Outraged by a misguided U.S. military attack on a civilian wedding party in Afghanistan, a young schoolteacher staged a one-man protest on Main Street during Willits’ annual July 4 Frontier Days parade.
The singular act of dissent did not sit well with some in the crowd. Hecklers taunted 28-year-old Anthony Melville, some offering him free passage to Kabul for his trouble.
One stocky woman bolted from the sidelines and tussled with Melville as she tried to grab his sign. A man driving a tractor in the parade attempted to herd the protester off the street.
As cultural clashes go, it was a minor dust-up. No complaints were filed with police. The sign-grabber eventually offered Melville an apology.
Yet the incident has left a bitter taste. The town still dwells on it in the letters columns of the local newspaper and at the tables of the Willits Cafe, where the town elders hold court.
Old fault lines have been reopened between traditional ranching and logging families, and the countercultural settlers who arrived during the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Like many American towns and cities caught in the heightened sensitivity after Sept. 11, Willits finds itself struggling over what constitutes patriotism and appropriate expression of dissent a year after the terrorist attacks.
Said Alan Schlosser, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California: “I think in the post-9/11 period, and now that we are moving into a potential war with Iraq, there is considerably more controversy and polarization. This comes at a time when it is most important that there be a robust free speech.”
Schlosser said the ACLU has followed several reports, notably on university campuses, involving challenges to free speech.
Maria Brook, a 54-year-old social activist and retired midwife in Willits, explains it this way: “I don’t think it would have even been an issue before Sept. 11. In previous July 4 parades, we’ve had no-nukes people pulling rainbow-themed floats and even a giant pro-marijuana truck. But, like people all over America, many here felt sucker-punched and confused by 9/11. The media really played up the jingoistic elements.”
Bob Hagan, a retired military communications specialist, thinks Janet Lively, the 36-year-old mother of two who attempted to grab Melville’s sign, “should have been given a medal.”
“I represent the silent majority,” said Hagan, 55, interviewed as he sat on a picnic bench under towering redwoods at Brooktrails golf course. “What happened on July 4 is very representative of the ideological differences that exist here. I believe that 9/11 has finally lowered the tolerance level of people for this kind of behavior.”
The main target of Hagan’s wrath, expressed in newspaper letters and public statements, is Lanny Cotler, a local screenwriter and political activist. Cotler, 61, a veteran of the 1964 free speech movement as a student at UC Berkeley, sprang to Melville’s aid during the parade and walked alongside the protester, carrying an American flag emblazoned with a peace symbol.
Letters to the Editor
“I hope any red-blooded American would have done the same thing,” said Cotler, who moved to Willits from Los Angeles in 1984. After the incident, Cotler, who was born on the Fourth of July, penned an impassioned defense of dissent that was published in the Willits News.
Cotler wrote that when he saw Melville, carrying his large black-and-white sign, he regarded the protest as an act of personal courage. The sign referred to a July 1 incident in which an American warplane struck a wedding party in a central Afghanistan village, killing 48 people, all but three of whom were women and children.
“I said to my daughter,” Cotler wrote, “there goes a man with a morality-based grievance and the courage to express it peacefully in public.”
Cotler’s editorial page article outraged Hagan and others in the community of 5,000, divided about equally between old-timers and new settlers.
“Your form of social terrorism is wearing pretty thin in this town and across the nation,” Hagan responded in a July 31 letter to the editor. “Do us all a favor and take me up on a free one-way ride to the airport.”
Hagan, who moved here seven years ago, said his newspaper broadside appeared to touch a nerve among fellow Willits conservatives, some of whom are newcomers like him.
“My right hand is still sore from all the people shaking it,” he said.
The impact of the war was brought home in January when a Willits Marine was killed in a helicopter crash near Kabul.
Willits High School graduate Dwight Morgan, 24, whose wife and two small children live here, was one of two Marines killed when a CH-53E Super Stallion went down.
Still, Hagan’s sentiments were not universally embraced. His letter prompted a wave of responses defending Cotler, including one letter, notable for its own free-speech implications, attacking the newspaper for publishing Hagan’s views.
“I was disappointed in the Willits News for choosing to print Bob Hagan’s letter, consisting of a mean-spirited, personal attack on Mr. Cotler,” said Janice Gendreau in a letter published Aug. 14.
