Even his staunchest opponents describe Sudarshan Kapoor as a very nice man. The 69-year-old professor, who teaches conflict resolution at the state college here, considers Gandhi his mentor. Kapoor says he is into "flower power, not firepower." He is a man of peace. Maybe too much peace.
This week, Kapoor was yanked from his seat on the City of Fresno's Human Relations Commission by his sponsor, city council member Jerry Duncan, who was outraged that Kapoor and his colleagues had endorsed an antiwar resolution brought before the council.
While antiwar protests have rocked the largest urban centers in the world, the peace movement plays out much differently in smaller cities and towns, especially in places such as Fresno, a conservative city built on agriculture in the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley.
"It was the last straw," said Duncan, a Republican, who castigated the human relations commission for taking such a position at this time -- and for "embarrassing" the city. "The reality is they stepped way out of line, to take a position against our president, against our troops." Duncan searched for the word. "It was just horribly wrong."
Protests in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Washington are almost daily affairs. In some ZIP codes in liberal-minded college towns, such as Cambridge or Austin, it is almost easier to be against the war in Iraq than for it.
"But Fresno is not Berkeley," Kapoor said.
"This is out of the comfort zone," said Vincent Lavery, a longtime activist here who organized the group Peace Fresno, which sponsored the antiwar resolution that got Kapoor in trouble. "In New York or San Francisco, you're just another face in the crowd," Lavery said. "Here, you stand out. People recognize you."
In Fresno, probably the largest antiwar protest since the Vietnam War was held in February, and it drew 1,500. Lavery said: "It's not like kick Bush in the face. Here, it's very different twist. It's very focused on the war and peace."
The antiwar activists in Fresno wanted the city council to pass a resolution calling for a peaceful end to the conflict in Iraq, as about 100 city councils around the nation have done. But they needed a sponsor. Because the Human Rights Commission is a city-chartered group, the activists sought the panel's unanimous approval. And they won it. (The resolution was also endorsed by the leadership of the local Democratic Party).
"It was a resolution in support of peace," said Gail Gaston, the chairman of the commission. "Nobody said we didn't support the president or our troops. It was very respectful."
But the council refused to consider the measure, which was presented on the eve of war. It angered Duncan that the commission members were acting in a way that he saw as divisive and hostile to the U.S. forces preparing for battle in Iraq.
Duncan said the commission had strayed from its mandate to mediate disputes in the community, to celebrate cultural diversity and to monitor discrimination and hate crimes.
"This was a narrow political agenda," Duncan said, of "a fringe element." He was already upset with past commission actions, such as a resolution to support Rep. Barbara Lee, the Democrat from Oakland, who was the lone voice of opposition against the war in Afghanistan. Another was the commission's backing of a gay and lesbian film festival that showed what Duncan refers to as "pornographic" movies.
As a council member, he could not disband the human relations commission, Duncan said, but he could make a symbolic strike by removing Kapoor, his one appointment to the board.
When news of the removal leaked on Monday, the action became a subject of local newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, a news conference, a rally, talk-radio debate and nightly news updates.
What happened next was interesting. While it appears that a large majority of Fresnans support the war in Iraq, many felt uneasy about Kapoor being given the boot.
Duncan has taken pains to explain that he "greatly admires" Kapoor and considers him a man of integrity and honor. "If we had a dozen more Dr. Kapoors on the human relations commission, Fresno would be a better place," he said.
After Kapoor's removal, Fresno Mayor Alan Autry and council member Brad Castillo suggested they might reappoint Kapoor to the commission.
Bill McEwen, a columnist for the Fresno Bee, suggested with tongue planted firmly in cheek that the conservative Duncan had managed to transform a largely unheard of and toothless city commission into a cause celebre, and accomplished what the liberal peace activists couldn't do: provide a forum for debate about the war.
Kapoor said he is surprised by all the heat, but that he thinks there may be some light, too. He and Duncan hugged when they last met to discuss his removal. "So if we just talk about these things with calmness and harmony, maybe we are not so far apart."
Indeed, asked if he could ever support warfare, Kapoor said that as an adherent of Gandhi's path of nonviolence, he "philosophically" could not. But he hesitated. "The United Nations has the moral authority to make decisions whether there should be war or no war," he said. "So if the U.N. supported it, I would have, too."