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United we stand'

An unidentified protester burns an American flag Friday in the vicinity of a peace rally at Ashland Plaza.-- Photo by Satsuki Doi — — —

On eve of Ashland peace rally, flag-burning catches police, activists by surprise

We love our country and believe it is essential for citizens to speak out.

A peace rally Friday afternoon in Ashland's Plaza took an incendiary turn an American flag was burned; but police and organizers of a celebration today say they hope things will stay calm and respectful.

About 60 people gathered in the downtown Plaza at noon Friday to make anti-war signs, Ashland police Sgt. Bob Smith said. A loose-knit group of peace activists sent out a press release on the rally and called for a general strike Friday to oppose a war with Iraq.

Some people wanted to take it from peaceful to more defiant, Smith said.

He said one person tried to incite the crowd and about a dozen people joined in. They burned an American flag hung upside down on a pole and marched into the street, disrupting traffic.

What they wanted was a reaction, Smith said, noting that people are willing to do ever more drastic things to attract media attention.

Ashland police didn't rise to the bait and make any arrests, although marching in the street to disrupt traffic does violate laws, he said.

Flag burning is not illegal. Despite repeated attempts in the U.S. Congress to ban the act, the Supreme Court has said burning the Stars and Stripes falls under free-speech protections.

As long as no one gets hurt or put in a position of danger, discretion is the better part of valor, Smith said of the force's inaction.

He said police are sensitive to citizen's rights to voice objections about war and don't want the community to perceive them as heavy handed.

We want people to express their opinion. We encourage them to have their say, but do it the right way and don't disrupt civil order, he said.

Smith added that most of those at Friday's rally were trying to voice their objections to war in a productive way.

At dusk, police from Ashland, Talent and Phoenix, as well as the Jackson County Sheriff's department gathered in Ashland to monitor protest activity. People drummed under the tree in Lithia Park where protesters are perched and another group played hackey sack near a collection of anti-war signs in the Plaza.

Peter Buckley, an Ashland resident and recent Democratic candidate for Congress, carried an American flag on a peace walk from Ashland to Medford last month. He said he was surprised at Friday's flag-burning outburst.

One of the things I know is that the vast majority of us who oppose war and work with Peace House want to make clear that we are patriotic, he said. We love our country and believe it is essential for citizens to speak out.

Protesting a possible war with Iraq is fine with Keith Newcomb, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam and post commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Crater Lake Post 1833 in Medford.

But he doesn't think much of those who burned an American flag as part of a protest in Ashland Friday.

I'm disappointed that someone would think burning the flag would help their cause, he said, noting that it will the opposite is true.

Burning a flag is counterproductive, he added. It will cause some people to support what these people are against.

The reason, he said, is that many people may feel burning the flag flies in the face of those in uniform who sacrificed through the years.

Part of what people in the military have fought for is the right to protest, he said. But I think that whoever did this is misguided. They aren't going to get any support that way.

That flag represents something quite unique and wonderful in the history of mankind, he added.

As part of a worldwide effort to advocate peace, Ashland-based Peace House has planned a series of events today. People will meet the Ashland Plaza by 7:30 a.m. for a peace walk to Medford. Participants can join the walk anywhere along Highway 99.

At noon, protesters will assemble in Veterans Memorial Park at Stewart and Riverside avenues in Medford for an interdenominational prayer service to pray for those who serve the country in the military and to call for peace, Buckley said.

From there, the group will walk to Alba Park for a peace celebration at — p.m. From 2 to 5 p.m., a Hearts for Peace Festival featuring music will take place at Kids Unlimited/Vibes, — E. Main St., Medford.

Buckley said he was concerned about the violent actions of the flag-burners. He said organizers from Peace House had worked closely with local law enforcement to ensure a peaceful, respectful and safe event.

An unidentified protester burns an American flag Friday in the vicinity of a peace rally at Ashland Plaza. -- Photo by Satsuki Doi - Mail Tribune images