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In the three months since we fought the heat and crowds, watching a bit of history being made by the presence of Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas, a lot has changed.
We drove into town late this morning, noting the landmarks of last summer, Rattlesnake Hill Road, the Yellow Rose (where pro-Bush people hang out), the Crawford Peace Center. It was a completely different scene from the one that started a firestorm of adamant opposition to Bush’s war last August.
Yesterday there was a show of disobedience where twelve people peacefully protested by refusing to leave the ditch where Cindy Sheehan and her supporters had pitched their camps last summer. Approximately twenty-four people camped in the ditch for a few hours, but when the police arrived to arrest anyone who wouldn’t leave, half the number bowed out. To those twelve willing to be arrested, the Crawford police asked if they wanted to walk out or be carried. Among the twelve was Daniel Ellsberg, famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers. The twelve were kept for about four hours, charged, and told to return for trial. Movement is already underway to have the county laws that now prevent any kind of protest along the road to George Bush’s ranch rendered unconstitutional. If the laws hold, the tenacious activists who allowed themselves to be arrested instead of giving up their rights to protest will be fined up to $2500. The "ditch" as it is so often called was made famous last August when Cindy Sheehan parked her tent and camping supplies there, saying she would not leave until Bush answered her question: "Why did my son Casey have to die in your war in Iraq? What is the ‘noble cause’ you say he and the other 2000 have given their lives for?"
They didn’t leave until Bush ended his three-week vacation at his ranch down the road, and by then Cindy was a household word, an icon for those who draw strength from seeing an ordinary person do extraordinary things. Cindy’s stand was probably the largest shot of adrenalin the peace movement has received. She gave us the image the movement needed, a mother’s pain for the greed of a few, and America embraced the image.
Today, the plan was for a simple meal at Camp Casey in solidarity with the people of Iraq who want freedom, peace, and the end of the U.S. occupation. Iraqi women cooked up a wide variety of mideastern dishes, mostly spicy, all good. We counted roughly 200 people in the large tent where we ate, a much smaller number than the thousands who were going daily to Camp Casey in its final days last August.
I moved from table to table today, talking and trying to assess the mood of our movement. The anger that was there last summer has been replaced with the encouragement of believing, finally, that we are making headway in a country that fought hard to keep from facing the truth.
Before the meal, we all formed a huge circle and held hands. A member of the Lakota Tribe read, then sang chants to us, a Lakota prayer translated as "Thank you." We were read a section from the Koran, and then another speaker talked of shamanism in both Christianity and Judaism. At the end, one young woman told me she had been hesitant to miss Thanksgiving with her husband and son as it seemed a time to be with family. "Then," she concluded, "I arrived here and I know I am with family here too."
As I sat, I found myself looking carefully at a large poster of Casey Sheehan, who died in Iraq at age 24. I’d looked at the poster many times last summer. I’d seen Cindy hug MY son and tried over and over to understand how she fought the blackness of losing a child and then finding out that his death had been only for the material gain of a few. While she has become a hero, greatly admired for her unpretentious courage, she has also been treated badly by those Bush loyalists who feel threatened when confronted by a peace sticker or sign. I remembered today hearing the vulgar names shouted out from people in pickup trucks last summer, usually referring to Cindy. And, looking at Casey’s photo, the freezing of a young man to be eternally 24 years old, I recalled that some had taunted Cindy with reminders that Casey joined the military willingly.
Yes, Casey, like many others, joined on his own, believing he was needed to protect our country, believing — as did Cindy at the time — that our president was a man of honor, a man to be believed. Surely, they reasoned, our leaders know more than we could ever hope to understand.
I don’t know if Casey learned any parts of the big lie while he was in Iraq, but I look at his youthful face and am overcome with the knowledge of all that he never knew. He never knew that it was pointless to search for weapons of mass destruction, because such weapons didn’t exist. He never knew that some reputable people would later say that the Bush crowd NEVER believed such weapons existed but used the threat only to force the American people to support the conquest. He never knew that even after some of Bush’s "evidence" was disproved and reported to Bush as false that he would still go on to use it in a State of the Union Address fifteen months before Casey’s life would be extinguished. He couldn’t have known that one leak after another would finally bring two-thirds of the United States, now with a large number of its leaders, to admit that it had been wrong to invade Iraq. Probably he never for a moment knew that much of the world today considers George Bush to be the most dangerous person on earth, many calling him the greatest of all terrorists.
The saddest thing about Cindy’s question, for what noble cause did Casy die, is that there never WAS an answer. There never WAS a noble cause. Casey was used, along with well over 2,000 other young people who believed what they were told, who listened to a corporate-controlled media that reported what Power wanted them to report and withheld what Power wanted withheld, all exacerbated by a gullible public with a short memory, narrow minds, and a great lack of research inclination.
And he never knew of course that it would take a single person, his mother, to take a stand watched all around the world, to become the child who questions the emperor’s new clothes.
