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Long Beach Press-Telegram (California)

Anti-war Vets Slam Parade Ban

Kelly Puente

LONG BEACH - Iraq veteran Jason Lemieux might not be marching in the 11th annual Long Beach Veterans Day Parade on Saturday.1108 08

The Marine, who served three tours of duty in Iraq and is now against the war, was hoping to march as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a national organization that calls for immediate withdrawal of troops in Iraq.

The group's application, however, was rejected last month because of its political views, parade coordinators said.

"I wanted to march like the rest of the Iraq veterans," said Lemieux, a 24-year-old Anaheim resident. "I served my country. I'm a veteran of a foreign war. I think I deserve that respect."

Iraq Veterans, along with the groups Veterans for Peace and Military Families Speak Out, applied to march together in the parade this year under the entry "Military Patriots."

After reviewing each group's mission statement, the Veterans Day Parade Committee, a non-profit group that organizes the event, voted unanimously to reject the application, said parade coordinator Martha Thuente.

"They do not fit the spirit of the parade," she said. "The spirit being one of gratitude for what the veterans have done. We do not want groups of a political nature, advocating the troops' withdrawal from Iraq."

Parade coordinators work hard to keep the event free from politics, Thuente said.

"We're not allowed to take a political stance."

The rejection has left many veterans and anti-war groups outraged.

"It think it's absurd," said Adrian Novotny, president of the Long Beach Chapter of Veterans for Peace, a national nonprofit that advocates non-violence, VA healthcare and veterans' rights. "It's a violation of Democracy, the whole concept which we are allegedly dying for."

Novotny, a Vietnam vet and professor of anthropology at Long Beach City College, said the situation is especially frustrating since the group was allowed to march in the parade last year.

It also marched eight years ago, he said, even though it did not submit an application.

Thuente said Veterans for Peace was allowed to march last year because parade coordinators did not fully check the group's application.

"Perhaps if we had checked out their agenda, they would not have been allowed," she said. "We didn't realize they had marched until after the parade."

Members of each of the three groups voiced their opinion at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

However, City Attorney Bob Shannon on Wednesday said the parade committee is a private, non-profit organization, and therefore reserves the right to choose its participants.

"These veterans groups certainly have First Amendment rights," Shannon said. "But the parade committee also has the First Amendment right to exclude whoever they wish if (the entry) does not keep within the theme."

Each year, the parade generates funds through community fundraisers and corporate sponsors, Thuente said. Paramount Petroleum Corporation donated $10,000 this year.

The city provides the staffing, flags, banners, utilities and police protection, Shannon said, but does not play any role in the approval of parade participants.

"The fact that the city does provide staff is a disconnect," Shannon said.

Councilman Val Lerch, a member of the parade committee, supported the board's decision.

"They voted unanimously to exclude a group, believing it had a political agenda," said Lerch, whose 9th District includes the parade route. "And I agree with the board's actions. For 11 years, this has been a parade to honor and support this nation."

The city did offer to set up a designated area near the parade, he said, where groups can stand and hold up signs.

"They can stand on the corner with signs all they want," said Lerch, a veteran who served 24 years with the U.S. Coast Guard. "They're not honoring those people by protesting."

Pat Alviso, a member of Military Families Speak Out, maintains that the group is not there to protest. Military Families is an organization of people opposed to the war in Iraq who have relatives or loved ones currently in the military or who have served in the military.

"We are not protesting this parade," Alviso said. "These are good people serving this country. It's an insult to be put in a `free speech' area. We are members of that parade and we are proud to be with them."

Alviso said only 10 or 12 people from all three groups combined had planned to march in the parade on Saturday. But now that they have been rejected, the groups expect many more outraged members to show up, she said.

Alviso also said the groups plan to take legal action if they are not allowed to march.

"This is a free speech issue," she said. "How can you have a private event in a public arena?"

Thuente said the parade lineup is set for this year, but the committee has offered to meet with the groups in January to discuss participating in 2008.

"They won't accept the fact that the parade is set for this year," she said. "I believe they've blown it all out of proportion."

Lemieux said he just wants his voice to be heard.

"It feels like I've been betrayed by the very people I fought to serve," he said. "They should be embarrassed by themselves."

© 2007 The Long Beach Press-Telegram

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