By Tara Treasurefield
"I WAVE NO FLAG. I support no war against the peoples of the world. I oppose U.S. policies that impose injustice and misery on so many people around the world." These are the words that farmer Neal Dunaetz wrote on a sign that he displayed at the Sonoma Farmers Market on Sept. 14. Alarmed by the increasing presence of the American flag and by talk of war and vengeance, Dunaetz made space for alternative views. He attracted people to his stall by giving away produce and, while he had their attention, engaged them in a discussion about U.S. foreign policy, a move that has stirred a storm of controversy over free-speech issues in that usually quiet Sonoma County town.
Some welcomed the opportunity to share ideas and information that the mainstream media scrupulously avoid. Others were deeply offended by what struck them as insensitive, even treasonous, behavior. One vendor carried a sign of his own throughout the market: "America--love it or leave it!" and at one point thrust it in Dunaetz's face.
To avoid further conflict, on Sept. 25 the Farmers Market board of directors circulated a statement to all vendors that read in part, "The Farmers Market should not be a place to air political views. We hope vendors will consider how their actions impact those around them." One or two vendors say that market manager Hilda Schwarz discouraged them from displaying the flag, and on Oct. 2, the town's weekly community newspaper, the Sonoma Index Tribune, ran a front-page article critical of the market's board of directors.
Rushing to the defense of their flag, irate patriots flooded the Index Tribune with letters condemning the Farmers Market board, and on Oct. 9, a half dozen members of the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, some carrying huge American flags, walked through the Farmers Market.
Assembling at Dunaetz's stall, the veterans found that he had pinned a burnt American flag to his shirt and was passing out a letter that described America as a bully, the people who destroyed the World Trade Center as brave, and the bombing of Afghanistan as a crime against humanity. Some insisted that Dunaetz leave the market. One veteran even urged him to leave the country, and offered to pay his airfare.
But several nearby shoppers supported Dunaetz and expressed their own opposition to the war. Longtime Sonoma resident Bette Timm was furious with those who were trying to silence Dunaetz, and shouted, "He has a right to speak!"
Sonoma Mayor Ken Brown, a Vietnam War veteran, says, "My personal reaction is that the burnt flag and letter are like a poke in the eye. But I believe he has a right to his opinion."
Retired Navy Capt. Bob Piazza agrees. "We were willing to sacrifice our lives for the right to free speech, the right to carry arms, all the freedoms we have in this country. The minute we prevent, or attempt to prevent, those who disagree with the country's current policies from voicing their opinion, we've just defeated the reasons we spent our time in the military," he says.
A former Vietnam combat medic, Ted Sexauer, not only defends Dunaetz's right to speak; he also shares some of his views. He says, "I believe that bombing Afghanistan is absolutely the worst thing we could have done. We need to stop terrorizing poor people who happen to live where resources 'vital to the United States' are found. I know very well I'm not the only one who feels this way, yet our voices are not represented in government or the media. This country needs its loyal dissenters."
Since Oct. 9, Dunaetz has received four anonymous phone calls threatening him with bodily harm, and four others from people who were content to simply call him names. Marty Bennett, a professor of history at Santa Rosa Junior College, isn't surprised. "Always, when this nation goes to war there's an attempt to suppress dissent and to force all patriotic Americans to rally around the flag," he says.
There's no question that the threats against Dunaetz are unlawful and unconscionable. But he isn't simply an innocent victim; his words and actions have been intentionally provocative. Unrepentant, he says, "The world doesn't need one more voice mourning American deaths while ignoring the countless victims of U.S. aggression all over the world. Americans should be asking what's happening that people have so much hatred they'd actually sacrifice their lives to give such a kick to this country.
"Because we live in a democracy," he says, "we're responsible for the actions our government takes."
From the October 25-31, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.