Fracas over a protest

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Tommy Silva's memorial for the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, attracted federal security guards and Paterson police to the Robert A. Roe Federal Building.Silva reading a speech Wednesday.

Tommy Silva heard it on the radio.

It was the 35th anniversary of the Kent State University shootings Wednesday. We should do something, he thought.

The plan was simple: Silva and his pal, John Sargis, would show up at a Paterson landmark and lead a service to remember the day the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students who were protesting the Vietnam War.

The idea was hatched around 10 on Wednesday. The event was planned for two hours later. They picked the Robert A. Roe Federal Building in downtown Paterson; it's in their hometown, has a nice park and represents the federal government. An e-mail went out to everyone they knew.

Noon struck. Silva and Sargis showed up - with a potted plant in hand. But only a reporter and a photographer were there.

So, with a shrug of his shoulders and a quick toss of his curly locks, Silva propped his plant in the middle of a cement block in front of the building's doors.

The lack of audience didn't faze him. He started his speech.

"On May 4, 1970 ... " Then, he was interrupted.

"Sir, you can't be here," a building security guard said. "What are you guys doing?"

"I'm exercising my rights under the Constitution," said Silva, a well-known Paterson activist who was wearing a "Stop the War Against Iraq" T-shirt.

Before if was all over, Silva, 41, and Sargis, 56 would attract seven federal guards and six Paterson police officers.

After the guard stopped Silva's speech, the pair were joined by Inspector Luis Garcia of the Department of Homeland Security.

"You're on federal property," he told them. "You need a permit."

(To have any event on grounds owned by the federal government, the building manager's permission is needed, a spokesman in Washington, D.C., said.)

Silva and Sargis replied, saying the idea of a permit on public property contradicts the message contained in the Bill of Rights.

"This all just shows why we really need to remember Kent State," Sargis said, recalling the national rage that followed the shootings. "If we forget about our history, this will continue to happen."

Silva and Sargis then picked up the plant, moved down to a sidewalk and tried to continue with the service.

But the back-and-forth among Silva, Sargis and Garcia heated up. Garcia took Silva's driver's license and ran a background check. Sargis, a retired schoolteacher, didn't have identification.

While the three shouted, residents walked by, enjoying the afternoon sun without even glancing over.

"What, do you think this is a weapon?" Silva said, shaking the potted peace lily so hard that one of its flowers cowered over on its side.

Garcia ignored that and called in on his walkie-talkie for backup.

"You obviously are a very angry person," Silva said.

"Obviously you're allowed to have your opinion and it's been noted," Garcia fired back.

Three armed federal officers emerged from the building and watched the exchange from a distance. They slowly edged closer, as six officers in four cars showed up after being told there was an illegal demonstration. Only two of them left their car.

Silva and Sargis stared at each other in a moment of sheer confusion, and then Silva pulled out a granola bar. "Want some?" he asked Sargis.

"It's all right," Garcia said to the officers. "He continues to pop off like he's all that and a bag of chips. But it's taken care of. ... He's here having a blast."

"We're not having a blast," Silva barked. "This is a memorial service for our fallen comrades who were shot and killed."

The officers left, and only Garcia stayed behind.

Silva finally got a chance to read his speech again, and he did it loudly. But still, no one stopped to listen.

Silva, an artist, is no stranger to this sort of tug of war. He usually attends local protests and similar activities. In fact, he was arrested twice in the past six weeks - once at a protest of President Bush's Social Security plan and again at an event protesting military recruiters who target inner city youth.

"They arrested me within the first 10 minutes of both events," he said later.

Garcia finally returned Silva's ID, and no one was arrested.

The clock struck 1. Silva picked up his plant and headed home. "Yeah, I gotta get back to work," he said. But as he walked away, he could still be heard.

"This is what democracy looks like," he uttered in singsong voice. "This is what a police state looks like."


* * *

About Kent State

On May 4, 1970, about 200 students were marching on the lawns of Kent State University in Ohio protesting the Vietnam War.

Four students were shot and killed by the National Guard, and nine others were seriously injured. At 12:24 p.m., 67 shots were fired in 13 seconds.

The next morning on the front page of thousands of newspapers, Americans saw a photo that later won a Pulitzer Prize: a hysterical 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, with her arms raised over the body of Jeffrey Miller. People called it the day the Vietnam War came home - changing public opinion on the war.

The three days before the shootings were marked with protests in which the Army ROTC Building was burned. The National Guard was called in to calm the disturbances.

Richard Nixon, who was president at the time of the shootings, wrote years later in his memoir, "I could not get the photographs out of my mind. Those few days after Kent State were the darkest days of my presidency."

A special grand jury found that the guardsmen acted in self-defense and exonerated them of criminal charges. Eight were later indicted on federal charges of violating the students' civil rights, but those charges were dropped.

The wounded students and the families of the dead settled a $40 million suit out of court in January 1979 for $675,000.