The people of Greenbelt have always been feisty. They were the first locality in the Washington area to vote for gun control, back in 1960. Their town of 17,332 housed 800 protesters at the height of the civil rights movement. Presidential hopeful George McGovern won there in 1972.
So Becky Williams thought it would be just a formality when she submitted a request to the Greenbelt Labor Day Festival Committee from the Greenbelt Peace Committee to march in the city's annual Labor Day parade.
The grey-haired University of Maryland testing counselor was in for a surprise. The 13-member festival committee turned her down. Unanimously.
The committee chairwoman said when she thought of peace demonstrations she thought of people throwing blood.
Another committee member said the military bands might not play if the peace club marched. The U.S. Army band has agreed to play, and local units of the Disabled Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National Guard have been invited to march. A third committee member said that "issues" were not appropriate in a parade meant for fun.
"All the music is military," Williams said. "The VFW will be there. There will be little girls in sequins twirling batons. Isn't that a statement about something? Aren't these issues?"
The 12-member peace organization was formed in 1964 during the Vietnam war. Median age of members is about 50. The committee marched once before in the parade in 1967, but in subsequent years opted only to staff a booth. This year, with interest in a nuclear weapons freeze sweeping the country, the group thought it would be appropriate to bring out their marching shoes.
The peace group was the only applicant turned down for the parade that has become part of the lore and budget of this Prince George's County town. The festival is largely self-funded, but last year the town spent more than $7,700 on it, Greenbelt officials say.
Members of the four-day festival committee finally agreed to give the peace committee another hearing tonight. Festival committee members say they have invited the peace committee to participate in other ways.
"Frankly, we don't think it is that big of a deal," said Gwen Vaccaro, who along with her husband chairs the parade. "Our parade is a small-town affair . . . . I see nothing odd about allowing the U.S. Army band to play and not allowing the peace committee to march. We've invited the Army for years and it's an established tradition."