On a Friday afternoon in late August they've come to this street corner to raise their signs and voices to protest the venal forces that would bring down the United States. They brandish placards and peace signs, and passing motorists wave back in agreement, offer their own gestures consisting of a single middle finger, or ignore them. The demonstrators are mostly white men, ranging in age from 16 to the mid-forties, and among their signs is one that reads, in part, "War never solved anything!"
For months this protest has been taking place in front of the Dallas offices of a company many Americans believe to be evil. With their signs and slogans the protesters stand on the front lawn of the corporation once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, Houston-based Halliburton Co., damned by Democrats for receiving billions in no-bid contracts for reconstructing Iraq.
But look closely at the signs. The one that says, "War never solved anything"? It says something just above that: "Except for ending slavery, fascism, Nazism & Communism " And wait, what about those other signs they're holding? There's one with Osama bin Laden dressed as Uncle Sam. It reads, "Uncle Osama wants you to vote for John Kerry." There's another one with bin Laden on it: "Vote for John Kerry so I can kill your family." One says, "9/11 was just freedom of speech!" And another placard pleads, "Help! I'm surrounded by America-hating idiots!" And wait a minute. That guy over there's wearing a T-shirt that reads -- can this be right? -- "I Halliburton."
What the hell?
Welcome to another Friday afternoon in the ongoing Operation Halliburton Defense Force, being carried out by members of the Dallas chapter of a group of right-wingers called Protest Warrior. Their mission is to protest the protesters from the Dallas Peace Center who have been here since April to demonstrate against Halliburton. The Warriors' ideology is a bit more labyrinthine, a smorgasbord of conservative and libertarian ideas sprinkled with activism more commonly associated with lefties. Their motto is crystal-clear: "Fighting the left doing it right."
On this day they are at the corner of Webb Chapel and Belt Line roads to defend their president, his policies, his beliefs, his war. They are here to defend Halliburton and to confront the peaceniks, to tell them that bashing George W. Bush and the war hurts the morale of the troops serving in Iraq -- that it's downright unpatriotic.
"My strongest thing is the defense of this country and our way of life," says 32-year-old Jason Taylor, the head of the Warriors' Dallas chapter, which claims to have 210 members. Taylor, a computer programmer, says his father served on navy ships present during the testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s, and that he had five uncles who fought during World War II. Like many of the Protest Warriors, Taylor bleeds red, white, blue and olive drab.
"One thing you'll find is [the antiwar protesters] hold the American way of life, the freedoms we believe in that come out of the Judeo-Christian value system, to be on a morally equivalent plane with almost every other belief system in the world, like communism," Taylor says. "I don't. I think the American way of life and our political system and the capitalism that drives it all is a beacon of hope for humanity."
Since April the Peace Center has been on the Halliburton lawn waving its own signs, bearing the familiar slogans that have echoed throughout the anti-Iraq war movement for two years: "No blood for oil," "War is not the answer," "Hoggiburton makes $$$$$ from the blood of our troops." Theirs is not a large group, some 20 people, most looking like color versions of black-and-white pictures lifted from 1960s textbooks. The 30 Protest Warriors mingled among their crowd don't look much different -- maybe more pairs of cargo pants, certainly more "Terrorists for John Kerry" T-shirts.
The Protest Warriors crashed the Peace Center's protest four months ago. At first, the Peace Center people believed they were on their side; the Warriors kept their signs hidden till the last possible moment. When they flipped them up, the antiwar demonstrators were confused; just what do those signs mean, anyway? Then it dawned on them that they were being protested, and they became irate. Early on, there were allegations of threatening behavior from both sides. The Peace Center people say one of the Warriors jumped a curb in a pickup truck and tried to hit one of their demonstrators. The Warriors claim one of the Peace Center protesters pushed one of theirs into traffic. They agree on nothing.
"It's good Americans get so passionate about their beliefs and come out in the streets," says Hadi Jawad, who chairs the End the Occupation of Iraq Committee of the Dallas Peace Center. "We've been doing this for a long, long time in the peace movement, and it's just recently these folks have taken to the streets, so we welcome the opportunity to dialogue with them. But they're difficult people to talk to. Their ideas are very rigid. They're very narrow-minded, and we figured out very soon the reason why they're here is not to exercise their own First Amendment right to freedom of expression, but to somehow deny us ours."
