Arsonist Burns Peace Activists' Home

David Quarter davidquarter at
Sat Nov 1 23:13:31 MST 2003

From:           	Geese 4 Peace <geese4peace at>

The Progressive Magazine
Thurs, October 29, 2003

Arsonist Burns Peace Activists' Home
by Matthew Rothschild

Cindy Hunter and her husband, Sam Nickels, opposed Bush's war against

"For the last seven months, we've been putting up a sign on our
property," says Hunter, a professor of social work at James Madison
University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

At first, the sign expressed the hope that the war could be avoided.

Then, says Hunter, they changed the sign to list the number of
casualties, which they periodically updated, and sometimes to list the
number of weapons of mass destruction found, which was always zero.

Hunter says the signs provoked a lot of good dialogue. But that's not

"People would come by at night every few weeks or so and break our sign
up," she says. "And one time last spring we had eggs tossed against our
house," which is a few blocks from campus.

To spare the sign, they decided to bring it up on their porch.

"About two months ago, I attached it to a wood column on the porch,
thinking it might be less offensive and more out of the way. I
calculated badly on that one," says Nickels, who teaches Spanish in a
local middle school.

Nickels says the final sign they had on their porch read:

"8,109 Iraqi civilians.
6,000-plus U.S. wounded.
345 U.S. and British soldiers."

At 4:50 a.m. on October 20, Hunter and Nickels were asleep. So were
their three children, ages 7, 8, and 11. And so was Adama Sow, a
30-year-old refugee from Mauritania, who was living upstairs.

"Our smoke alarm went off, and my husband I got out of bed and saw
smoke and got the kids out and our roommate out," Hunter says. "It was
immediately clear to me that the sign had burned because the only fire
you could see was on the right front of the house where the sign used
to be."

The fire department, from the very beginning, investigated it as a case
of arson. "The sign had somewhat of a political message on it,"
Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett told the Daily News-Record. "It
appears somebody may have set that sign on fire."

The fire department has since confirmed this hunch. "We have ruled out
the accidental causes of the fire," says Arthur Miller, a captain with
the fire department. "We have determined that the sign was
intentionally set on fire, and that the fire spread to the living
quarters of the house."

Hunter says the fire cost "about $50,000 in damage. The whole upstairs
of our house was charred, and the firemen made a hole in the roof."

The family won't be able to return for six months, says Hunter.

"We lost the kinds of things you carry with you your whole life: papers
you wrote in school, or clothes my mom saved for me and I've saved for
my grandchildren," says Hunter. But she's just grateful her family and
roommate got out safely.

The reaction from the campus and the Harrisonburg community has been
"fantastic," Hunter says. On the evening after the fire, "70 or 80
people came to our house and held a candlelight vigil to support us and
to express the outrage that someone would burn our house and put our
lives in danger for a political sign," she says.

Residents have also offered material support to the family, as well.
"Students have collected gift certificates, many local restaurants have
donated meals, and storage facilities have offered us free space," she

On October 22, the Daily News-Record, which is a conservative paper,
wrote a strong editorial entitled "Arson Assault." It said: "The arson
at the home of an anti-war Harrisonburg couple was outrageous and must
be condemned not only by those who believe in the First Amendment, but
also by all those who believe in decency and humanity. The harassment
of the Harrisonburg couple was appalling. . . . Violence and vandalism
used to intimidate are not only criminal and cowardly, but profoundly

On October 28, about 150 people attended a rally on campus to support
the family and free speech. "I Thought This Was America," one sign
said, according to the Daily News-Record. And that evening, a forum was
held entitled, "Is Silence the Price of Freedom?" One man wore a shirt
with an American flag on it and the words: "This idea doesn't burn,"
the paper said.

Hunter says she is not deterred by the arson. "We will put our signs
out again," she vows.

Her 11-year-old daughter was more apprehensive. "We'll put the sign
back up after they catch the guy who did it," she said, according to
her father.

Hunter cites an act of solidarity that has comforted the family.

"A lot of people in the community have made their own signs to put in
their own yards so it's not only us," she says. "On Saturday afternoon,
we went to a gathering where people were making signs, and my kids
helped make some, too."

Hunter is concerned about the effect the fire has had on Adama Sow, the
refugee who was living upstairs.

"This was very difficult for him, probably more emotionally difficult
for him than for us, maybe because he's already experienced the loss of
life due to this kind of hatred," she says.

Sow is from Mauritania, West Africa. His father, a teacher, was
imprisoned and tortured there, and he eventually died from
torture-related injuries, according to Hunter and Sow. Hunter actually
knew Sow's father in Mauritania. She was in the Peace Corps there in
the mid-1980s, and he taught her French.

Sow came to the United States and first lived in New York. But after
9/11, "we invited him to come down and live with us because New York
was very expensive, and it was traumatic for him to be there," Hunter

Sow, who is studying computers at James Madison University, is
unsettled by the arson.

"It's scary, it's very scary," he says. "It makes you feel like maybe
you have to be very careful."

Looking back, Nickels and Hunter themselves are trying to come to terms
with this event.

"My initial reaction was, I couldn't believe it happened," Nickels
says. "Then I had a feeling of sadness, sadness that this kind of
intolerance was happening, and especially that this kind of person has
not found a way to express constructively his own anger about what's
going on. I don't feel anger toward this person, despite the loss. I
feel anger toward those who foster the kind of an atmosphere in which
this kind of action can take place."

Nickels says he's been having nightmares about people breaking in and
setting fires to his house. He also says he's a bit edgy.

"There was a bump in our rented house the other night so I ran upstairs
to see if I could find anything," he says. "It was midnight. I then ran
outside to make sure no one had thrown a firebomb on the roof. It turns
out my son had bumped against the wall. It's that paranoia that settles

For her part, Hunter cannot bring herself to believe that the arsonist
intended to kill her and her family. "I still just feel like it was
somebody who didn't know they were going to burn down my house or
endanger people's lives. I need to believe that for my own peace of

And while she is grateful the community has rallied behind her and her
family, she says, "We weren't planning to be the peace poster child of

"War Is A Racket!"
General Smedley Butler, USMC


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