Amnesty International denied fair booth

Group's message clashes with International Day theme, organizers say

July 22, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A local chapter of Amnesty International has been denied an information booth at Columbia's 10th annual International Day on Saturday because it doesn't mesh with the festival's theme, Columbia Association officials say.

The group, which campaigns worldwide for human rights and participated in the festival last year, doesn't align with the event's mission of celebrating the planned community's ethnic and cultural diversity, said Michelle Miller, the association's director of community services.

Crafts or ethnic foods

As a private nonprofit homeowners organization, the Columbia Association does not want to be perceived as endorsing groups that support a particular political or religious view, she said.

"We want to make sure that we have vendors that are displaying craft products or food vendors that are displaying different ethnic foods," Miller said.

Robert Steiner, a member of the Columbia/Laurel chapter of Amnesty International, is lobbying Columbia Association board members to allow his group to participate in the festival and calls Amnesty an apolitical organization.

"It has no agenda other than the promotion of democracy, freedom of expression and humane legal procedures," Steiner wrote in a letter to board members.

Steiner wrote that the group's booth would contain "nothing other than sample letters, histories of Amnesty and accounts of political prisoners (eg in Syria, Korea, and Romania) whose liberation we have helped to achieve."

Process has changed

Keisha Reynolds, a Columbia Association spokeswoman, said that although Amnesty participated in International Day in the past, the application process was altered after a different group at last year's festival handed out "graphic material" that prompted complaints.

International Day, which last year attracted about 7,500 people, runs from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday at Columbia's downtown Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront. Along with food, performances and crafts from around the world, the festival highlights Columbia's European sister cities, Cergy-Pontoise, France and Tres Cantos, Spain, allowing people to meet participants in the high school exchange program.

The free event is slated to offer 67 vendors selling cultural products and foods, including Beautiful By Nature, which sells attire from Africa, India and Indonesia; Patagonia Art, which sells Argentine jewelry; and Cultureshock Enterprises, which sells international percussion instruments.

Columbia Cooperative Ministry, an interfaith group, also was granted an information booth. Steiner questions the decision, saying that many of the group's programs are similar to Amnesty's.

Reynolds said Columbia Cooperative Ministry was allowed to participate because it doesn't present one religious view.

"That particular organization represents multiculturalism ... a conglomerate of religions," she said.

Support from board

Steiner has earned the support of some association board members, including Phil Marcus of Kings Contrivance.

Marcus calls the association's decision to exclude Amnesty "paradoxical and ironic" to the vision of developer James W. Rouse, who wanted a diverse group of residents.

"It seems to me we should not be censoring what people have to say - as long as it's not obscene or something - at a table at International Day if they relate to international matters, which certainly Amnesty International does," Marcus said.

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