Mich. residents voice opposition to Guantanamo inmatesSTANDISH, Mich. (AP) — Opponents dominated a public meeting Thursday on moving terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to a prison in this small town, many accusing President Barack Obama of making Michigan a target for killer jihadists.
STANDISH, Mich. (AP) — Opponents dominated a public meeting Thursday on moving terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to a prison in this small town, many accusing President Barack Obama of making Michigan a target for killer jihadists.
Nearly every speaker during the two-hour gathering denounced the idea, many arguing that the 229 detainees should remain where they are, despite Obama’s pledge to close the Guantanamo complex by 2010.
“They are enemy combatants,” said Tom Kerrins, chief steward for the union representing prison workers at Standish Maximum Correctional Facility. “They want to kill you, they want to kill me, they want to kill our families.”
Despite the one-sided tenor of the meeting, some officials in the town of 1,500 said in interviews that a “silent majority” of local residents would accept the detainees in order to save the prison, which is scheduled to close this year because of state budget cuts.
The prison provides about 300 jobs, making it the top employer in the rural community about 145 miles north of Detroit where the jobless rate exceeds 17 percent. It covers about 25 percent of the municipal budget with payments for water and sewer service.
“I’m hearing mixed feelings, but most of the people I’m talking to are for it,” said Lester Cousineau Jr., a city councilman. “If that prison closes, we’re done.”
Kerrins, though, said that federal guards — not the existing state crew — likely would staff the prison if Guantanamo detainees came.
A federal delegation toured the Standish lockup last week to assess its suitability. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday no similar visits had been made to other prisons but insisted that didn’t mean Standish was the only option on the table.
“No final decision has been made,” Gibbs said, adding that “we’re evaluating a facility that many of those locals believe would be a good fit and provide gainful employment.”
A military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., also has been considered to house the suspected al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters currently at Guantanamo.
Thursday’s meeting at Resurrection of the Lord Catholic Church was organized by Dave Munson, the owner of a local bar and restaurant, with help from members of ACT! for America, a group that warns about the threat of radical Islam. The crowd was a mixture of local residents and out-of-town visitors.
They mostly filled the church sanctuary, many holding placards with slogans such as “Not in my back yard, Not in my front yard, Not in my country.” Several uniformed police officers stood in the back, but the group was well-behaved.
An invited panel spoke against bringing the detainees to Michigan. One speaker was Debra Burlingame, the sister of the pilot whose plane was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon during the 2001 terrorist attacks.
While some in the audience voiced concern about the detainees escaping into the community, others acknowledged that was unlikely. A bigger fear was that they would inspire attacks in Michigan from sleeper terrorist cells. Critics also said their presence would scare away tourists and depress property values.
“I’ll never sell my house,” said Kelly Kimball, 46, a former Arenac County commissioner who lives two miles from the prison. “It’ll be like a ghost town around here.”
Still others objected to closing Guantanamo at all.
“We already have a place for them, it works fine,” said Michael LeVafour, 49, a laid-off construction worker from the Detroit suburb of Livonia. “It’s crazy to bring them here and think it’s going to make the world like us more.”
Brent Snelgrove, who runs a Standish car dealership, said he could accept the Guantanamo detainees if adequate provisions were made for public safety. He said foes’ dire warnings reminded him of the “hysteria” that arose before the state prison was opened two decades ago.
“It turned out to be a good neighbor,” Snelgrove said.