For many, talks just a sideshow

Curious Annapolitans view rallies, protests, big Condoleezza head

Around town

Annapolis Mideast Conference

November 28, 2007|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun reporter

"I think everyone's still in bed," sighed Adee Telem as she gazed across the deserted St. John's campus. Telem works for One Voice, an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation group; early yesterday she was hoping to round up some local idealists in time for the midday rallies outside the Naval Academy, where the peace talks were being held.

The 26-year-old Owings Mills native and her colleagues figured that St. John's College was a prime place to look, even through the few students stirring there were plugged into iPods and slurping blearily from cups of coffee.

"Small liberal arts schools are an easy sell," said Jake Hayman, another One Voice organizer. "Seems like they've been deprived of a cause around here for quite a long time. We rounded up a small army here yesterday."

"Excuse me, sir, have you got a moment?" Hayman called to a passing student. "You know the conference happening today?"

Matt Langer sort of knew, and was slightly interested. But a meeting today? "Sorry, I'm in class," he said.

Eventually, they successfully corralled some "Johnnies" who were told to convene at an inn on State Circle. There, they were outfitted with One Voice T-shirts and fortified with a breakfast of sliced fruit and English muffins, as organizers Scotch-taped the finishing touches onto posters advertising the group's position, which rests on establishing separate Israeli and Palestinian states. Sun shined brightly through the windows. It was a beautiful day for a rally.

Among the recruits was St. John's junior Pamela Gardner, who hails from the bucolic community of Fairfield, Conn.

"It was funny because we were just joking about protesting our math class, and now we're here," she said. She'd never been to a demonstration before, but was eager to stand up for the right thing: peace.

Down by the Naval Academy gates, more seasoned demonstrators were already growing hoarse from screaming their slogans. There were Jews for a fully restored Israel, Jews protesting Israel in general, Christian Zionists opposed to the peace talks, and Christians supporting the peace talks because they thought it might expedite the end of the world. There was also a vociferous representative from Send a Piana to Havana, advocating the distribution of American musical instruments in Cuba.

Eventually, several hundred demonstrators milled around in the road near Gate 1. There were cowboy hats and yarmulkes, thick Russian accents and Texas twangs. People waved signs that said "No Concessions for Racist Israel" and "Don't Bargain With Divine Real Estate." Two elderly men hopped exuberantly in a traditional Jewish dance; a woman hollered out some of the more gruesome biblical passages; and a rabbi swooped by with his prayer shawl tied around his shoulders like Superman's cape. Blasts of sirens from nearby squad cars punctuated speeches shrieked into microphones.

"Don't give away one more square inch of Israel!" cried Constance Fischer of San Antonio, who didn't need a microphone.

"We're tired of rescuing Israel's chestnuts from the fire!" yelled Eric Anderson of Silver Spring.

A huge papier-mache Condoleezza Rice head bobbed through the growing crowd. Through its gaping mouth, you could see the bespectacled prankster within.

"The most important thing is to have a sense of humor about this stuff," said Liz Hourican of Arizona, only slightly muffled by her costume.

The scene downtown had been a curious one since the early morning, when white Chevy Suburbans circled the City Dock, German shepherds sniffed for bombs around the foundations of historic houses and what looked to be a SWAT team trooped past Starbucks. The wind-blown nautical types who normally define this city gaped openly as a group of anti-Israel Orthodox Jews in black hats and side curls confronted a Zionist in a baseball cap. Wide-eyed, Annapolitans were taking it all in.

Some residents also seized the opportunity to make statements of their own. In the windows of Casa Nova on Main Street, ceramic chickens -- one of the store's signature items -- were arranged around trays of conference-themed jewelry, including Middle Eastern crescents, peace symbols and Stars of David. Signs behind the tableaux said "Stop pecking around ... Make peace!" and "Don't be Chicken About Peace."

This innovative bit of merchandizing was "just an idea that came up over a couple of cocktails," said Wynn Bone, one of the store's owners.

By and large, though, the people expressing opinions were from out of town, as caravans rolled in from up and down the eastern seaboard. Shouting matches broke out in the crush of television cameras, and police moved in to monitor the situation more closely.

"Where is Rod Serling right now?" asked Ari Goldstein, rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, who watched incredulously as several banners of Jews for Jesus marched past. "I know he's going to pop out at any minute, because this is definitely the Twilight Zone."

The One Voice contingent showed up to start their chant of "One Voice, Two States" close to noon, just as the rally was heating up. Several St. John's students were with them; they stood awkwardly on the fringe of the fracas, although one brave soul got a picture with the Condoleezza impersonator, who was by now beating a tambourine.

For half an hour or so, Pamela Gardner stood among them, wrapping her coat tightly around her One Voice T-shirt, for the wind was very cold.

And then, all of a sudden, she was gone.

"Yeah," her friend Molly Rothenberg said vaguely. "I think Pam had to get back to class."

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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