Unless you watch Fox News Channel, which has run a story on the Protest Warriors, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, you probably have never heard of a Protest Warrior. Nationally, there are only 8,000 of them, most of whom have signed up on the group's Web site but have not participated in an "operation," like the one at Halliburton or last week's counterprotest during the Republican National Convention in New York City.
Many work in the Internet and computer software businesses; some even work in government cubicles. They're married, have kids, grew up with family in the military. For many of them, Protest Warrior serves as an outlet for business and social networking. "It's kinda cool to meet other conservatives who are fired up about what they believe in and willing to defend it," Taylor says.
Their leaders are Alan Lipton and Kfir Alfia. The 30-year-old Alfia moved to Dallas from Israel when he was two; his father is in the diamond business. He and 29-year-old Lipton grew up together, attending Hebrew school at Akiba Academy and then J.J. Pearce High School before going their separate ways -- Alfia to the University of Texas at Austin, Lipton to Syracuse University and then to the University of Southern California to study film. When they were in their teens, both men now say, they read such libertarian writers as Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, as well as conservative publications such as The National Review. They gulped down talk radio.
They were reunited in February 2003 in San Francisco, where Alfia was working as a computer-chip designer. Lipton went to visit his old friend, and with two other friends they crashed a February 16 antiwar protest. Alfia carried a sign featuring a woman in a burqa tied to a pole, a leash around her neck; the sign read, "Protest Islamic Property Against Western Imperialism. SAY NO TO WAR!" Lipton's said, "Saddam Only Kills His Own People. IT'S NONE OF OUR BUSINESS!"
On February 17, they were on Limbaugh's radio show describing how they'd been met with shouts and spit -- "so much hate," Alfia says now. Limbaugh posted pictures they had taken at the protest on his Web site. They had Rush's blessings, and what began as a lark grew into a movement.
Last summer Alfia and Lipton moved to Austin, which is now Protest Warrior's headquarters. They like the city, Lipton says, for its "conservative economics and liberal culture." There are active chapters all across the state -- the Houston chapter boasts 140 members, Austin's 124 -- and across the country. The group's Web site, www.protestwarrior.com, shows tiny chapters in such faraway places as Jerusalem, London and Tokyo.
Lipton and Alfia acknowledge they are extremists confronting other extremists. They claim as their enemies not "moderate liberals" but such leftist "fringe" groups as International A.N.S.W.E.R., which organized the November 2002 antiwar march in Washington, D.C., and had a large presence in the New York protests last week. The group's initials stand for "Act Now to Stop War and End Racism," but according to reports in salon.com and the L.A. Weekly, among others, A.N.S.W.E.R. is also a front for the Marxist Workers World Party, which supports Fidel Castro and the abolition of private property and has heaped praise upon the likes of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.
"They're robots: 'Halliburton, corporations are bad. Bush lies,' " Lipton says. "They can't talk any idea, any philosophy, any ideology. I just continue to be amazed at how bankrupt they really are. And I know they're a fringe, but I would say, 'Moderate Democrats, just remember, they are your base. They are what happens when you take the principle of the left all the way.' "
Typical of the Protest Warriors' membership are Dallas chapter member Bill Garrett, a 44-year-old computer software salesman, and 29-year-old Paul Harrold, an engineering and environmental consultant. Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Garrett considered himself a "Lieberman liberal" and a CNN man. But after he found the Fox News Channel and Bill O'Reilly, Garrett realized he was becoming a conservative, especially if that meant supporting the war on terror and, in particular, overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
"To be honest, what made me start doing this is the hate I see coming from the left," he says. "Every time you turn on the TV, someone's bashing Bush. I almost considered myself a liberal till I heard all the hate coming from the left. I get on the Internet and research all these groups, and I found out their money's coming from the Workers World Party, and the more I learned about them, it made me mad. I decided to do something, and I stumbled across Protest Warriors, and I was like, 'Hey, this sounds like something I wanna do.' "
At this moment, Garrett and Harrold sit in the American Airlines terminal at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, waiting to board a flight for New York City. It's the day before the August 29 United for Peace and Justice march in Manhattan, an antiwar protest scheduled to take place the day before the Republican National Convention begins.
