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Incident sparks fiery debate; case slated for trial Tuesday

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2003

The temperature hovered right around freezing as a small group of peace demonstrators stood nearly motionless at the Soldotna "Y" with their collars turned up against a cold wind.

The group, mostly in their 50s, opposed the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies.

It was late March and U.S. soldiers en route to Baghdad were reporting their first significant casualties as they encountered resistance from Iraqis near An Nasiriyah.

The ground war portion of Operation Iraqi Freedom so named by President George W. Bush was under a full head of steam, as U.S. Marine and Army units along with British troops were targeting Iraq's capital city with their sights trained on Saddam Hussein.

The Soldotna protesters, opposed to the war for various reasons, gathered at the busy intersection nightly to show their dissent. They held large signs depicting the peace sign which came to national prominence during similar anti-war protests in the late 1960s.

The protesters gathered at about 5 p.m. to quietly express their views to motorists passing in the evening rush to get home. Some passersby waved in agreement, some disagreed, many simply drove by.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a shower of water hit the already chilled demonstrators. One of the many pickup trucks passing by secretly carried a passenger in its cargo bed, armed and ready with a bucket of water to show his opposition of the protest.

After two such incidents about a week apart, Soldotna police arrested Jeff Webster, a Soldotna fishing guide and taxi driver, who has since been formally charged with harassment, fourth-degree assault and interference with the constitutional rights of the demonstrators.

In the meantime, he has publicly stated he believed the demonstrators were right in protesting the war before it started, but once America committed its troops, it was time to rally in support of them.

"I was there (at the Soldotna "Y") because it matters to me whether we use force as a nation," said Stanley Histand, a 54-year-old Soldotna carpenter, who is one of 10 demonstrators listed in the indictment as a victim of the alleged attack. "That's no way to solve anything."

Histand also said he feels strongly about the rights of Americans to protest when they disagree with policies or actions of its leaders.

"We have a right to do that. The need to do that is what this country's all about," he said. "America expects people to do that as part of its decision-making process.

John Kasukonis, a 56-year-old emergency room doctor at Central Peninsula General Hospital and also one of the Soldotna demonstrators, disagreed with the war as well.

"I feel our government made the wrong move," he said. "A pre-emptive war is something we've never done before. It's setting a dangerous precedent."

As far as his right to express his views, Kasukonis said he respects people who voice their opinion. However, he does not condone people doing so violently.

"There were some protesters out there showing their support for the troops in Iraq. They were waving flags, and I gave them a wave in support of their first amendment rights," he said.

"You can even wave your fist if you want, but just don't poke it in someone's nose."

Like Histand and Kasukonis, Billie Dailey, at age 82 perhaps the most senior of the Soldotna demonstrators, believes in her right to demonstrate.

She demonstrated against the war in Vietnam while attending college in California, she wrote letters of protest to the U.S. Senate against the United States' involvement in Nicaragua in 1985, and she picketed in San Francisco in the 1990s on behalf of hotel housekeepers organizing a union.

"I don't like it when people are oppressed," she said.

"I think we're driven by our biological inheritance, our environment and our reaction to both.

"I insist on my right to protest. ... Absolutely. ... I insist on it. I like to speak out," she said.

"How did I get this way? I was 7, living in an orphanage because of the Depression, and everybody looked fine except this one disheveled girl. I was chosen to be the companion to the daughter of a woman on the board of trustees of the orphanage and I would get to go to their home on what I called 'vacations.'

"One day, I was on the way to the orphanage and I took a dress my mother had made me and I gave it to this girl. Now she was like the rest of us. That's what I was like at 7. It was innate.

"We just need to treat each other well while we're here," she said.

Although she never completed a college degree, Dailey took classes at a private college in Redwood City, Calif., has attended Kenai Peninsula College and is self-educated in areas of politics and political activism.

"I especially like what Sidney Harris has to say in 'On the Contrary': '(Fascism) has no business masquerading as "Americanism" or "conservativism" or "patriotism" when its whole philosophy of man is based on a hate-filled exclusiveness that would shock and affront the conservative American patriots who founded this country.'

"I like my freedom. I like my independence," Dailey said.

In addition to its direct effect on the demonstrators, the water- throwing incident impacted the central Kenai Peninsula community as well.

"This incident put Soldotna especially in a very bad light, particularly as it is perceived through the Anchorage media," said Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey.

"From the very beginning, I had dialogue with the (Soldotna) police chief and she expressed strongly that this was illegal and when someone breaks the law they must be dealt with," Carey said.

"In America, democracy allows us to passionately express our beliefs, ... (but) not violently," he said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley also said he believes in people's right to protest, and said, "I definitely support President Bush. I support the war in Iraq.

"I believe in the right to protest, but don't throw water on people," he said.

Bagley said the people of Soldotna have been depicted as a group of rednecks.

"Soldotna certainly is not a redneck community. It's unfortunate that the activity of one person can paint an entire community in that light," he said.

The Webster case is scheduled to go to trial Tuesday in Kenai District Court.



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