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Battlin' Bob

The City Paper Digi-Camô
Bob Kaufman

Posted 3/26/2003

It's a bright Saturday morning, and A. Robert Kaufman is standing on street corner with a bullhorn in his hand, a none-too-unusual occurrence for this veteran social justice activist, perennial candidate, and inveterate gadfly. The city's septuagenarian super-lefty is on Pratt Street in front of the Flag House museum, joined by a couple of dozen war protesters carrying signs reading drop bush not bombs and history will condemn us. A dozen or so grim-faced cops, on both motorcycles and horses, loiter nearby. (Softening the scene somewhat, Sinatra's rendition of "On the Sunny side of the Street" spills from the open door of a nearby Little Italy restaurant.) Some passing motorists honk approval and flash the protesters peace signs. The driver of a huge Chevy Suburban (with an EHRLICH sticker on the bumper) manages to give the sign-wavers a one-finger salute while keeping a cell phone pressed to his ear.

Soon enough, Kaufman's amplified voice is rallying the peace troops, mostly members of his Baltimore Coalition to End War and Terrorism, around a washtub and a white barrel whose flanks read us + iraqi blood and cheap oil. From the barrel an American flag is produced--one splattered in red paint (standing in for blood) and oil. And now the Nose knows why the Flag House--birthplace of Fort McHenry's famous "Star-Spangled Banner"--was chosen. Kaufman tells the crowd they've come to wash the blood and filth this regime has dragged our flag through, as rubber-glove-clad cohorts rub Old Gory against a washboard.

And so Kaufman--an veritable activist Energizer Bunny--is back in action. And, it seems, back to some of his old antics. The Nose knows that Kaufman has a long history of rubbing people the wrong way. He's a bully, some say, and a garrulous grandstander. Not long ago, Kaufman quit the Green Party after his outspokenness led the party to censure him. "If I was running for Miss Congeniality, I'd be debating these issues," says Kaufman, who brands the criticisms hurled his way as "rumors."

His latest tussle is with the regional chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that serves as a linchpin for Baltimore's anti-war activism. In a faxed statement, Kaufman describes "sanctions" the AFSC imposed on him, including no longer faxing him periodic Activist Alerts and refusing to list him as the contact for the Coalition to End War and Terrorism events. Kaufman traces these actions to "personal differences" with an AFSC staffer (one Kaufman admits to having called a "son of a bitch") and feels the committee has "sabotaged" his efforts to promote peace.

Mark Lancaster, director of AFSC's Baltimore-based Mid-Atlantic region, feels differently. "As much as we have to struggle against this administration, it's really quite silly and offensive for Bob to be writing and saying some of things he has about us," he says. Lancaster, who came to his post just last fall, has had limited Kaufman contact, but he says his staff often finds him "extremely difficult" or "downright offensive."

But peace of a sorts may have returned to the peace community, perhaps because its members have a war to fight. Lancaster says Kaufman is once again receiving action alerts, and Kaufman has gotten Coalition events listed on these missives (albeit sans his name).

"No one has the right to stop someone from contributing to the peace movement, as small as we are, because of their personal feelings of like or dislike," Kaufman says. "But then I don't want the 'Kaufman fighting the rest of the world' message [to overshadow] the more important message we need to get out."

And on Pratt Street, Kaufman's message was delivered with pop-culture panache: The sign he carried read, U.S. FOREIGN POLICY IS AS HUMANITARIAN AS THE SOPRANOS.

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