UPJ organizers expect some 250,000 participants. The Protest Warriors will be there, too, hoping to confront the marching masses with 200 of their own sign-swingers.
"The left has a monopoly on protesting," Harrold says. "They're the only ones in the news, and it's portrayed like it's the view of the majority. It's not. It's just that the right tends to be silent and not get too loud about what they believe in."
The next day, Harrold and Garrett and the rest of the Protest Warriors will fight their own battle in the streets of Manhattan.
"I wanna be there," says Garrett. "I think it's just gonna be crazy."
On the Saturday night before the demonstration, some 80 Protest Warriors gather on the roof of a midtown Manhattan apartment building four blocks from Madison Square Garden. For $2,000, Alfia and Lipton have rented two rooms for the weekend, into which some two dozen out-of-town Warriors will cram and try to get some sleep despite the lack of mattresses and air conditioning.
As people file in, from Houston and Fort Worth and New Jersey and California, they head toward the donated buffet of sandwiches and cookies and soft drinks and water bottles.
The out-of-towners have come because they're converts to the cause of conservatism; because they believe the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are just, whether or not Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction; because they support Bush's tax cuts; because they believe in small government, even though Bush has expanded the government more than any president since Lyndon Johnson; and because they have family who served in the military or are still on active duty. The Protest Warriors believe they're keeping the United States safe from anarchist infiltrators who would turn the country into "the Soviet Union, where we would be shipped off to the gulag instead of having our signs torn down," says 27-year-old Tom Paladino, the New York chapter leader.
"The fact we are outnumbered 1,000 to one really works to our advantage in a lot of ways," Paladino says. "We can highlight how threatened they are by such a small group of people They hacked our Web site this week and they tear down our signs and us having a small number really brings that to the forefront how oppressive these people are, how prone to tyranny they are and how threatened they are by any dissenting opinion."
Some have come here because "it's our summer-camp trip," says Sergio Kadinsky, a 20-year-old Russian sporting a yarmulke. Kadinsky came to the States in 1992 "for freedom," he explains. "America's a lot better than that other country where I used to live, and that's what many people of the leftist hooligan crowd don't realize. My family lived under 50 years of that stuff, and we've seen it fail." Kadinsky became involved with the Warriors after being a pro-Zionist protester on the campus of City College of New York-Harlem. "They got Jews on the other side, too, of course," he says. "Very divided group of people. But we're a very divided country."
At 6 p.m. Alfia, Lipton and Paladino gather about 80 Warriors around a map of the protest route.
"Tomorrow, 200,000 freedom-haters are coming to spit on the Statue of Liberty," Lipton shouts. He is the firebrand of the organization, the one who sounds like a street-corner evangelist. Alfia runs the Web site and the store, where they sell T-shirts and posters and mugs -- enough, he insists, to keep the Warriors afloat. There have been rumors on the Web that right-wing businessmen fund them. They insist those are lies promulgated by the same anarchist groups that hacked their site and posted the personal information of the Warriors' membership, including the address of this very meeting.
Paladino explains to the group that the New York Police Department is "sympathetic" to what they're doing," but warns there will be arrests if things turn violent. He and Alfia suggest no one throw a punch, even if provoked.
The Protest Warriors do not consider themselves agitators, insisting they are nonviolent unless met with violence. They claim they're not looking for a fight, only to engage in debate. Their critics insist they're blowing smoke and fanning the flames.
"Right to left, left to right, when you intrude upon someone else's event you are asking for a confrontation, not a debate," says Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin, who, as former president of Students for a Democratic Society, organized the first Vietnam War protest in March 1965. "When you enter into an emotionally charged arena in a pugnacious spirit you get a fight, not a debate. They will be martyrs and heroes. That sounds like pure political combat. The slogan 'Protest Warrior' is an interesting one. Is it that they are warriors or protesters? It's another gimmick for belligerent right-wingers."
On the rooftop, Paladino points out where the Warriors will crash the UPJ march. He also points out the emergency fallback position, should they get separated if there's an incident.
"There will be 200,000 of them and 200 of us," Alfia says. "Sounds like a fair fight." He smiles.
