Pilgrims of Protest

“Today is kind of a blur to me.”–Cindy Sheehan
A People’s History of Aug. 11, Part Three

By Greg Moses

Bella Ciao / AfterDowningStreet / CounterPunch / UrukNet / OpEdNews / SamHamod

Penny strides into the front lawn of the Crawford Peace House talking about that time up in Racine five weeks before the alleged re-election when she stood along the street with firemen and everybody, and flipped the President the bird. “Thank you,” is what Penny recalls the President saying to her. “God, what a weak man!”

Like Cindy Sheehan, Penny is motivated by the death of her son, but Penny’s son was not killed in an overseas war. He lost his life to the politics of health care funding in Texas. “I’m only the Governor,” is how Penny recalls Bush’s response when she asked him to help restore a sudden cut in funding to the cancer research trial in Arlington, Texas that was doing good things for her son. “My son died because that treatment was delayed,” says Penny. And that’s one reason why she flipped the President the bird.

As for why she’s standing here in Texas, 1163 miles from home, she says of herself and spouse Mike, who should be shuttled here any minute from the stadium parking lot: “We have no idea what we’re doing. We’ve never done anything like this before. But it’s time we became teenagers!”

“There’s a lot we have on our side,” says Penny thinking about the movement that she has come to join. “There are a lot of angels here. Every one of those soldiers killed is an angel on our side. I’m working for the Apocalypse. Either take them or take me, but don’t leave us together anymore!” she grins.

“We had some friends up in Sturgis,” says Penny, speaking about the mega motorcycle convergence that happens up in South Dakota every August. “I told everyone there to come on down.” At Sturgis, Penny had some work on display. “I went from defense work to making motorcycle seats,” she says.

Then Penny begins to give another reason why she flipped the President the bird. As a long-time employee of a famed defense contractor, Penny watched them rebuild equipment using old parts from the warehouse, then purchase new parts for inventory, charging the government the cost of placing the new part on the shelf, while returning the rebuilt equipment. One day she was asked to “fill in” some prices for parts that had been taken from old stock, but which had cost the company nothing in recent years. She blew the whistle on that operation and was laid off in 2002.

Penny’s spouse Mike could tell another bird-flipping tale, too, she assures me, but he’s apparently been taken straight to Camp Casey in the car of Austin attorney Jim Harrington, so Penny hands me her card and catches the next shuttle out. A tube of caulk hits the sidewalk near my feet and I look up to see a volunteer on the roof trying to fix a leak.

*****

Julie Decker from San Diego County, California will be well known to television audiences in her home town. She and Tiffany Strauss traveled out here by airplane Tuesday, with San Diego reporters following every move. Julie says she heard Cindy on the radio “and 20 hours later” she was on the way.

Bob Carter from Houston shows up with a bag full of supplies and comes into the kitchen asking if he can write a check. Sure says Linda, the mainstay volunteer of the day, as she scurries to keep up with a pile of chores. Linda is a retired special education teacher who moved to Fort Worth from Stockton, California in 1975. In the mid-eighties she was activated by the Gary Hart campaign for President and interreligious activism in behalf of Central America. Peace Action is the group she most closely identifies with today.

Like Linda, Bob is a retired school teacher. He taught music and band. “I’m here because this is going to be big,” he assures me. “This might be the beginning of the end of the Iraq war. If we don’t stop this guy now he might bomb Iran and Syria. I don’t trust the man.” Because Bob was attending the University of Texas, he was given a draft deferment until graduation day 1954. “In war mankind is at his worst!” says Bob standing now in the front room of the Peace House. It’s incredible how we reduce young men and women to monsters.”

A UPS delivery is coming through the front door. Hadi Jawad signs for the small stack of boxes and envelopes as the driver surveys the scene.

