Police arrested five men on charges of criminal trespass Thursday, as a full-fledged squabble erupted over the way different groups choose to remember the war dead.
Coming on the eve of a holiday more commonly associated with parades and quiet remembrance, the arrests were made at a 6 p.m. showdown at Veterans Memorial Park, when protesters -- a mixture of veterans and non-veterans -- delivered on their threat to rip up 2,000 white flags placed there to commemorate America's war dead in Iraq.
Waterville Police Sgt. Jeffrey Bearce, right, arrests Bruce Noel of Vassalboro for criminal trespass in Veterans Memorial Park on Thursday night as several veterans and non-veterans pull flags placed by Waterville Area Bridges for Peace and Justice. Also seen is Michael Williams, left, pulling flags as VFW Post 1285 Commander Wayne H. Elkins, center, is arrested by Waterville Det. Alan Main.
"I'm saddened that it has come to this, but I have a responsibility to maintain public safety," said Police Chief John Morris, a Vietnam veteran. "Veterans don't behave like that. These people don't have a right to destroy other people's property. Legitimate veterans' organizations don't commit civil disobedience. Veterans died to allow freedom to exist -- whether we like the message or not. "
On Oct. 30, the peace group, Waterville Area Bridges for Peace and Justice, placed the white flags at the park, accompanied by signs protesting the Iraq war.
On Wednesday, with Veterans Day looming, some veterans called the display a "desecration" and a "disgrace," threatened to forcibly remove the flags, and challenged the police permit that authorized the display.
On Thursday evening, about eight people -- Bridges for Peace members and their sympathizers, among them some veterans -- gathered at one side of the park, not far from where about 10 protesters were preparing to yank the flags.
At 5:45 p.m., a phalanx of police officers began to amass, soon joined by Morris, Deputy Chief Joseph Massey and City Administrator Michael Roy. Morris said there were six officers, but more soon arrived in cruisers, including plain-clothes officers.
At 6:05 p.m., under the glare of television cameras, some protesters began to remove flags.
The police moved in, grabbing by the arm those who removed flags. Two who chose to back down were given rides to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1285, Morris said.
The tumult quickly died down afterward, with only some protesters yelling at police and the Bridges for Peace members. One woman wept, and warned that she would return to rip up the flags at night.
Wayne Elkins, the VFW commander who led the protesters, was among the five arrested Thursday.
"I knew we were going to get arrested, but I didn't care," said Elkins, a Vietnam veteran. "They desecrated our veterans' grounds. If (Bridges for Peace) want to protest, let them protest. We don't mind. But to desecrate hallowed ground is wrong."
Elkins said he had no issues with the Bridges group's other protests, but took a stand on what he repeatedly described as "sacred ground."
Another arrested man, Bruce Noel, 46, of Vassalboro, earlier said he would not have minded if the group had placed American flags to protest the Iraq war, but the timing and location were offensive to him.
"It's at Veterans Park, it's Veterans Day -- if they could take (the display) down for just one day, it would have been OK," said Noel, who is not a veteran.
The other three arrested were Gilbert Levesque, 58, of Oakland; Michael Williams, 58, of Oakland; and Henry Van Husen, 65, of Norridgewock. All five were later released on personal recognizance bail, with a condition that they not return to the park until Sunday, police said.
At 5 p.m. Thursday, Morris personally appealed to Elkins to call off the showdown. Both Elkins and Morris confirmed that Elkins would not budge.
Before the Bridges display went up, the group had contacted the VFW to ask about co-sponsoring the display, but never heard a decision, said Bill Lord, a Bridges member.
Elkins said Thursday that he never received such a call. If he had, he said, he would have offered the group American flags.
Bridges members said they did not intend a confrontation over the display, but stood by their freedom of expression. One member described the protesters' tactics as oppression.
"Obviously, I don't want to fight them for the flags," said Lord, a Vietnam veteran. "Really, I think that the VFW and Bridges for Peace and Justice have a lot in common. I believe in peacefully working things out."
Another veteran and Bridges member, Ron Turcotte, said that the group consciously stood as "silent witnesses" at the 6 p.m. showdown. "We made it clear to everyone not to respond to taunts," he said.
There was no clear sign in Thursday's dispute that veterans were ranged on one side against a non-veteran crowd on the other.
Steve Olson, who came into the Morning Sentinel on Thursday to describe how he defaced one Bridges for Peace sign, is not a veteran.
About five of the police officers present at the crackdown were veterans, Morris said. But for the officers, it was an issue of law and order, he said.
"What kind of position were the police put in?" Morris asked. "If we allow public disorder, we could have been justifiably criticized. It's a quagmire."
City officials refuted some of the protesters' claims. Among other charges, the veterans questioned if the park is public property, and the conditions of the police permit.
The park is public property, Morris said. Elkins said the park was dedicated to veterans and maintained with federal money.
The police permit required the flags be removed "before the first snowfall." Some protesters said Wednesday's flurries fulfilled this condition. Morris disagreed, and said the snowfall must be measurable.
But, above all, the symbolism of the color white has been caught in the dispute.
Protesters say the white flags signify "retreat" and "surrender." The Bridges group disagreed.
"White is the color of all the war memorials all over the world," said Arne Springorum, a Bridges member. "You look at Arlington Cemetery, at France, at Belgium. They always have white crosses and white stones."
The city's top officials had called a meeting among Roy, Morris, Mayor Paul R. LePage and Parks and Recreation Director James Toner, to discuss the permit.
"We all agreed that requests for displays in Memorial Park are taken very seriously, because of the respect for ... free speech, and the fact that the city does not have any prohibitions which restrict such uses," Roy wrote in a memorandum issued Thursday.
The officials applied three tests to the issue, on the public's right to use the park; the city's maintenance responsibilities; and whether the display would threaten health, safety or general welfare.
"Because the permit request met these tests, it was the consensus that the permit be approved," Roy wrote.
© 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.