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500 Cheer ‘Dissenting Voices’ Against Bombing of Serbia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State Sen. Tom Hayden, the quintessential 1960s American activist and a popularizer of the “teach-ins” against the Vietnam War, lent his voice Sunday to a new protest movement--against NATO’s bombing of Serbia.

Hayden (D-Los Angeles) gave one of the most passionate speeches at the “Dissenting Voices” teach-in on the war in Yugoslavia, an event that drew hundreds of people to a Westside synagogue.

The slate of speakers against the bombing campaign might have seemed to amount to strange political bedfellows. From conservative columnist Arianna Huffington to left-of-center intellectual Saul Landau, they all tried to inject some shades of gray into a conflict they accused the Clinton administration of spinning in high-contrast black and white.

The speakers, whose talks at the Leo Baeck Temple were broadcast live over public radio, tried to remind Americans that many unarmed civilians, even from the side ostensibly being helped, are being maimed and killed. They warned against U.S. involvement in a ground war.

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“The civilian casualties have, in my mind, totally unbalanced the ends,” Hayden said, referring to the mounting toll of unarmed Yugoslavs who have been accidentally killed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing raids aimed at halting the “ethnic cleansing” policies of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Policymakers “think we--you--are content with the bombing of civilians in foreign countries as long as our boys don’t get scratched,” he said. “We need to tell our leaders that if they sink into a bloody quagmire in Kosovo, they will sink into a political quagmire at home and we will seek other candidates.”

The appearance of such Westside activists as singer Jackson Browne made the teach-in seem like an old-fashioned town meeting.

“I’m here to find out as much as I can about the issues,” Browne said in an interview at the temple, across the street from the Getty Center, before escaping into a crowd that numbered well over 500 all afternoon. Conference officials said the crowd reached 800.

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But the most vocal participants at the forum professed to have made up their minds that the administration is leading Americans into a quagmire.

Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the LA Weekly, was rumored to be planning a speech supporting Clinton’s policy, and was booed by the audience upon introduction.

“This is a teach-in, not a debate,” Meyerson’s presenter chided the audience, among them Serb immigrants. “There is much more good in this man than bad.” However, Meyerson’s careful, evenhanded speech compared the Balkans to the dark final act of “King Lear.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, rushing in from a parade for former POW, Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, whose release he helped obtain during a trip to Belgrade, said it’s time for the administration to lay off the bombing and embark on serious negotiations to resolve the conflict.

“We, as a great nation, must not succumb to the idolatry of might,” Jackson said. “We are not getting the results in Kosovo of ending ethnic cleansing. We can solve Kosovo without going into a third world war.”

Hayden argued that the administration had downplayed Albanian abuses against the Serbian minority in Kosovo, portraying the civil conflict in a highly one-sided light and “demonizing” the Serbs--many of whom distinguished themselves during World War II by fighting the Nazis--as perennial aggressors who must be rooted out at all cost.

He wondered aloud whether the Albanian separatist guerrilla movement in Kosovo will turn out to be as conservative as the Taliban, which has sharply curtailed the freedom of women in Afghanistan.

“The American moral position is deteriorating into the idea that Serbs, as a race, must be punished,” Hayden said, urging the audience: “You are the peacekeepers and they are the cannon fodder for an unproductive war. There are causes worth dying for, but in my estimate a greater Albania is not one of them.”

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From quite a different point on the political spectrum, Huffington airily disdained the American media as “pathetic” for what she viewed as its compliance with Clinton spin-masters.

She said NATO officials painting self-congratulatory “fantasies” were selling pretzel logic to an unwitting U.S. public.

“We are basically destroying the Kosovars to save them,” she said.

Tigist Gessesse, 25, drove from Northridge to attend because “I wanted to be a little more aware of what’s going on.” The sociology student said she had supported the bombing, but now questions the motives behind NATO’s action.


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