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Arrested at the mall...for wearing an antiwar T-shirt
"I wanted to show I was for peace"

March 14, 2003 | Page 2

STEPHEN DOWNS became internationally known last week for taking a stand at an Albany, N.Y., shopping mall. Downs and his son Roger wore antiwar T-shirts at the Crossgates Mall, and when security guards ordered Stephen to take off the shirt--bearing the words "Peace on Earth" and "Give Peace a Chance"--he refused and was charged with trespassing. Within days, hundreds of antiwar opponents had descended on the mall to protest the absurd arrest--each wearing antiwar attire.

Here, Stephen talks to Socialist Worker's Ashley Smith about his action.

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I'VE BEEN frustrated at the inability to be heard. Just like other people, I have written letters to Congress. But there's no response. We are running out of ways to make our voices heard.

That's when I got the idea of the T-shirt in the mall. I had heard that people had walked around the mall in peace T-shirts, and some were confronted by security guards and told to take them off or leave the building. I was very troubled about what had happened to these people. So I thought what would happen if I did this?

I wanted to say something as a 60-year-old grandfather, so that my kids and grandkids would know that I was for peace.

So I went to a store that made t-shirts and ordered a couple with a peace slogan, and 15 minutes later, my son and I put them on and walked around the mall shopping. Most of the response to my shirt was positive. People said: "Love your shirt," and asked, "Where can I get one?"

The mall has said that it got complaints from a customer in Macy's. But we were never even near Macy's. The pro-war people have learned that they can go up to the security guards, complain about peace people and ask to have them removed. It's almost like they're on a campaign to get rid of peace people.

They're keeping us in fear, and fear is always bad when you need to make a big decision. To make a clear decision, you need freedom of speech--freedom to say what you think. What happened to me is a good example.

They're so afraid of the consequences of honest speech that they would rather suppress it. But the mall can't be declared off-limits to free speech. The First Amendment trumps any restrictions they might place on people in the mall. Now they would like to maintain a Disney World fantasy in the mall, so that nothing would interrupt shopping, but that's just not realistic. The mall is a public gathering space.

I was arrested by a corporation bent on self-destruction. There is a lot I love about America and its Constitution. If we lose our right to free speech in this way, we've lost the whole thing.

What I did was simple. What's significant is not what I did, but the reaction people have had to it. I've had at least 20 interviews a day from the news media from all over the world since this happened. I was downloading my e-mails yesterday. I had received 200 e-mails just yesterday, and 99 percent of them were supportive.

They were beautiful. I got all teary when I read them. People said touching things, affirming the things in the Constitution that are important, and they were outraged about what the hell's going on in this country.

An Iranian family that lives next door to us was amazed. They said, "What a country. You got arrested, and now you're a hero."

That got me thinking about the immigrants who are targeted right now. I'm a 60-year-old white guy, but what's happening to them is far more serious. What would have happened if the person wearing the T-shirt was a 30-year-old Palestinian? We may need to set up an underground railroad of safe houses to help them. If anyone does set up an underground railroad, I'll volunteer to provide a safe house.

Free speech should apply to everyone and should protect all speech, and not just the pabulum I put on my T-shirt.

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