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Rebuilding Iraq

Military mother battles to express antiwar view

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 4/20/03

    Rebuilding Iraq


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She's a mom on a mission -- to protest the war in Iraq -- and Alice Copeland Brown has a bit of combat fatigue. Who can blame her? She has been verbally abused, arrested, handcuffed, taken to jail, gotten a summons to court, and, most recently, assaulted on the MBTA Red Line. Her offense? Carrying a homemade protest sign bearing her soldier son's picture on it. The weapon? The very same sign.

Brown was returning home to Canton recently from a peace vigil in Copley Square when a young woman noticed her sign and began lecturing her. Brown knew better than to argue. Instead, the 65-year-old grandmother invited the woman to a workshop on the war that she was teaching at Harvard the next day. They were approaching the Quincy-Adams stop, so Brown stood to exit the train.

Suddenly, the young woman's boyfriend lunged at Brown, grabbed her sign away and charged at her with it, hitting her in the stomach and knocking her into the wall of the subway car. He exited the train, thinking she was going to exit, too, leaving his girlfriend on the T. But Brown was not about to get off onto the platform with the assailant and the man banged on the doors as they closed.

Meanwhile, Brown pushed the emergency button as the girlfriend pleaded with her not to press charges. "Please," Brown recalls her saying, "my boyfriend just feels passionately about this war."

When Brown e-mailed her son about the incident, he answered: "This guy feels passionately enough to beat up an old lady?" Her son, Army Major David Floyd, is a 20-year veteran. He was in Afghanistan, now he's in Iraq serving as a surgical assistant, delivered by helicopter into the battlefield arena to help perform surgery on wounded Americans. It is tough, dangerous work, and Brown is rightfully proud.

During another recent T ride after a peace rally on Boston Common, another man yelled at Alice Brown because of her sign. She told him, "Sir, if you feel so strongly, why aren't you alongside my son in Iraq?" The man replied, "I'm too old." (He was 36; David Floyd is 44.)

This country was built around freedom of speech, religion, association and the like. Yet let someone try to exercise that right and they're branded communists or worse. Brown, an Alabama native, has been getting poison e-mails from many of her high school and college classmates. Many warn that she will burn in hell for her antiwar views.

When she took her sign and marched in front of Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, a campus police officer told her to stop. "My son's in Iraq right now fighting for the right for us to have a police state right here in Cambridge!" she told the crowd. The officer was not amused.

When Brown showed up at the federal courthouse in Boston wearing a black cashmere suit, her jacket and the sweater beneath it were confiscated. Her crime this time? She had, she says, "very tastefully" written on the back of the jacket, in blue glitter: "No To War." The sweater's back bore: "Impeach Bush." It took the ACLU's intervention to get her clothes back.

Usually, she wears a Pilgrim's outfit -- long black dress, white apron, white cap -- in honor of ancestor Joan Tilley, who came over on the Mayflower. ("She's also related to George Bush," says Brown.) When she was put in the police wagon after protesting the war at JFK Plaza, her hands were cuffed behind her, and she looked like a petite Pilgrim granny. In the vehicle, she and 11 other military moms sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Down by the Riverside." It was her first arrest; she remained in jail for five hours.

Last week, her group was in court to answer charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing. The Lawyers Guild had worked out a deal: three months' probation. No, that doesn't mean Brown can't protest. "It only means I can't get arrested" without getting into worse trouble, she says. One of her favorite spots is Cobbs Corner in Canton; look for the Pilgrim carrying her sign.

Brown, who married while in college, is divorced and the mother of five. She moved to the Boston area 13 years ago to work for GTE Federal Systems as a software engineer. She spent much of her career helping design systems used by the Department of Defense. But in 1998, she realized "we were turning into an aggressor nation" and has been working on civilian software ever since.

She comes from a military family. Her three uncles saw active duty during World War II, and her father was a Coast Guard reservist. She sends care packages not only to her son, but to other soldiers serving in Iraq. She regularly boxes up things like sunglasses, eye drops and lip balm -- "little things that enhance the quality of their lives" -- and takes them to the Canton Fire Department, which ships them out to troops.

"Of course I support the troops," she says. "Much more than those chicken hawks who take the name of patriotism and they haven't got a clue. They've never been in combat, never known the horror of war."

She worries about her son and the other soldiers, and not just about them getting hurt. She worries about the images they will keep: of dead mothers and bloodied children, of swelling corpses and general mayhem in the streets.

"The whole thing is insane. All this stuff about liberation and democracy in Iraq is a bunch of hooey. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Afghanistan are our allies, and they aren't free and democratic. It's all about the oil lobby and big business wanting to control the Middle East."

As far as the young thug on the T goes, he is to appear in court next week on charges of assault and battery with a deadly weapon, and with unarmed robbery -- trying to take her sign.

This Rambo "defending our troops" by assaulting an elderly woman is an embarrassment to his cause. So are the talk-show hosts and others who scream epithets at the war protesters. Would they rather have a system like Iraq, where people are killed for expressing their views?

Brown's son, who has given his career to the military, has the right attitude toward his mother's protests. "I've talked to the guys about it," he said in an e-mail to her. "And as long as you keep sending cookies, you can protest as long as you want."

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at

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