BLUE EARTH (AP) -- They are only two people, two lonely voices raised on the southern Minnesota prairie, but they are gaining notice -- as much for the novelty of their actions as for the content of their cries.
"This is something you don't normally see in a small town," Mayor Rob Hammond said, sounding both nervous and amused. "This is the first demonstration we've ever had."
Mark Walker Jr., 16, had sat patiently through three meetings with the Blue Earth City Council to obtain a permit to demonstrate his opposition to a war with Iraq. He plans to spend 24 hours this weekend speaking, handing out leaflets and sleeping in a box at a downtown intersection, homeless for a night to dramatize a war's social costs.
City leaders initially demurred, citing a curfew law that requires people under 18 to be off the streets by midnight. But Walker read the curfew law carefully and found that it doesn't apply in cases where young people are out late to exercise rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"Mr. Walker seems to comply with that exemption," City Attorney Mike Johnson told the council, which voted this week to grant the permit.
But it wasn't unanimous. The lone dissenter: Council Member Richard Maher, a veteran with a son on active duty.
"I want to make a statement, too," Maher said.
Blue Earth is a quiet farmcountry town of about 3,600 people near the Iowa border. It is the Faribault County seat, its population gradually dwindling and aging but not ready yet to turn out the lights; the county just won designation as a "champion community," a potential rural empowerment zone, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Walker stood out even before he sought a protest permit.
Born in San Diego, Calif., and raised in Reno, Nev., he arrived in Blue Earth less than a year ago with his father, Mark Sr., who works in nearby Winnebago. They live in an apartment off Blue Earth's Main Street.
The son favors a black leather jacket festooned with safety pins, studs, provocative buttons and an anti-war message scrawled beneath an upside-down U.S. flag. With a black felt-tip pen, he has written a coarse denunciation of the Gap clothing company across his stocking cap, front and back.
"He was a little bit of a shock to some people, with his unique appearance," Hammond said. "But he's a 16-yearold boy, and he has the right to be who he is. He's been polite in his appearances before us."
Walker is home-schooled over the Internet, where he has researched the peace movement of the 1960s as well as argued the legitimacy of war in politics-oriented chat rooms.
"I don't have much of a social life," he said.
"After 9/11, I was one of the guys saying, 'Go over there and bomb 'em.' Now, I just don't think it's right. Saddam's a flat-out bad guy, but he poses no immediate threat to us."
"My father doesn't necessarily agree with me about the war," he said. "But he's been very supportive of me on the protest -- glad I'm confident enough to voice my opinions.
"I think it's the first time there's been an anti-war protest in Blue Earth."
While that may be, Hammond said, "I don't think most people have a problem with him voicing his opinion.
"There have been no polls taken around here about a war, and actually it isn't talked about that much," the mayor said. "Most people are busy just taking care of their lives and their jobs.
"It's a good consequence anytime people talk about something serious like war. But it isn't generally seen as a positive quality in a small town to be confrontational."
Some council members, concerned about allowing a precedent that could lead to regular late-night rowdiness, asked the city attorney if they could impose restrictions to protect public property.
Not if those rules had the effect of denying people's right to free expression, Johnson said, after researching two Minnesota cases from the Vietnam War era. One case upheld students' right to protest inside a University of Minnesota hall.
The council did impose some conditions, which Walker accepted -- that he not block walks or driveways, not play loud music and tidy up the area when he's finished.
It would have been better, Council Member Maher said, for Walker to write a letter, circulate a petition or -- in a few years -- run for office.
"I'm from the old school," he said. "I think there are other ways to show your displeasure with things than by holding demonstrations."
Three banners fly over Maher's corner lot in Blue Earth: the U.S., Irish and American Legion flags. He is a retired teacher, coach and school administrator.
"I've dealt with a lot of kids over the years," he said.
He served in the Air Force in the 1950s, and a son, an Air Force major, is at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
He worries that people in the armed forces "might get the feeling they don't have the support of people back home," he said. "They're risking their lives. I didn't vote for President Bush, but I think we have to support him now."
Maher didn't speak against granting Walker a permit when it came to a final vote. But he used his vote to register a protest of his own.
"I've shown my displeasure," he said. "Now let him have his demonstration."
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