It's Sunday morning, and the only people visible at 9:30 are those ambling toward the United for Peace and Justice protest, which has begun gathering in Chelsea, near Union Square, where the protest is scheduled to wind up after circling some 30 blocks of the small island. They carry their homemade placards ("Another Jewish Mets fan against the occupation," reads one) and their white-type-on-blue-background assembly-line signs. Heading uptown, it's hard to miss the presence of the police: At least four officers guard every street corner, and cops with machine guns guard the entrances to subway stations.
This morning, the Protest Warriors have received what they believe to be good news. Captain Woody Selover, part of the NYPD's task force created to deal with security for the convention, has informed the group it will have a police escort and be "inserted" into the parade. Selover explains that it's in the Protest Warriors' "best interest we protect 'em," and he will accompany the 30 officers assigned to the job.
"We jus' don't want you guys getting hurt by them or them getting hurt by you," he tells Paladino. "I'm not accusin' you of anything happening, but tempers flare."
"All we wanna do is flank them on the side," Lipton says. "We're just makin' a film of this whole thing."
"It's for a documentary," Paladino says. "This is what we do."
"Get my named spelled right," Selover says, grinning.
Selover says he expects no problems: Pro-choice activists confronted a pro-life rally the day before, and they were "received well, nobody bothered 'em," he says. "I expect that'll be the case today."
In about two hours, he will be proved wrong.
By 10:30, the cops have already arrived at the Warriors' HQ, some on their sharp new Italian scooters purchased just for the convention. Two lieutenants stare at the Warriors' signs, among them placards that read, "End racism and sexism now! Kill all the white males!" and "Hey, criticizing Islamic slavery of Christian blacks is ethnocentric" and "Leftists for free speech! Now shut up, you fascist conservatives!" and "Black children belong in black schools. Say no to school vouchers!" The latter features a Jim Crow-era photo of a black man drinking from a water fountain labeled "coloreds only." One cop looks to the other and asks, "What the hell do those signs mean? Whose side are they on, anyway?"
The officer isn't the first person to ask that.
Two days earlier, Alfia and Lipton appeared on Unfiltered, one of the programs that air on the liberal talk radio network Air America. They thought the interview, with hosts Lizz Winstead and Rachel Maddow, had gone well. Winstead, who co-created The Daily Show, begs to differ. She says she found their message utterly confusing and dated, "silly and misguided nonsense" concocted by "angry young white men."
"I didn't really understand what their purpose was," she says. "Their signs are like they stepped in a time machine. 'Communism has killed a million people'? Honey, who here is advocating communism? They weren't relevant to me on any of the issues It's like being in a march and people holding up signs that said, 'Go home, women's libbers.' One of them said, 'We're about ironic sentiments.' I said, 'I created The Daily Show, don't talk to me about ironic sentiment. I fucking invented it. There's nothing ironic about what you're doing. You're dressed as a hipster, but your message is a McCarthy holdover.' They really stumped us."
Shortly before 11, a Warrior dressed as Che Guevara strides down the sidewalk, surrounded by a handful of folks dressed in red "Communists for Kerry" T-shirts that are hard to make out from a distance. Joining them is a dead ringer for Vladimir Lenin and a stocky blond gentleman slipping into a Fidel Castro costume.
The man in the Castro outfit is 30-year-old Brian McCarthy, who moved from Ireland six years ago. Back then he was homeless, broke and apolitical. "And I ended up makin' it," says McCarthy, who now works in construction. "This country's been extremely good to me, and all I see from the left is they point out the bad things about America." He got involved with Protest Warrior last spring, when they crashed a March 20 antiwar rally in Manhattan.
"I thought their signs were very witty, and then I saw this group called Billionaires for Bush," McCarthy says, referring to the anti-Bush pranksters and protesters who take to the streets in tuxedos and tiaras brandishing signs that read "Widen the Income Gap" and "Taxes Are Not for Everyone."
