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It's About Much More Than Cindy Sheehan

Impressions from Camp Casey

by RICHARD WARD

It is hard to reconcile the bucolic peacefulness of West Texas with George Bush’s ugly war but what finally gives it away is the stink of the place. For Texans like Bush oil and cow shit is the smell of a different sort of green. It’s an intoxicating, earthy brew that comes from a primal source and you could see how a person might grow to like it, especially if it’s putting some serious money in the bank.

Crawford, however, where Bush’s ranch is and where the Crawford Peace House and Camps Casey I and II are, has none of these smells, at least as far as I could detect during the 36 hours Cecilia, my traveling partner, and I were there, though a shift in the wind may have changed matters. Bush calls his ranch "my little slice of heaven" and so it seems unlikely that the shit and oil stench of other parts of West Texas is too noticeable there, though one never knows. There is of course another sort of effluvium that rises from his little heaven, which is what brought Cindy Sheehan here and why about 8,000 people from all over the country and the world have filtered through Camps Casey I and II during the first 16 days of its somber, vivifying existence.

Cecilia and I arrived around eight o’clock Sunday night Crawford time after a 12 hour drive from Albuquerque, just in time to take the shuttle, a van driven by a very tired volunteer who’d been carrying visitors back and forth all day from the Peace House to the encampments. We wanted to see Joan Baez and got there in time to hear her last two songs. I estimated the crowd at seven to eight hundred people.

The tent at Casey II is a huge glistening white affair, approximately 100′ x 200′, its eight interior poles thrusting the roof skyward as if it were a membrane, forming, as seen from the outside, eight swooping pointy breasts, not an agreeable design but impressive in its scale and functionality. Inside, attached to the poles, hang massive brilliant lights powered by a large generator that runs continually. The effect, when things are running at high speed, is of a small ship tightly put together. One feels secure under this big tent.

The Peace House has received over $150,000 in donations since Cindy Sheehan’s determined vigil to speak with Bush and has been able to pay for the tent as well as a catering service on weekends-a pretty plush deal for the motley band of citizens who’ve come from all over to stand with Cindy and stick a Texas-sized mesquite thorn in the presidential rump. The irony here is that this same tent was used by Bush weeks earlier for a fund raising event. There remains a determined and hardier contingent at Casey I, where Cindy’s vigil began. Perhaps some day there will be a historical marker on that spot.

Casey II stands on the Matledge property at the intersection of Prairie Chapel Rd., which leads to the ranch’s entrance, and Canaan Church Rd. At the head of Bush’s road there are barriers and State Troopers. Between the tent and Canaan Church Rd. are 11 rows of small white crosses with 24 crosses in each row, an extension of "Arlington South," which first sprouted at Casey I. All around the landscape is flat, peaceful and green. You can’t see Bush’s house from the camp but it’s hard to imagine a person who’s been there that hasn’t given a good hard stare in that direction.

The true and obvious glory of Camps Casey is the people who have come to bear witness, to stand with Cindy and other grieving mothers, to network and plan ways to continue and expand the struggle against George Bush’s war. Some stay for only a few hours, others for days, and others still will stay for the duration. Despite the tent and conveniences at Casey II the heat and humidity make it a challenging environment. For those at Casey I it is considerably more difficult. The shuttle volunteers work long hours. Everyone pitches in, helping with preparing and serving food, directing traffic, general cleaning, and security. Volunteers stand watch in shifts throughout the night. The handful of people with organizational skills who keep things running relatively smoothly are indefatigable and good-natured, if very stressed.

I wanted to stay longer and had only a chance to speak at length with a few people. Cindy was not there, tending to her sick mother in Los Angeles, and that of course was a disappointment. I wanted to meet her, give her a hug, be next to her. There is something extraordinary and luminously pure about this woman. But a movement is much larger than one person and her absence, in this regard, was further incentive to go. I didn’t get the impression that people were preoccupied with Cindy, which, I am sure she would agree, is just fine. There is something bigger brewing. Occasionally there would be updates about the condition of her mother and messages of love from Cindy that nourished the gathering and then all would go about their business. It is impossible to predict what will come out of this but one would like to think of Camps Casey as pods from which many seeds will go forth and take root.

Joan Baez, wonderful and luminous herself, stayed longer than planned. Monday night she talked about her childhood and experiences as an activist, singing between vignettes, mostly a cappella. Jeff Keys, a gay Marine, poet and performance artist, gave a riveting performance Sunday night recounting his personal journey of liberation and experiences as an Iraq war veteran.

I had a long conversation with a photojournalist from Getty Images (at Casey for some pictures) who was embedded with the troops invading from Kuwait and was appalled at his ignorance in general and his opinion that the US needed to maintain a "footprint" in the Middle East for years to come in order to keep us safe from terrorism. Not once did he mention oil.

And then there was Archie from Missouri, whom at first glance one would have taken for a hayseed or redneck, overweight, unshaven, past middle age, loud of voice and wearing faded denim overalls. He had driven from Missouri in his 1980 Ford pickup and was in Crawford in support of Cindy and to protest Bush’s "ugly, immoral war." An ex-Marine, Archie had gone to Guatemala in 1989 to visit his son, then a Peace Corps volunteer, and had had his head turned around by what he saw. Since then Archie has been a man on a mission, going to Baghdad to deliver medical supplies with Ramsey Clark, going to Cuba, hounding Presidents, writing endless letters to his local paper. Archie was one of the most well informed people I’ve ever met and after two hours of listening to him speak, worn out, I finally had to excuse myself.

If it is the participants who give form to the gathering in Crawford it is the spirit of the dead, Iraqis and Americans, that animates them and gives them purpose. Death hangs over Bush’s ranch like something let loose from a putrescent and hopeless realm. Looking in his direction one feels gloom and shadow, but simply turning around and looking at the crosses, reading the names on them, while immensely saddening, fill one with a sense of resolve and purpose. This man, this war, will some day be finished. We will do what we can to hasten the demise of both. On the way to Crawford on South 36 we passed the Deep Shit Cattle Company. History, in its pitiless judgment, will relegate the man and his war to this realm.

To finish, some names. Take the time. Read them aloud, slowly:

Deshone E. Otley;

Sergio R. Diaz Varela;

Tyler R. Fey;

William T. Latham;

Nathan P. Brown;

Joseph Camara;

Kylan A. Jones-Huffman;

Matthew A. Koch;

Pablito Pena Briones Jr.;

Ryan A. Martin;

Mark A. Barbret;

Holly J. McGeogh;

Ricky Crockett;

Elijah Tai Wah Wong;

Karina S. Lau;

Scott Sather;

Marvin Lee Miller;

Mike A. Dennie;

David J. Moreno;

Nathaniel Hart Jr;

Justin D. Reppuhn;

Clint D. Ferrin;

Robert L. Henderson IV;

Casey A. Sheehan

RICHARD WARD lives in New Mexico. He can be reached at: cjward@osogrande.com