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It’s Only Movies

Demonstrators expecting flag burnings and other “anti-American” activity show up to protest RPI’s Unamerican Film Festival

‘Don’t turn your back on the flag, son. Don’t ever forget your flag,” the roving, cowboy-hat-clad protester shouted, as students and community members filed into Troy’s Chapel + Cultural Center for a viewing of the Unamerican Film Festival on Monday evening.

On a tip from a source that no one could quite remember, he and approximately 35 demonstrators showed up to stop alleged plans to burn an American flag at the film festival, a fundraising event for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s independent community radio station WRPI.

“We heard that there is an anti- American program here tonight and possibly someone is going to burn a flag, and that isn’t going to happen on my watch,” said protester Bob Reiter, the director of veteran’s services for Rensselaer County. “They have a right to do that. I fought for that right, but it doesn’t mean I’ve got to like it. If somebody wants to burn a flag here, I’m going to be a fireman and put the fire out. Sorry if the person burning the flag gets wet, but I’m going to put the flag out.”

Representatives from both WRPI and the Chapel + Cultural Center who arranged for the film festival—named after the House Un-American Activities Committee that terrorized Hollywood in the 1950s with its communist witch hunts, blacklisting many allegedly subversive writers and producers—said they were not aware of any plans to burn a flag, and none was burned during the event.

The demonstrators were a decidedly unified lot; almost all were former servicemen, some accompanied by their wives. Most were middle-aged and older, and sported baseball caps, blue jeans and vinyl jackets from various veterans’ groups—the Elk’s Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans.

Roughly two dozen people wore white stanchion holsters over their shoulders and around their necks, supporting large U.S. flags. Though there was little chanting, many carried signs bearing such slogans as “Support our Troops” and “Anti-war movies at RPI, our tax dollars hard at work.” Forming a visible presence from two blocks in either direction, the protesters lined the sidewalk in front of 2125 Burdett Ave. in Troy, though their presence was not welcomed by all.

“Fuck you, you fuckers,” shouted a person from a carload of college-aged students that drove by, honking, hooting and hollering.

“That’s your higher education money hard at work,” one of the protesters retorted.

Most who passed the demonstration on their way into the Chapel + Cultural Center said they weren’t bothered by the placid protest, but some were angered at the demonstrators’ message.

“Support our troops? How about we support them by bringing them home alive?” said one film attendee who passed by the demonstrators.

When asked to comment on that sentiment—support of U.S. troops as one facet of an antiwar ideology—Reiter wasn’t buying it.

“That’s total bullshit,” Reiter said. “All the troops are seeing are that the protests against the war are against them, and this is why we are out here in support of them.”

Karen Lorf, a Stillwater resident who attended the film festival, disagreed.

“I can understand them wanting to support the troops,” Lorf said, “but blindly saying that war is OK and if we go to war that we have to support our troops, that isn’t necessarily the way to [support our troops]. War is about killing. Do we really want to send troops over there for a war that is not necessarily right?”

Further, Lorf said the demonstrators were misinformed, looking for anti- American activities from the Unamerican Film Festival.

“I think they came here looking for something that didn’t really exist,” Lorf said. “I think they were looking for a confrontation to make a statement.”

What the Unamerican Film Festival did include were a number of political short films and trailers for longer feature films and documentaries. Other films were investigative, issue-driven pieces about the War on Drugs and the effectiveness of recycling programs.

The demonstrators began to pack up as the last of the filmgoers were filing into the Chapel + Cultural Center, and Lorf and a few others invited them to view what they turned out to protest and see what roughly 400 people turned out to see. Although most of the demonstrators turned down the invitations to watch the films, a few took up the offers, but all had left by the end of the first film.

“You should read as much as you can and make your own decisions about things,” Lorf said. “But if you’re only looking at a couple of sources or just reacting to a couple headlines, then how can you really know what’s going on?”

