Others not so neighborly to Blackwater as North Carolina
Virginian Pilot (2007-08-26) Joanne Kimberlin
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By JOANNE KIMBERLIN, The Virginian-Pilot
© August 26, 2007
Protest marches. Recall elections. Fiery speeches. Dire predictions. Even the shaking of rattles to ward off the company's "evil" spirit.
Blackwater USA says reports of opposition to its expansion plans in Illinois and California are "greatly exaggerated," but a look at the happenings in those states makes one thing pretty clear, They see things a little differently out there.
Just south of the line that separates Virginia from North Carolina, Moyock has been rubbing elbows with Blackwater for 10 years. The company's 7,000-acre home base lies just outside town.
When asked about their neighbor - described in a recent book as "The World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" - folks around Moyock mostly shrug.
"What's the big deal?" asked H.R. Thomas, a retired Ford worker and long time local resident. "They don't bother nobody. If they didn't have the T-shirt on, you wouldn't even know who they were."
Moyock is a company town. Money flows out of Blackwater's compound in the form of paychecks, purchases and taxes. Its bear-paw logo is practically a symbol of hometown pride.
To be sure, there are spats. Sherry Motes shares a property line with Blackwater. She complains that there are nights when the sound of gunfire disturbs her sleep.
"But I worry that if I'm too vocal, I'll be an outcast from society," Motes said. "I'm surrounded by people who think everything they do is great."
In other parts of the country, that's hardly the case.
Foreign, hostile lands? That's Blackwater's comfort zone. The company's security contractors provide armed protection for diplomats and other targets in Iraq - a risky role in a deadly place.
"In the ’60s we used to call those kind of people 'peaceniks.’ I never liked ’em very much." - Bill Winslow, who helps run The Border Station, a popular tourist quick-stop in Moyock, N.C., speaking about protesters in Illinois and California.
Domestic issues, however, can be thorny - at least outside North Carolina.
This month, in the northwest corner of Illinois, protesters sang, chanted and drummed outside the gates of Blackwater's new, 80-acre compound in Mount Carroll.
A bid to open an 800-acre facility in the hills outside San Diego has led to a recall election of the Potrero, Calif., planning group.
The usual concerns have reared their heads in both places - noise, traffic, zoning, environment. But now there's a new, bigger player: the war.
Opposition to it grows daily on the home front. Even the strongest objectors, however, avoid blaming the soldiers. But "hate the war, support the troops" is not being extended to Blackwater.
Gordon Hammers is chairman of the planning group facing recall in California. He said the group is merely an advisory board and its only advice on the Blackwater West proposal was to seek more information.
"And for that, they want to kick us out of office," he said. "We have a group of people here who are dedicated to their anti-war principal, and they see Blackwater as a villain."
The company's timing was particularly bad in Illinois. Mount Carroll lies in a conservative piece of rolling countryside near the Mississippi, but it's surrounded by a hotbed of liberal thinking. Illinois has a quiet tradition of political and social activism, with a standing network of peace and justice groups. Voters have passed resolutions demanding the United States bring home its troops.
One group in Dekalb has been staging an anti-war vigil at a busy intersection every Friday afternoon - blizzards notwithstanding - since before the war even began.
Dan Kenney, a fourth-grade teacher, is a member of that group. He said the peace and justice coalition had just moved private soldiers to the top of its hit list when he saw a small article in a local newspaper about Blackwater North opening in Mount Carroll.
"Companies like Blackwater are profiteers making money off war," Kenney said. "Our focus on that and their arrival here just happened to come together at the same time."
The debate over private guns hired by the military has been sharpened by their unprecedented numbers - an estimated 25,000 working in Iraq. Problems have cropped up with control and accountability, but in an era of military downsizing, they've become such a fixture on the front that a recent congressional report said security contractors are widely viewed as "vital to U.S. efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq."
No matter: An opposition group named Clearwater has organized in Illinois. No one will say exactly how many members the group has, but there's nothing murky about its agenda. Clearwater wants to drive Blackwater out of the state.
"They're a lethal force, hired by our government, that is not accountable to the citizens," said Mary Shesgreen, a psychotherapist and member of Clearwater.
