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Vietnam-Era Veteran Arrested at VA Medical Center for Wearing Peace T-Shirt

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Mike Ferner, a Vietnam-era veteran, says he was arrested at the Jesse Brown V.A. Medical Center in Chicago for wearing a Veterans for Peace T-Shirt. We also speak with longtime peace activist Kathy Kelly about the crackdown on dissent. [includes rush transcript]

Getting arrested for wearing a peace T-Shirt. Sound unlikely? That’s what a Vietnam-era veteran says happened to him just a few days ago at the Jesse Brown V.A. Medical Center on Chicago’s south side.

He says a Veteran Administration cop detained him while he was drinking a cup of coffee and wearing a Veterans for Peace T-Shirt.

That Vietnam-era veteran joins us now from a studio in Chicago.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Ferner served as a Navy corpsman during Vietnam, is now a member of Veterans for Peace. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MIKE FERNER: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, and I see that you’re wearing your t-shirt.

MIKE FERNER: Yes, same one.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened to you?

MIKE FERNER: Well, it’s pretty simple. You got the crux of it. I’m from Toledo, Ohio. And I guess the first thing I want to say is, for people who know the difference between Vietnam veteran and Vietnam era veteran, I served as a hospital corpsman from '69 to ’72, but was fortunate to spend that time primarily at the Great Lakes Navy Base and a little while on an aircraft carrier, so I wasn't in Vietnam, but I took care of the guys who were coming back.

And I’m from Toledo, and I came to Chicago to participate in the final week of the month-long walk that Voices for Creative Non-Violence was doing from Springfield to the Great Lakes Navy Base, the processing facility, they call it there, for new recruits. And I came in to participate in the last week. And the day that I got in this past Friday, the group was at the South End of Chicago, and I was walking with them, and I do freelance journalism, and I was going to do some stories on the walk. And they stopped at the V.A. medical center for a while, and there was about ten of us or so at that point, and at one at a time we were taking bathroom breaks.

And when it was my turn, I went in, and there’s a little coffee stand there, so I got a cup of coffee, and I sat down to drink it. And the V.A. cop came up to me, Officer Adkins, and said, “Okay, your 15 minutes is up. You gotta go.” And I was kind of startled and asked him what he was talking about. And he said, “Well, if you’re wearing that shirt in here, you’re protesting.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry. I’m not protesting. I’m having a cup of coffee.” And as the conversation continued, I vainly tried explaining some Supreme Court decisions to him about, you know, people’s right to wear what they want to wear on their shirt, and that this should be no problem. And he was adamant and said that, “Well, if you don’t leave right now, you’re going to get arrested.” So I just looked at him, and I said, “Well, arrest me.”

And he was glad to do that, and then cuffed me and took me over to the security room at the V.A. center there, and they booked me on disorderly conduct. They dropped a weapons charge, because I had my little Swiss Army knife on me; they dropped that charge after they had it written up. And criminal trespass, they said that they were going to drop that one, too. So, at any rate, that’s where it is now.

And the story that you and probably some of your viewers have seen that ran in Counterpunch and a few other places and now has kind of circulated to many internet sites has elicited an incredible response. I’ve gotten literally hundreds of responses to that, and probably eight or ten attorneys, one of whom, from Florida, said, “If you can’t find an attorney in Chicago, let me know. I’ll fly up there to represent you.” So, I was talking with an attorney just yesterday. I’m confident the ACLU is going to get involved. And I’m confident that we’ll win this, you know, we’ll beat these — this particular charge.

However, of course, the larger issue is that nobody in the government has the right to be doing that, regardless of what the person — what political speech they’re engaging in. They have no business of preventing it in that kind of way. And so, I’m seriously considering a civil lawsuit to try to get that home as well as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, as we were headed home, Mike Ferner, we thought we were going to have a discussion or a debate with the V.A. We talked to, I think it was Raymond Leber, who is a spokesperson for the V.A. in Chicago. He was going to join you in the studio, but then he got word from D.C. that he would not be able to speak about this on television. Your response?

MIKE FERNER: Well, from their perspective, I can sure see why they pulled the plug. I mean, I think it’s pretty much of a no-win situation for the V.A., and they don’t need another black eye over something like this. You know, so it’s not a surprise. I hope that the fallout from this resounds up to the top levels of the V.A. and beyond into the federal government to let them know that, first of all, they know that it’s wrong to behave in this manner, but secondly, more importantly, to let them know that people are going to resist. And every time some either minor official or a major official starts telling Americans, you know, “Get out of here if you’re going to try to express an opinion,” that people are going to resist.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike, do you think if you were wearing another t-shirt they would have let you stay?

MIKE FERNER: Oh, sure. Yeah. I could have had a shirt on that said, you know, “Nuke ’em back to the stone age!” or any one of a number of things, and there would have been nothing said.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s going to happen now? Where does this stand?

