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Protesting the Protesters

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Members of the Thomas Merton Center are no strangers to a good protest. But at the Center's annual awards dinner on Nov. 1, they found themselves on the other side of the picket line.

As members of the Garfield-based social-justice organization gathered at Churchill Valley Country Club to honor Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a lone protester denounced the Merton Center's affiliation with anarchists. 

"Peace is not the same as anarchy!" chanted Kevin Skolnik, hoisting a sign asking, "Will the Thomas Merton Center denounce anarchism?"

Skolnik, who goes by the name "Brother Strawberry," targeted the Merton Center for its association with anarchists from the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG). Last year, he chastised the group for organizing an anarchist picnic that featured kids whacking a police-car piñata with a stick. Skolnik also blames the organization for tactics used during unpermitted G-20 demonstrations in September.

"By affiliating with the anarchists, [the Merton Center is] blaspheming and defaming everything Thomas Merton spoke for and taught," argues Skolnik, 44, who protested outside the Merton Center's Garfield building last year. "How can they claim that a bunch of kids with black bandanas on, rolling garbage Dumpsters down the street, are working for peace? ... These people are hypocrites." 

After protesting outside for roughly an hour, Skolnik says he entered the country club and approached the registration table. He then demanded to speak with Kucinich, who was being awarded for his work on peace and justice issues, but says he was told to leave the private event. 

Skolnik said he wanted Kucinich to explain why he'd accept an award from a group affiliated with anarchists, "who feel his job should be eliminated." 

Later that night, after leaving the event, Skolnik e-mailed the Merton Center a poem. In part, it reads, "Should it surprise me / that those unable to see / the hypocrisy / of an organization founded in the name of a pacifist monk / blaspheming his name / would fail to recognize the irony and hypocrisy / ... of silencing my dissent." 

"He's just crazy," says Melissa Minnich, communications director for the Thomas Merton Center. "I think he's just paranoid."

Minnich says the Merton Center is no stranger to Skolnik's rants. "I've heard [his message] many times," she says, noting that he frequently calls the organization to complain.

According to Minnich, the protester's criticisms are misguided. "We do not endorse POG," she argues. "POG is just an affiliate."

POG is one of about two dozen Merton Center affiliates. Others include Amnesty International and the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center. 

According to the Merton Center's monthly newspaper, The NewPeople, affiliates offer the social-justice organization financial support as well as help cosponsor events. But, it states, "listing as an affiliate is NOT an official endorsement of all the aims, goals and strategies" of the affiliate groups.

Miles Dinnen, administrative assistant for the Merton Center, disagrees with Skolnik's claim that his group's affiliation with POG is inconsistent with the Merton Center's mission of peace. But the relationship "is up to individual interpretation," says Dinnen.

As for Skolnik's charge that the Merton Center was silencing his dissent by forcing him to leave, Minnich says he never paid for a plate, and therefore, couldn't stay for the awards dinner.

"He was fine to be outside screaming at the top of his lungs," she says. But inside, "He was causing quite a disruption."

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