Marc Petitpierre in front of the Shepherdstown Farmers Market on Nov. 12. Photo by Noche Gauthier.

Free speech advocate works to bring a legacy of activism to Jefferson County

By Noche Gauthier, Reporter.

The ‘Man with the Sign’ seen all across Jefferson County has been an activist for nearly all his life. 

His name is Marc Petitpierre. He is often seen in front of the Shepherdstown and Charlestown Farmers Markets, asking for donations for UNICEF

Petitpierre started activism in his early teens at his hometown of Berkeley, California in the 1960s. He began as an advocate for free speech, getting hands-on experience with prominent activist Mario Savio and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement

“My time as an activist with the Free Speech Movement taught me about how important it is to have a right to express our opinion, but to also understand that this does not mean a lack of respect toward another’s experience,” Petitpierre said. 

In the mid-to-late 80s, Petitpierre turned his voice and activism toward the ‘Nukes’, or the Antinuclear Movement, the focal point of his activism at the time. Most of his work focused on trying to stop nuclear centers from being built.

“Further research was coming out about the plants causing significant health concerns, especially with children,” he said. 

Therefore, most of his work at the time focused on stopping the continuation of the building of the Marble Hill Nuclear Power Station, which was located in Hanover, Indiana just upstream from Louisville, Kentucky. 

“It was a regional effort, getting them to stop building it. A pinnacle of success for us,” he said. “The company got caught building a very substandard structure. A project they had intended to cost less than a billion was then projected to cost over eleven billion dollars, it was a huge effort, but we wanted Americans to have a voice about what was being done near their homes.” 

Now, Petitpierre has turned his attention to helping children through UNICEF. On Saturdays, he is usually found either in front of the Farmers Market or near the Post Office in Charlestown. On Sundays, he advocates for UNICEF directly across from Shepherd University’s McMurran Hall

“I’ve only been doing this for about a year and a half, but just in that time, the community has helped to raise over seven thousand dollars,” he said.

Petitpierre’s joy about helping children is infectious, as he laments about teaching himself to cook for a charity event.

 “I learned to make a traditional Ukrainian dish, borscht, for a gathering to raise money for Ukraine last year at the War Memorial. Learning how to make someone’s food is community; it’s what brings people together,” he said.

While Petitpierre has revolved his life around activism, he admits at times it can endanger him.

“People try to fearmonger me. One time a guy jumped in his car and pretended to try and run me over. He got really close.” 

He has learned to take this danger he experiences in public for personal growth, using it as a further reason to advocate for children.

“Kids don’t start out with a power complex. It’s our society that teaches people that. We can’t, as a society, be quick to anger others. I understand the anger, people are scared. Not everyone has as much control as they think they are entitled to. We have to channel that energy into something positive, into some purpose like UNICEF.”

Petitpierre activism runs him into trouble at times. He was on trial Nov. 9 pleading innocent of an assault and battery charge for having used a mace to defend himself.

“This guy had antagonized me already three times in twenty minutes. He threw my sign out onto the road. I followed after him to get it,” he explained. “Hostler tried to claim that I wouldn’t let him disengage. As I went to grab my sign. He turned like he was going to come after me. That’s when I maced him.”

The trial ended with Petitpierre being found innocent on account of self defense, which was a story featured in Martinsburg’s The Journal in their Nov. 13 Issue.

Regardless of the act of violence against him, Petitpierre’s vision remains the same, no matter where his help can be given.

“My mission is about raising funds to help children. Whether they are the kids of Ukraine, Palestine, or Maui. It’s about being out here, doing something. Helping people understand how to help,” he said. 

Despite his age, Petitpierre’s mission is far from over, attributing his determination to reduce world hatred as the driving factor.

“I want to show people that if this ordinary old man can stand up to hatred, or ‘bullies,’ anyone can. I hope people learn from me that they can participate and that their voice is important. It is much wiser to change what is not acceptable, rather than to accept what you think you can’t change,” he said. “Do what you can to help people do what they can.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.