—Travis Durfee

Make Lunch, Not War

Volunteer food program serves free meals with a humanitarian message

While the U.S. military launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and thousand-pound artillery shells to convey its statement to the Iraqi leadership on Sunday, a handful of volunteers in Albany had a message their own—“Food Not Bombs.”

The slogan adorned a banner hanging from a table at the corners of Grand and Wilbur streets in Albany’s Mansion neighborhood Sunday afternoon, where a free meal was offered to those in need. Approximately five volunteers prepped and served a buffet from food donated by local businesses and churches or retrieved from dumpsters of local grocery stores and restaurants—fare that otherwise would have been wasted.

A well-rounded vegetarian meal could be pulled together in multiple combinations from the variety of the day’s dishes: A large salad was tossed with greens donated by a local food pantry, and a tray of stuffed portobello mushrooms had made its way from a fundraiser at UAlbany the night prior. Pots of mashed potatoes, bean chili and vegetable soup rested next to the loaves of wheat bread and a tray stacked with peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. Freshly ground coffee, and two garbage bags full of whole and crumbling donuts were also available.

For the past two and a half years, local volunteers have carried out Albany’s incarnation of the international, all-volunteer social program Food Not Bombs.

Food Not Bombs initially started in the early 1980s when a few activists in Boston combined antinuclear demonstrations with their work on a mobile soup kitchen. Socially active circles throughout the country and around the globe have adopted Food Not Bombs’ pro-peace, humanitarian message, and independent chapters carry out the program in Canada, Germany and Australia, among other nations.

Each group operates its Food Not Bombs program autonomously in its own community, but the general theme remains unified: No one should go without when the amount of salvageable, edible food wasted could easily feed the nation’s hungry.

“It’s about bringing people together and reclaiming wasted food,” said Dave Oehl, an Albany resident who helps run the local Food Not Bombs. “In reality, the goal of Food Not Bombs was never to end hunger, because that just seems impossible. But if everybody had a meal like this in their neighborhood, it would definitely have an impact.”

According to groups that monitor poverty and hunger, such as the Hunger Action Network of New York State, programs like Food Not Bombs are crucial, considering the dire fiscal situations at both the state and federal level.

Hunger Action says that approximately 900,000 New Yorkers rely on emergency food programs every week because they cannot make ends meet. Although Hunger Action states that demand for these programs statewide has increased 27 percent from last year, Gov. George E. Pataki’s budget proposal cut funding for these programs, including a $1.6 million cut in the hunger-prevention and nutrition-assistance programs that fund soup kitchens and food pantries.

“The more that [funding for hunger programs] is cut back,” said Sheila McCarthy of HANNYS, “the more that these foods programs are going to have to cut back, reduce their hours or just close down, and that’s pretty lousy.”

But Oehl said feeding people in the Food Not Bombs tradition, through volunteer work and donated or gleaned food, makes their work easier than that of a nonprofit such as Hunger Action.

“We’re not like a nonprofit where they have to set out to feed a certain number of people to justify themselves to get more money,” Oehl said, and McCarthy agrees.

“I think it’s great if there is a group on the sideline that has nothing to do with funding from the government or funding from any system anywhere and is completely disconnected,” McCarthy said. “There are a lot of advantages of being free of the system, and I think that really needs to happen in New York state. To truly challenge the impact that corporations are having in downsizing and low wages . . . people can create alternative systems, and the more you do that the more you will ultimately be challenging a system that just isn’t really working right now.”

Ray Churchill, a UAlbany senior who also volunteers with Food Not Bombs, said the program has another leg up on more traditional emergency food programs.

“It’s not like a food pantry, where you have to go in and fill out paperwork and they may tell you to come back for a meal tomorrow,” Churchill said. “People always feel weird having to take things for free, and having it real small and in the community makes it easier to approach.”

Food Not Bombs serves a meal weekly in Albany at around 12:30 PM at the corners of Grand and Wilbur streets, and new volunteers are always welcome.

—Travis Durfee

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