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California Town Fights Civil War Over Gulf

February 13, 1991

ARCATA, Calif. (AP) _ American flags flap from the antennas of the huge trucks that rumble through town every day, like armored tanks ready to take part in the civic strife raging over the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf War.

The battle, ignited by a City Council effort to declare Arcata a sanctuary for war resisters, is forcing people to choose sides in the town long divided and now torn apart. Neighbors have become enemies, friends foes.

″I’m scared,″ says Barbara Ennis, a 15-year resident who says she’s a pacifist. ″I’m shaking when I think about how people are sneering at each other openly. If you don’t fly the American flag, you’re suspect.

″If we can’t find peace in Arcata, how can we find peace in the Middle East?″

The battle includes a plot for a coup of sorts as a conservative, business- led ″Shadow City Council″ forms.

″We will take the town back from these liberals,″ says Bill O’Neill, president of Arcata Readimix, whose cement mixers drive through Arcata Town Plaza proudly flying American flags.

″For 20 years, this has been a place that has attracted rejects from places like Berkeley,″ he says. ″Now, the silent majority has woken up to this and we’re going to stay awake.″

The city, swept by sea breezes and smelling of fresh-cut logs from Pacific Lumber Co., is known as a liberal island among conservative far Northern California. Home to Humboldt State University, Arcata is a nuclear-free zone and a sanctuary for Central American refugees. It has strong recycling and help-the-homeless programs.

″There’s always been a far right and a far left in this town, but we lived together peacefully,″ says Jeff Dickey, owner of Arcata Stationers. ″This little war and the Persian Gulf War has surprised me.″

The City Council unwittingly dropped the first political bomb when it declared the town a sanctuary for war resisters just hours after Iraq was attacked Jan. 16.

The five-member panel rescinded the action a week later when opponents fired back with a petition bearing more than 6,100 signatures. The town’s population is 12,865. Council members said they erred by acting hastily and without a public hearing.

But the damage was done.

″I got a call the very next day asking me where my restaurant stood,″ says Bill Chino, co-owner of Abruzzi’s.

″It’s unfair because people on both sides support the troops,″ says Humboldt State senior Mark Mueller, a peace activist and environmentalist on the 7,800-student campus.

Veterans, businesses and conservatives declared war after people outside town began boycotting its merchants. Owners who say they were accused of being anti-government denounced the council and helped form Concerned Citizens of Arcata to ″liberate″ the town.

″I think the people of this town have sat back too long out of frustration over the political process,″ says Robert Thomas, president of Joe Costa Trucking and a leader of the anti-council effort.

Thomas calls his faction ″the silent majority″ because the council was voted in during apathetic elections. Only 1,200 of 9,000 registered voters cast ballots last November.

The first meeting of the Concerned Citizens, held last week, filled Veterans Memorial Building. More than 300 members adopted a constitution and began plotting the overthrow. They nominated a ″Shadow City Council″ to monitor the elected government.

Bob Groby, an insurance agent who served on the battleship USS Missouri, led a rally that rocked the hall.

″Wars are won by the group troops and it’s time for us to begin to mount the ground campaign,″ he said. ″It’s the only way we can get support to liberate Arcata.″

Thomas urged restraint, including holding off, at least for now, on a council recall election.

Mayor Victor Schaub is the target of most recall talk.

″A recall election would once and for all prove that the City Council does have strong support out there,″ says Schaub, sounding angry but confident. ″I don’t think there will be a recall because it would be a vote on the war. And they don’t want that.″

Schaub says a majority of the 150-plus letters he has received are supportive. But, like others on the anti-war side, he has received death threats.

Unlike the rest of the council, Schaub has refused to apologize for the sanctuary action, although he says it was poorly handled.

″I will not apologize for opposing this war in which President Bush is sending our youth to die in the desert,″ says Schaub, who got his law degree from Berkeley in the early 1970s and moved to Arcata in 1974. ″I will say that I’m sorry about how we went about passing the resolution.″

For decades it’s been ″us″ against ″them″ in Arcata, where longhaired hippies walk alongside truckers and loggers in plaid shirts and crew cuts.

During Vietnam, students started getting involved in Arcata politics. Humboldt County became infamous for pot farms hidden by stands of redwood trees cut by conservative logging families.

The county became a hotbed of environmental activity as anti-logging groups such as Earth First 3/8 demonstrated in the area. Recycling and vegetarianism grew popular, and health stores sprouted next to timber stacks.

In recent years, clashes worsened. Anti-logging groups held protests and pushed for laws to limit timber cutting. Signs saying ″No Jobs″ are outside many lumber yards.

But Mayor Schaub is philosophical, believing the civil war will end with a peaceful cease-fire.

″At least people are talking and getting involved over the war,″ he says, trying to smile. ″This is the most important issue people face and it should be debated with strong voices.″

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