"Well, they wanna malign the right and stereotype the right, and I thought I'd do the same thing to them, so we came up with Communists for Kerry," McCarthy says. "We're not actually saying John Kerry's a communist. We're just trying to expose the link between extreme liberalism and the extreme left, which is communism. A lot of them don't get the irony, and a lot of them don't like the fact that we're conservatives out there havin' a bit of fun and a bit of street theater. They get extremely angry. One gentleman told us, 'Get your commie crap out of here. You're gonna make Kerry look bad, and they'll vote for Bush,' which is exactly what we want."
The group's been outside for two hours, and they're getting itchy to go; the protest is already snaking through Manhattan.
Alfia and Lipton decide it's time to move. They huddle their group and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, shouting the phrase "under God," before launching into chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Someone shouts, "Let Operation Red Dawn commence!" and they begin their march. The Warriors who aren't holding signs carry video and still cameras to document the event for the film they will post on the Warriors' Web site.
Not 100 yards into their march a call goes up for everyone to retreat back to HQ. It's a false start. "I don't know whether we're coming or going," says the officer already confused by the signs.
About 15 minutes later, Alfia shouts to the flock.
"Protest Warriors, are you ready to march?" They cheer, sounding louder than their small numbers.
"These freedom-haters think they can come here and spit on the Statue of Liberty," Lipton yells. "They're going to be taught an important lesson. They have to come through us first."
"Protest Warriors," Alfia hollers. "Let's roll!"
Earlier in the morning, Selover had said the NYPD had made some 300 arrests leading up to the UPJ march -- a relatively small number thus far. Again and again the Protest Warriors swear they want no trouble and that they're more peaceful than the patchouli peaceniks who really want to overthrow the government. In a little while, they will have their chance to prove themselves.
For several blocks, the Warriors march and chant, with the curious and the furious trying to pass by without getting trampled on. Some passersby mutter insults, a few scream their support, most couldn't give a shit.
The Warriors' chants of "John effin' Kerry, no effin' way!" and "Four more years!" die as quickly as they start. At one intersection, a young Warrior, who looks under 18 but doesn't offer up his age, yells, "Hey, communist shit-heel!" He is asked to whom he was directing the comment.
"I'm just throwing epithets around hoping they stick," he says. "There are enough pinkos around."
After about 20 minutes, the group arrives at its destination: the location of Whole Foods Market's Manhattan outpost. The Warriors are greeted by the sound of bongos and Clash songs and anti-Bush chants and the sight of tie-dyed peaceniks dancing in the streets (standing, actually, considering the parade's moving at a snail's pace).
A banner hangs over the Whole Foods sign: "MY BUSH SMELLS LIKE SHIT."
Here, the Warriors believe their police escorts will insert them into the demonstration. Instead, the officers keep the Warriors about 30 yards away from the protest. They're dead in the water. To Lipton, it appears as though Selover's offer to protect the Warriors was a ruse to muzzle them.
"I'm really hoping the NYPD will let us right on top of them," he says, his voice rising and cracking as he sees the marchers pass them by. "I mean, c'mon, let us at them. Why are they holding us back here?"
A reporter suggests it's for their protection.
"No, it's for their protection," Lipton says, angry now. "We have the right to protest them. I don't know why they wanna set up all these barricades. It's ridiculous."
Some of the anti-Bush protesters begin to notice the Warriors; they see their signs and believe, for a moment, they're on their side but being kept out of the march. Some scream at the cops to let them in; others just stand and squint, trying to figure out who the hell they are. Once they figure it out, they stop and smile, more amused than anything else. For a while, it's no more heated than the exchange of shouted slogans:
"Four more years! Four more years!"
"No more years! No more years!"
The Protest Warriors get what they came for. Suddenly, media mikes are being shoved into faces, as reporters are happy to find a different angle to what's quickly becoming a dull story. They will make the nightly news in New York City and grab a little ink and cyberspace in newspapers.
Standing in the gap between them, you can almost feel the hate radiating from both groups. This tiny area feels like a gaping canyon neither group is willing to jump over or crawl through. Both sides insist they welcome debate, but all they do is shout at each other. The preachers will not be converted.
Finally, the Warriors have had enough of being penned up. Alfia, Lipton and Paladino order them to disperse and head further up the protest to infiltrate the anti-Bush throng. Rob Garcia, a former army medic who returned from Iraq in April, leads one of the groups. He's dressed in his khaki camouflage gear, with a black beret; he carries his medical gear in a black bag over his shoulder, just in case, God forbid.
