After local business owner Eric Verlo returned from anti-war protests at President George W. Bush's Texas ranch one month ago, he did something largely off-limits to his corporate chain-store rivals.
He brought the ruckus to Colorado Springs, transforming the parking lot of his business, Toons Music and Film, into a multimedia spectacle of protest, prayer and public debate.
The display at 802 North Nevada Ave. underlines one thing that differentiates local mom-and-pop shops from national chain stores: They have the guts to stand up and stick out.
"It's just my role as a citizen and a patriot," says Verlo. "It's similar to the situation a soldier in the military is in. It's up to him to set down his rifle and do the right thing."
Verlo, along with a diverse crew of peace activists, calls the spectacle "Camp Casey Colorado Springs," named after Cindy Sheehan's camp outside Bush's Texas ranch, where she protested the Iraq war death of her son, Casey. The display includes 1,900 wooden crosses wired together, each bearing the name, age, rank and manner of death of a service member who has perished in Iraq.
The camp, where activists sleep in tents each night, opened Sept. 15. As of press time, it was unclear when it would be dismantled. The crosses, put in place Sept. 20, have drawn hundreds of visitors, including both Vietnam and Iraq war veterans, as well as active duty soldiers stationed at Fort Carson.
"If it weren't for this business, we wouldn't be here," said Anthony Gagliano, an 18-year-old freshman at Colorado College, who was attending a protest at the camp last Saturday.
Chain stores and big-box retailers, in contrast, "make [protests] unavailable," Gagliano said. "It silences things and lets people ignore things."
But it would be nave to think big retailers don't make political stands. They just prefer to funnel large amounts of money to Washington, D.C.
"[Big retail] is more historically allied with the Republicans," says Sheila Krumholz, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit campaign contribution watchdog.
For example, Wal-Mart, the country's largest retailer, gave nearly $2.2 million to political candidates via its political action committee and individual employee donations in 2004, with some 80 percent going to Republicans. Similarly, Home Depot and its employees funneled just under $1 million to campaigns last year, 87 percent of which supported Republicans.
A few corporations donated more to Democrats. Employees at Costco, a bulk retailer, gave $244,000, virtually all to Democrats.
While huge companies maintain an apolitical faade to avoid alienating customers and shareholders, local businesses enjoy more freedom when it comes to outright expression.
"The only one that we have to answer to is our customers and our employees," says Richard Skorman, a liberal city councilman who owns the Poor Richard's restaurant and bookstore complex downtown. Skorman often has used the location as headquarters for political events ranging from pro-gay rights rallies to environmental benefits.
Local businesses can have an important role in community-wide debates, Skorman says, adding that the city suffered a huge loss when the Chinook Bookshop closed last year.
"They were never afraid to stand up for what they believe, in terms of freedom of speech," he says of Chinook owners Dick and Judy Noyes.
Skorman says he's been impressed by what Verlo has done with his business. "It took guts for him to do that."
-- Dan Wilcock
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