Willits presents a dissonant culture of loggers, cattle ranchers, vegans, environmental activists, marijuana growers and middle-class retirees.
A major exhibit at the Mendocino County Museum in town is a hippie van, complete with bells, Oriental carpets and dangling locks of hair.
The new settlers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, whom the locals knew as “hippies” and “back-to-the-landers,” brought with them radical politics that clashed with the area’s entrenched Republicanism.
The newcomers, in turn, referred to the longtime residents as “hicks” and “rednecks.” The newcomers hung out at the organic Mariposa Market. Marijuana emerged as the area’s main cash crop.
The old-timers dug in at Al’s Redwood Bar & Grill. They celebrated their heritage in the traditional July 4 parade and the annual Frontier Days rodeo.
Some of the tensions eased as the two cultures raised children and mothers got to know each other through the school system. There was some intermarriage.
But to this day, the groups maintain a state of aloof coexistence that flares into occasional conflict, as it did at the parade.
Willits Mayor Bruce Burton, a lumber mill owner and lifetime resident who carefully walks the cultural divide, said he is “surprised the [Melville controversy] has extended as long as it has. I’m not sure it is over yet.”
Burton, who was a student at UC Berkeley’s School of Forestry in the late 1960s, sees the simmering debate as a reflection of “America’s talk-radio form of expression.”
His idea for calming the waters is to ask Cotler, who worked in Vietnam as a civilian during the war there, to carry a flag with the American Legion in next year’s July 4 parade.
“I think it would be beneficial to the community if he would demonstrate both sides of patriotism,” Burton said.
Left largely outside the continuing fray is the original protester.
Melville grew up in Willits, where he attended an alternative charter school run by his parents. A music education graduate of Sonoma State University, Melville played in a punk rock band and recently took a job teaching at a Native American charter school in nearby Ukiah.
Some Show Support
As Melville spoke with a reporter in a Ukiah coffee shop, a young woman recognized him and stopped at his table. “I was reading the paper and saw what you went through,” she said admiringly. “My heart really goes out to you.”
Melville said his protest was inspired by radio host Amy Goodman, whose counter-establishment “Democracy Now!” program is heard on several California stations.
“Listening to ‘Democracy Now!’ ” Melville said, “I realized how bad things were in our country, and that I had to get the word out on the street. So many people out there are asleep.”
Earlier, Melville had begun a silent daily protest on Main Street in Willits, drawing attention to causes ranging from campaign finance reform to the plight of people held in California’s prisons.
Reports of the U.S. attack on the wedding party in Afghanistan just days earlier brought his decision to join the July 4 parade, which historically has been the domain of the town’s more conservative elements.
Because of Sept. 11, this year’s parade was even more oriented toward patriotism than usual.
Members of American Legion Post 174 served as grand marshals, including several veterans wearing their Special Forces uniforms.
Legionnaire Jeff Whitby played the bagpipes. Hagan followed in his 1970 Chevrolet El Camino, displaying a banner that said: “Let Freedom Ring. God Bless America.”
Near the rear of the parade, machinist and gun dealer Clay Romero followed his wife and other members of the 2nd Amendment Liberty Belles female gun rights group in his pickup.
In the truck’s bed was a scale model of the Statue of Liberty wearing a shoulder holster.
“The most fun in the world is to put [Osama bin Laden’s] picture on an old washing machine and open fire,” Romero recently told a visitor to his machine shop. He was wearing a 9-millimeter pistol strapped to his hip.
Romero said Melville went too far in his one-man protest. “It’s one thing if he had been an official part of the parade. What he did was just bad manners.”
Melville said he discussed his planned protest first with his parents, both of whom expressed concerns about the possible consequences of such an act, particularly in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere.
But Melville decided to take the risk.
“I knew there would be a lot of pro-military presence in the parade,” Melville said. “There needed to be another voice in the parade, other than the pro-American one.”
Lively, the woman who rushed from the crowd and tried to grab his sign, said she acted spontaneously after she saw that police were not going to stop Melville.
“I’m usually pretty much peace, love and recycle,” Lively said. “But I thought what he was doing was rude. He wasn’t part of the parade. It seemed like he could do that any day of the week, but it was the Fourth of July.”
But Lively said she shook hands with Melville after the incident.