MIKE FERNER: Well, the citation they gave me was for a $275 fine, which I’m not going to pay, and go to court. And I don’t have a court date yet, but I’ll be back in Chicago at some point before too long for a court date unless, of course, somebody in the V.A. comes to their senses and decides to drop the charges.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by longtime peace activist, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Kathy Kelly. She’s a member of Voices for Creative Non-Violence, the founder of Voices in the Wilderness. She recently returned from a trip to Iraq, as well as was on this long walk. Kathy, welcome to Democracy Now!

KATHY KELLY: Good morning, Amy and Juan, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you just finished with Mike Ferner and others, this journey you took?

KATHY KELLY: This was a walk that began in Springfield, Illinois. It was intended to go for 300 miles — actually 320 miles — for 30 days, so that we’d have a chance to make contact with people in very grassroots Central Illinois, be able to help connect the dots between the enormous amount of U.S. wealth and productivity that gets poured into the war and into defense spending, while it’s not at all hard to stop at places all along the route that represent human needs here in the United States not being met. Particularly we were concerned about the prisons and detention centers, which we think mark an abysmal failure in our society, where one out of every 136 people are in prison.

But we also wanted to stop at the veterans facilities and hold up signs that said, “Demand Quality Care for Veterans!” You know, if we had had somebody from the Veterans Administration on this morning it would have been so appropriate to ask them: What about patching up our own veterans that are returning from this war, many of whom are getting substandard care, and some of whom end up homeless because their benefits are cut so radically?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Kathy, what was the response at some of those veterans’ facilities? Were you able to talk to many of the veterans as they were coming in and out? Or did you get a sense — because obviously there have been lots of stories in recent years about the terrible treatment of these returning veterans.

KATHY KELLY: Well, we were able to talk with a representative locally in Chicago from Vets for Peace, and I think it’s really important for all of the organizers cross-country to be in touch with their local veterans groups and to try to figure out ways to make responses that would help these people returning home after great trauma.

But we also believe it’s very, very important that people be willing, as Mike was willing, to stand up to the authorities. You know, essentially, the risks that we face if we go to, for instance, the enlistment processing command center, as we did yesterday, where three of our people were arrested for reading the names of people who were killed, both veterans and Iraqi people, of this war, the risks we take are nothing even close, as civilians here in the United States, to what soldiers risk if they go up against the authorities. And the risks that we take are nothing compared to what’s imposed, inflicted on people in other countries, who bear the brunt of our foreign policy that’s based on threat and force. I mean, we’re not going to face a death squad coming to our homes or a massacre or our families being threatened in any way. So we really want to encourage people to be very, very much in touch with both the grassroots, but also standing up to defend their rights to free speech.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly, you recently once again returned from Iraq. What did you find on this most recent trip? You challenged the sanctions under President Clinton. You challenged the invasion led by President Bush. What did you find in this trip in 2006?

KATHY KELLY: Well, in this trip, first I found that I couldn’t get a visa to enter into Baghdad, Central or Southern Iraq, but we were able to cross into the northern cuticle of Iraq and stayed for a week in Sulaymaniyah. In the north, conditions are so much better, but even there, at 7:00 a.m. the electricity was turned off and didn’t go back on until about 8:00 p.m. And you can imagine, where the temperatures are soaring in the center and the south, what a hardship this is.

We were painfully aware of how difficult it would be, even from the north, to try to build the kinds of hospital and healthcare delivery facilities that are so desperately needed in the center and the south, even as the people who had been contracted to do that, the Parsons Company, had walked away from the job, recognizing that they had not fulfilled what they had been contracted to do.

You don’t find the same sense of welcome or friendliness that many of us had been so amazed by in the many years that we had gone to Iraq before the shock-and-awe invasion and the U.S. occupation. Both in Jordan and Iraq, we found a great deal of suspicious and anxious response. And in Amman, Jordan, person after person came to the small hotel where we stayed and told us stories about fleeing from death threats and their lives being simply altered really permanently because of the effects of this war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to go back to Mike Ferner for a minute. Mike, you were also arrested yesterday as part of this continuing march and protest. Could you talk about that situation?

MIKE FERNER: Yes. That was about as much of a surprise as the one at the V.A. hospital. Again, as Kathy mentioned, the Voices for Creative Non-Violence walk through Illinois ended at the Military Entrance Processing facility at the Great Lakes Navy Base. When I went to boot camp there, they didn’t have a MEPCOM. They just —- you just went in. But three of the people from Voices, Jeff Leys, Diane Hughes and Ceylon Mooney, had a long list of U.S. and Iraqi people that had been killed in this war. And their purpose was to go into the facility and read that list of names and toll a little bell. And, of course, as soon as they walked through the gate to the parking lot -—

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds, Mike.

MIKE FERNER: — they were met by some security guards. I was there covering that and wound up getting arrested, as I was trying to take pictures of them. So, that’s what happened there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us in Chicago, Mike Ferner of Veterans for Peace and Kathy Kelly, a longtime peace activist and founder of Voices in the Wilderness.

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