The Protest Warriors crash the protest at 26th Street and Seventh Avenue. At first, no one notices. Their signs are pointed toward the front so that people behind them can't see, and in this human traffic jam no one's turning around to notice. But then a young woman with blond hair begins yelling to one of the Warriors, "Can you explain your sign? I don't get it." The Warriors ignore her and keep moving.
An older gentleman wearing a "When Clinton lied, no one died" button sees them and smiles. "I think their signs are meaningless, hilarious. They don't confuse me. They're trivial." He laughs. "It's like a dog barking at the moon and the moon could give a shit." But then boos begin, and chants of "Fuck you! Get out of our march! Get off our streets!" Just like that it gets ugly.
A young man in a yarmulke stands in front of three Warriors, shooting them the finger, refusing to move. One enormous guy with long black hair and a black T-shirt and a bandanna covering his face starts grabbing for the Warriors' signs. His shorter, thinner buddy, in a green shirt and bandanna, joins him. They succeed in bending a couple of signs. A few marchers try to stop them -- "Walk on! Let them pass! This is what they want!" There are no cops in sight.
"We're the ones being peaceful!" shouts one of the Warriors. But by then fists have been launched. The big guy in the black T-shirt punches one of the Warriors, a bearded and longhaired guy from "all around Texas" named Jason Dorsett, in the back of the head. The big guy's buddy in greens screams, "These guys are fascists! They don't belong in the march!" His eyes are wide and blood-red, and spittle flies from his mouth. "These guys are pro-Bush! These guys are pro-murder! All they're here for is to fight!"
But you're the ones throwing all the punches. Is that gonna solve anything?
"Yeah, it's gonna get them out of our march. We confront them to show them that they cannot organize in public. Their point of view is not welcome here, it's not welcome in America. It's bullshit."
Someone else yells, "Nazis out!"
The guy in black is back. He leans over to throw another punch at Dorsett, who's developed the unfortunate twitch of sticking out his tongue to wet his dry mouth. He'll swear later that he didn't even know he was doing it, but at this moment the protesters read the gesture as antagonistic. Dorsett throws an elbow at the guy in black to defend himself.
"I don't do anything wrong to 'em," he's screaming toward the Warriors' cameras. "I just smile back and say, 'You have the right to your opinion and please don't rip my sign down.' They ripped my sign down."
One of the Warriors is carrying an American flag -- or he was, till a marcher tore it off the cardboard pole. The Warrior says he purchased it from a Vietnam veteran. He and the guy in black fight over the flag, grabbing at it and yanking on it till the marcher disappears into the crowd with it.
You could choke on the symbolism.
Then the cops arrive and yank out the Protest Warriors. The marchers begin singing:
Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, good-bye.
A few days later, Air America's Lizz Winstead says she saw the Protest Warriors during the march. She was among the demonstrators carrying coffins draped in American flags and stopped briefly to see Lipton and Alfia in action.
"All they brought to New York," she says, "were markers and confusion."
The fights between the Protest Warriors and the folks representing United for Justice and Peace are the only ones that occur on Sunday. For about half an hour, the cops detain Dorsett and one of the guys who got into the scuffle with him. There's talk he will be taken off to jail, but nothing comes of it.
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"You guys wanna swing it out, swing it out," says one officer. "Just go somewhere private." Rob Garcia, the Iraqi War veteran and leader of this small band of Warriors, says the group got too split up and became too vulnerable to attack. "People in this country are pissed, 50-50, right down the line," he says. "It's nothing like I've ever seen."
The Warriors continue their activities throughout the day Sunday, with most ending up outside Macy's, their signs lining a wall outside the department store. Passersby spit and shout, and their megaphone is destroyed. But there are no more acts of physical violence against any of them.
The next morning 15 are gathered outside their headquarters, taunting the leaders of United for Peace and Justice to come down for a debate. As it turns out, they are just two doors down from the Warriors. But they will not oblige, no matter how many times Lipton calls them cowards through his new megaphone.
"We're having the time of our lives," Lipton says, between taunts. "We feel like we're living a movie here, fighting for freedom. It's totally exhilarating."