Today, our battle is far from over, but we have leaped mountains since the worldwide protests in February, 2003, when most of the American people refused to accept that we could be making a mistake to invade Iraq. At that time, the majority of Americans believed that there was a connection between Iraq and 9-ll, or Iraq and al-Qaeda. Today we can say that many in our country have awakened. Whether it is in shock at the discoveries that our country does indeed support torture and whether it is the photos of such horrible lawlessness as seen in Abu Ghraib or whether it is the slow, sometimes barely audible whistleblowing that is coming to us weekly now, we won’t know for some time. But what we do know is that a short time ago, Americans in general believed their president. That is no longer the case.
Many people will never be able to feel the same pride and trust in their country that they remember from only a few years ago. I saw, in the gentleness of the people who preferred sharing a simple Iraqi meal in Crawford to a huge turkey dinner, both a gratitude that we are finally being heard and a determination to persist. A group of people were discussing the need for a referendum in Iraq, where the Iraqis themselves would choose whether the U.S. leaves their country within a short time or not. Someone then commented that no, such a hope was not possible, that the U.S. would never leave Iraq. With all the talk of cutting forces, hoping to let the Iraqis govern themselves, and being the bringers of democracy to the nearly destroyed land, there are those huge air bases being built regularly in Iraq. We can pretend that they are temporary, but such pretense runs a close second to believing Santa is going to bring us back the bodies of children caught in "Shock and Awe" or that he’s going to bring back the missing father of an American child facing a cold Christmas this year.
Even now, when some categories of lies have been stopped in their tracks, the lie machine never sleeps. The big one to watch this month is the bidding being done by our national media to the Bush people’s propaganda about the threat posed to us all by Venezuela’s President Chavez. Slowly, desperately, the Bush people have changed the costumes involved and replaced the use of Osama bin Laden as global boogeyman with false accusations of the popular Venezuelan president who dares direct oil revenues to the poorest of his constituency. That they can’t catch Osama doesn’t seem to be high on the list of things that keep this White House awake at night.
The point, as I see it, is that there are those in power who have no intention of giving up. If they can’t force war with Syria, they’ll put both Syria and Iran on a back burner, and turn to South America. Always, it seems, toward a place where the earth is soaked in oil. So they lie, and somewhere out there a young Casey Sheehan, too young to be skeptical, will be pulled into the madness.
We returned from Camp Casey, where the meal was served, to the Peace Center in a shuttle van, and about halfway there, we were stopped as we approached one of the turns to the ranch created just before Bush became president. We got out and were told not to go any further than the front of our shuttle. There were four or five other vehicles stopped with us. We all assumed that Mr. Bush himself had dared leave the ranch and was being returned. We were reminded that we were silent protesters and while we could hold up the famous "V" sign of peace, we could not act like the hecklers of last summer had acted as they shouted and screamed at us. The police refused to tell us anything about what was stopping us.
Suddenly another vehicle drove up next to ours, holding a man, a woman, and two children. The woman got out and in a dramatic outpouring, began to shout of her love for Bush. After a couple of rather theatrical "Go, George. We love you George" statements, one of our group asked her if she was serious. Some of us thought it must be a moment of silliness, of misplaced sarcasm. No, she insisted, her eyes looking glazed over with the same look I’ve seen in those who were "born again" the previous week. "No, I LOVE this president."
"What about all the dead?" someone quietly asked her, and she threw out her arms to say, "If you only knew how many lives our president has SAVED. Look at France and serve your president. He has saved thousands of lives. What if you were in France?"
Sometimes it’s hard to be gentle, dignified and non-confrontational. I did a fairly unimpressive job of doing any of the three, but she left before I lost my cool completely. Regathered in the van, we all reminded each other that there’s a world of people out there still standing between us and the peace and understanding we advocate. Most demoralizing was that whoever had caused us to stop was not even recognizable to any of us. He or she was whisked down the ranch road, and we were free to move on without a clue of the stranger’s identity.
Back at the Peace Center before going to our car and heading home, I talked to some others about expectations. I learned that the space on which Camp Casey 2 is located has been rented for a year, so we will always have a place for events in this area. I learned that even in our small turnout, people today were from as far away as Maine and Oregon. The Crawford Peace House itself has been transformed. One man I met had created a large, flat area covered with smooth stones in the front of the house, a sort of patio. Leading from this new area toward the side and back are new paths lined with large rocks and filled with crushed stone. A picket fence has been built, with lattice-work archways. The entire yard has winding paths and inviting spots to stop and meditate. In total it is a memorial.
I drove out of Crawford more confident than I ever had last summer. All over the country people were doing what I would have been doing had it not been for Cindy Sheehan. They were stuffing themselves with turkey and dressing, yams and pies, thinking the borders of the world were within eyeshot, and lamenting loudly an hour later that they had eaten TOO much. I thought of the crumbled feta, steamed fish, and casseroles of rice and vegetables, the figs and dates and oranges that we had all shared today. No one, as far as I know, overate.
And in summary, I dared to hope: It’s getting better.
LEIGH SAAVEDRA is a former arts columnist and gifted education specialist, she has a collection of essays available in her book "The Girl with Yellow Flowers in Her Hair". She appreciates comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.