17 Years of Courthouse Protests

You can’t buy the Volkswagen van; it’s not for sale. Ed Epley bought it new back in 1961 and he’s not giving it up now. “We get almost more questions about the van than we do about the protest,” jokes Gene Russel. The deep-red van, the countless flags and signs, and the gathered group of participants are a familiar presence in front of the court house on 4th Street, where this anti-war protest has congregated every day from 5 to 6 p.m. for the past 17 years, including weekends, holidays, and days with all manner of extreme weather conditions. In 2009, it was the subject of an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Some of the signs read “Veterans For Peace” and “No War Anywhere” and “No Border Wall.” They are stacked high in the back of Ed’s van. There’s a massive blue flag propped up in a manhole cover with an image of the earth. “Every town should be doing this,” says Russel.  Epley and Russel have both been there since the first day, October 8, 2001—the day after the United States invaded Afghanistan.  

Throughout the hour, many people show up, and clearly have settled into a routine—greeting the others by name, plucking a sign from the back of Ed’s van, and joining in. This is not a particular organization or group, just a daily gathering of anyone who wants to help spread a message of peace. Some are college students, many are retired folks, even some whole families come and join in together. People stop and chat as they’re out walking their dogs.

Parents with young kids often stop to get them involved. The children enjoy holding the signs and watching the reactions they cause in the passing cars.

Epley and Russel agree that at least 80 percent of the reactions they get are positive and supportive: honks and waves, thumbs up, smiles, people stopping to chat, and even bringing cookies or other treats. All the reactions I see while I’m with them are positive. And I’m pleasantly startled by how many I see. With each new cluster of rush-hour traffic, I look up and wave to honks and friendly greetings and thumbs up and finger peace signs. It’s a small taste of what it is like to be a part of this positive energy they are spreading. 

But not all the passersby reciprocate with positivity. The group has seen their share of thumbs down, middle fingers, and even hurled food and beverages. Epley, while manning the protest alone, once had a car charge toward him before swerving back into the center lane of traffic. Minutes later, he felt a hand clamp his shoulder from behind and was alarmed. It was the driver of the careening vehicle, who had come back to apologize.

They’ve also faced counter-protesters congregating across the street, though this was mostly happening after the war in Afghanistan began and has rarely been seen in the last decade or so. They would play loud music over a PA system and hold signs of their own that said things like “Support our Troops,” “Bombs not Books” (while standing in front of Browsers’ Bookstore), and ones calling the protesters dirty hippies and suggesting they get jobs, despite the fact that most of the regular protesters are retired. 

A common criticism of this protest is that it shows a lack of support for the troops, but several of the protesters are veterans themselves, including Gene Russel, who served in Vietnam and understands what it’s like to get a cold welcome home. Clearly, one can protest war while still being supportive of veterans, and the demonstration has never been about disparaging the troops in any way, according to the demonstrators themselves.

I ask Epley if people have ever vandalized his van and he shows me a flat 2 X 2 square of wood board with four nails through it. “One of those under each of the eight wheels,” he says, though luckily he noticed and saved the tires on both his vehicles. He also points to a side window spiderwebbed with cracks on his VW van. “That’s from a brick two weeks ago,” he says.

Epley has a letter from the Secretary of State who affirmed that they are constitutionally protected in their peaceful protest at least 100 feet from the court house building, issued after a complaint was taken to the election offices about their protesting in front of the court house on election days.

At 6 p.m. the signs and flags go back in the van, Epley tells me to “Bring Robin next time” (noting my Batman shirt), I tell him, “That’s strictly my night job,” and the friendly, mild-mannered activists go back to their homes. Hopefully the protest soon won’t be necessary anymore, but until that time, you’ll know where to find them.

By Eric Austin