On the night of Friday, July 25, 2003 while we were sleeping, someone reached through a hole in our screen door, unlatched it, and stole into our home to cut the flag down, leaving it lay crumpled on the chair.  Nothing else was disturbed.  This is breaking and entering.  This is malicious mischief. This is vandalism.  This is censorship, AND:  an improper treatment of the American flag.

We responded by re-hanging the flag -- with a chain this time -- and to place a light upon it and our other three windows.  After nine years, we now lock our doors at night.  We will not take the flag down until our country is no longer in economic or international distress.

And if that weren't enough . . .

                                       


      Photography by Joe Mette

 

Now it seems to have turned into a never ending story!  One evening we discovered that someone had slipped a dollar bill in our door.  We took this to mean approval.  Our thanks to the anonymous donor, it was a cheery thought.

Then in late August, a week before the Village's "Old Settler's Days" observance, there appeared a free-flying American flag on the light pole outside our window -- upright of course.  Now this is the problem when amateurs try to do Statement Art.  The effect of this new flag makes our window stand out as it never did before.  The only other free-flying flag is of course, across the street at the local post office.  So to have one flag flying in front of our store on main street brings everyone's attention to it.  Couldn't have done a better job myself, but I don't think for a moment that was their intent.  We responded by posting a couple of flyers conveying information on how U.S. veterans, under this Administration, are losing their benefits while the current fighting soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere are getting their pay cut!  Being against the war doesn't mean disrespect for soldiers, old or new.  Presidents, Congresses and generals yes, politics is fair game, but not the GI who bears the brunt of foolish decisions made by desk warriors.

At the conclusion of the "Old Settlers Day" dance on the main street, the local police visited us again.  This time it was the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the County Sheriff.  They parked in front of our well-lit studio peopled at the time with ourselves and two visitors, and ran to the window with the flag, shining their flashlights in there as if they were looking for something.  But when my companion appeared and asked if there had been a complaint, the answer was no.

A week later, while standing in front of the window talking to my Vietnam Vet friend, the son of the fellow who first voiced his objection decided "to serenade us."  Unaccompanied he warbled an off-key version of "America the Beautiful" and followed up to our bemusement with a stab at the "Star Spangled Banner."  As the second anniversary of 9.11 approached we hung the picture of the World Trade Center back in front of the flag.

And So We Came Back . . .

Winter lies heavy upon the Great Plains and our storefront, built in 1906, predates such things as insulation.  Each winter as noted earlier, we cover the large front windows with rugs/blankets and plastic sheeting:  plastic sheets and duct tape before the anthrax scare.  It keeps us cozy when the Artic blasts come sweeping down from the north.  This year we faced a bit of a problem.  Do we cover up our protest flag?  Would the town interpret that as having won the issue?  Do we freeze to make a point?

The solution came quickly.  We would create our own flag and fill the window then back it with the blankets and plastic.  Making the flag from the plastic would actually make it warmer and it would stay nice from November to April when we take down the protection to enjoy the spring.  I put my mind to making the flag.  It was important to me that it not be misinterpreted.  "Tell the Vet's story," suggested my Vietnam Vet friend, and so I did.  I saved the articles that dealt with the vets and military personnel in Iraqi that were coming over the Internet.  Stories of pay cuts, rotation ended, benefits cut and health care compromised.  Stories printed in the mainstream press and even in Stars and Stripes, a military publication.  These became the "white stripes" on my flag.  Then I used the same slogan as before, both to separate the stories and to decorate the stars:  "Support our Troops, Bring them Home!"

So far there has been little reaction, although in a small town the nuances of daily sociability can be deceiving and/or misunderstood, in either direction. Our flag is the largest one.  It can be seen up and down the main street.  The fall air has been a bit cool to down right chilly around us but the smile that came across my Vietnam Vet friend's face when he saw the flag and the accompanying stories made it all worthwhile.

 

Three flags over Rosalie

A) in front of the post office

B) in front of the gallery on the light pole

C) the window of Jackalope Arts

Two flags in contention on Rosalie's main street. Detail of window display.

 

The Christmas season is upon us.  Peace and Goodwill reign.  The town of Rosalie has hung their decorations -- plastic evergreen candy canes with a large lantern and small lights -- on all the light poles on the main street except in front of our studio which in fact eliminates about one fourth of the street. 

Home Grown Terrorists

Just when things calm down a bit and spring starts to flower, the goons come out of the woodwork.  On April 21, 2004 at 5 AM a dark Chevy-style car from the neighboring county stopped in front of our studios.  The young men, all whites, started throwing rocks through our windows.  Breaking three of our storefront windows, they were chased off by my partner, richard chilton.  They did not break the flag window, but instead focused on the empty window on the other side of the door from the flag window.

Unfortunately, it is not clear why they chose to break our glass.  It may have been the flag issue, and then again, feelings are uptight on the reservation stemming from the county seat in Pender, NE where Native American and White jurisdiction is being debated once again.  Since we are known for our work among the Omaha, we may have been targeted for that reason.  This is always a problem with senseless violence, its message of hate is clear but as to why one is being picked out for example is often murky.

Naturally we reported this to the police who took pictures and filed the report.  Without much to go on, the perpetrators of this nasty little act will probably go unpunished, this time.  It is just another incident of Bush's Domestic Policy in action.

To read Paul Hammel's press coverage of the vandalism, click below:

Omaha World-Herald
Omaha, Nebraska
Published Tuesday, May 4, 2004

To read viewer's comments on the article, click below:

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