'Truthers' adopt stretch of St. Louis Co. road
Monday, January 21, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- The short stretch of Olive Boulevard just east of Lindbergh Boulevard is the nerve center of St. Louis's biotech know-how. There you'll find Monsanto's world headquarters and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. There's also a church. A cemetery. And no visible litter problem.
So it may seem an odd place to find signs -- beginning last week -- expressing gratitude to a loose-knit group of 9/11 "truthers" who have agreed to pick up trash along Olive at least four times a year.
The adoption of this small section of Olive Boulevard by the St. Louis 9/11 Questions Meetup Group is the latest public relations pothole for Missouri's 25-year-old Adopt-A-Highway program.
Most of the time, highway adoptions follow a familiar script: A group agrees to police a segment of highway for litter at least four times a year. Volunteers watch a safety video. They get orange vests and plastic bags. And away they go. Some adopters mow grass or plant flowers.
In return, MoDOT pitches blue-and-gold signs on the adopted highway to show appreciation.
It's these placards that have occasionally threatened to run the program off the road. MoDOT fought efforts by the Ku Klux Klan to adopt Missouri highways beginning in the 1990s. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 the state couldn't block groups from adopting highways.
Even those embracing beliefs that are controversial or offensive. Or on the fringes.
Nobody is saying that groups like the St. Louis 9/11 Questions Meetup Group -- which is bound together by a mutual suspicion of the government's account of the terrorist attacks -- is on par with the Klan. But it is an organization on the fringes of mainstream thought that is seeking some exposure with the state signs.
"The main thing was that it was quite visible and it was available," said Don Stahl of St. Louis, one of the group's organizers. "It was the sign. The sign is the lure that MoDOT has to get volunteers."
Stahl, 69, doesn't expect to change anyone's mind about the 9/11 tragedy with a couple of signs. But he hopes it will help "dispel some of the pluralistic ignorance surrounding this subject." He said the loosely affiliated Meetup Group charges no dues and has no formal opinions, but its members have a lot of them.
On its website, the group states that "we have many disagreements but we agree that 9/11 is worth inquiring into." It also says that the government of the United States "may have told its citizens a lie." It doesn't list its membership.
Group members have stood on overpasses with signs that have read "9/11 was an inside job." Sometimes they pass out literature on street corners. Stahl acknowledges that the viewpoint is in the minority, but "we very definitely deny that we are any kind of an extremist group." Its gatherings are peaceful, he said.
One way MoDOT exerts control is to make sure the groups actually do pick up trash, mow medians or pursue other activities to keep things spruced up. Missouri has dropped groups that don't live up to their bargain.
Since it began the Adopt-A-Highway program in 1987, MoDOT has gotten sorely needed assistance from 4,000 groups and 40,000 volunteers to make its roads cleaner and more presentable.
As a result, MoDOT doesn't have to send its own crews to clean up that highway, saving taxpayers more than $1 million a year.
"The long and the short of it for us is that we need help keeping the roadsides clean," said Tom Blair, MoDOT's assistant district director in St. Louis and surrounding counties. "It is a very successful program for us."
In early 2005, the Supreme Court decided that Missouri couldn't prevent the Klan from picking up trash along Highway 21 near Potosi, Mo. The state had a policy barring groups with a "history of violence."
Later, a neo-Nazi group -- the National Socialist Movement -- adopted a half-mile section of Highway 160 in Springfield, Mo., in 2009. MoDOT officials at the time reiterated that it was a "First Amendment thing" and the state could not discriminate.
Blair said MoDOT never got to the point of questioning the ideas or theories of the St. Louis 9/11 Questions Meetup Group.
He said groups are allowed to select highways from those available for adoption.
Recently, the section of Olive did not appear particularly littered. The St. Louis 9/11 Questions Meetup Group has pledged to be there to keep it that way.
"I don't think it's a great thing," said Deborah Aronson of Ladue, whose sister Myra Aronson was a passenger on the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 -- the first to be crashed into the World Trade Center.
Aronson said mentions of 9/11 and reports on casualties of the U.S. war on terrorism usually remind her of how much she misses her late sister.
As for the highway adoption and the signs bearing the group's name, Aronson said, "I am sure there are going to be lots of people who don't agree. It is part of being a U.S. citizen."