Since Blackwater North opened in April, Clearwater has kept the compound on Skunk Hollow Road in its sights. A farmer rented a plane and provided surveillance photos. Kenney posed as a prospective client and received a tour. A long time Illinois peace activist who calls himself Martin Hippie stood outside the property shaking rattles and meditating to ward off "the evil Blackwater spirits."
Ernie Lieb, who runs an excavation outfit in the area, said Clearwater doesn't speak for working folks like him. He says he's already earned some money moving dirt at Blackwater North.
"Locals just hope the company will bring some jobs and spend some money here," Lieb said. "Most of the people I know are glad about it."
On Aug. 11, Clearwater held a "Gathering at the Gate" protest. The group said 80 or so people showed up; Blackwater said it was more like 30. A video, available on You Tube
, shows what appears to be part revival, part '60s-style peace rally.
Kenney was one of the speakers.
"We must stop Blackwater before it spreads further," he said to the protesters, "before it washes away all semblances of democracy, before they turn their trained guns for hire on us. Today we stand here and ask: What becomes of our souls when war is waged for profit?"
In the end, the people sang:
"We're on our way
And we won't turn back...
We'll shut you down, Blackwater
We'll shut you down..."
In California, well-known for its counter culture, it's not surprising that Blackwater isn't exactly feeling the love, either.
The company's main foe there is the East County Democratic Club. Its "Stop Blackwater" Web site warns: "These are the bases of an invading force bent on stealing our country from us, right out from under our noses. CONNECT THE DOTS!"
Back in Moyock, folks shake their heads when they hear talk like that.
"In the '60s we used to call those kind of people 'peaceniks,' " said Bill Winslow, who helps run The Border Station, a popular tourist quick-stop. "I never liked 'em very much."
What makes Moyock so different? For one thing, location. Moyock is nestled in the right-leaning Old South. But even more important, just about every branch of the service has at least one installation within an hour of town. Retired military move here. Weapons and camouflage don't raise an eyebrow.
“Do they really think that if we don’t have Blackwater, there won’t be a war?” Stylist Joni Colonna, who’s puzzled over the opposition to Blackwater in other states
Timing is another. In 1997, when Blackwater set up shop, there was no war. The compound was little more than a training site, and 9/11 had yet to change the world.
"Moyock is where we started," said Anne Tyrrell, Blackwater's spokeswoman. "First impressions made there were those Blackwater made in the community, not in the headlines around the world."
Those headlines have hurt the company, said Scott Silliman, executive director of Duke University's Center on Law, Ethics and National Security.
"Blackwater is not well thought of outside eastern North Carolina and eastern Virginia," Silliman said. "When you mention them, the first thing people think about is Fallujah, and it's not a good image. Remember that? Desecrated, burned bodies hung from a bridge?"
Lawsuits filed against the company by the families of the four contractors killed in Fallujah in 2004 have generated even more negative publicity. So has this year's release of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" - a conspiracy-heavy book written by Jeremy Scahill that made it to No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list for non fiction.
In an attempt to calm the waters, Blackwater has pledged to use its new facilities only to train law enforcement and military personnel, and to keep the most controversial aspect of its business in Moyock.
"When it comes to our security consulting work," Tyrrell said, "the contractors we train and send abroad remain in Moyock and they always will."
That's fine with Moyock. Outsiders might think of them as mercenaries, but to locals they're simply known as "those Blackwater boys."
Living in the shadow of a Blackwater compound that's nearly 10 times as big as the one proposed for California - and almost 100 times as large as the one in Illinois - does not seem to trouble the town.
On a smoke break outside a hair salon, stylist Joni Colonna puzzled over the out-of-state firestorms.
"Do they really think that if we don't have Blackwater, there won't be a war?" she asked.
Home might not always provide such refuge. Opposition in Illinois and California is nurturing Blackwater Watch, a North Carolina-based counterpart. Christian Stalberg is one of the group's organizers. He's a computer consultant and native Californian who lives near Raleigh.
Stalberg said Blackwater Watch has only a handful of members so far, most with activist backgrounds. It's not even sure of its goal.
"We're just getting our legs under us," he said.
Establishing a beachhead in Blackwater's backyard won't be easy.
"Don't I know it," Stalberg said quietly. "Don't I know it."
Joanne Kimberlin, (757) 446-2338, firstname.lastname@example.org