“What we have to do is to change the general frame of mind,” continues Bob, after apologizing for preaching. “From our training, our education, and our media we don’t hear the other side. So 70 percent of the people in the USA agreed that we should start a unilateral war against a country that posed no threat? What the hell is going on! How can you change that frame of mind?”

Bob and his spouse park their tiny dog Biscuit in a side room at the Peace House and catch a shuttle to the camp. When Biscuit starts whining, I look at Linda and she says, “they said we could walk him.” So I take Biscuit to the garden for a walk around the labyrinth. Johnny Wolf laid out the design, which looks very much like the famous pattern on the floor of the cathedral at Chartres. It makes for an interesting foot trip today. First you think you are heading steadily to the center, then you find yourself moving out to the rim. But why doesn’t the path just take me to the center, you ask yourself, and just as you’re about to curse the labyrinth, you’re standing right in the middle. Very nice. A little lesson in patience for Biscuit and me.

*****

Directing traffic this morning along Cedar Rock Parkway is Tim, a Stonewall Democrat from Tarrant County (Ft. Worth). His face is beaded with the sweat of activity as he hurries to keep up with all the arriving cars, trying to keep people from parking in unauthorized zones, and running shuttles now in three locations: the Peace House, the camp, and the satellite parking lot at a nearby stadium. He has to go back home soon, so he also is looking at the time and for someone to replace him. Here is Michelle from Houston, but the velocity of arrivals is beginning to blur my notes, so I return Biscuit to her crate and hop a shuttle.

Just before the carful of pilgrims is ready to roll, Hadi knocks on the window of the car. “We have a Gold Star Mom, and she needs to get out to the camp.” Standing with Hadi is the mom’s escort from Military Families Speak Out.” So I hop out to catch the next shuttle as Hadi pauses to speak to a reporter from Argentina. According to a press release from MFSO, two Gold Star Mothers are scheduled for arrival this morning. Barbara Porchi of Camden, Arkansas lost her son Jonathan Cheatham in July 2003. Sue Niederer of Penington, New Jersey lost her son Seth Dvorin in February 2004. Niederer is a co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace.

Out at the campsite, Celeste Zappala takes her turn speaking at a press conference: “We lost our son Sgt. Sherwood Baker. He was thirty years old. He was killed on April 6, 2004 while he was looking for the weapons of mass destruction long after everybody knew they weren’t there. He was the 720th American to die. He was the first Pennsylvania National Guardsman to die. Seven more died this week.”

“When we buried Sherwood, I knelt down beside his coffin and I vowed to him I will speak the truth for him. This war is a disaster. It is a betrayal of our military. And it’s a betrayal of the democracy they seek to protect.” With wind beating into the truthout microphone and tears racing into her eyes, Zappala turns to step away from the camera: “Bring our troops home now.”

Stepping from the shuttle with a woman from Boulder, Colorado, the first thing we see is Cindy Sheehan walking toward us along Morgan Rd., television cameras close behind. She seems just a little bit nervous as she approaches us to ask how we’re doing, gently bringing her hand up to touch a shoulder. All those cameras certainly make me a little nervous as I ask how is her fever. “It’s still getting better,” she says. She has taken some medicine.

As Cindy and her media entourage continue their stroll, I hear a reporter identifying himself with the Baton Rouge Free Press, the anti-war newspaper produced by the Louisiana delegation. I also hear Jim Goodnow slowly spelling Terlingua.

*****

The sun is high now, so I pop an umbrella and stroll along the un-named lane where the crosses are now fairly well begun: Ernesto Blanco, a former student from Texas A&M University, killed by an “explosive device” on Jan. 28, 2003. Buried at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, at a funeral attended by the Governor. “My brother touched so many people,” said his sister. “Everyone that knew him felt like they were Ernie’s favorite, and that is a great gift.” He loved his life here in Texas: country music, Shiner Bock, and the Hill Country. I hear the clink, clink, clink that senior boots make as Aggie Cadets stride across campus. His sister Carmen hears him playing guitar and singing.

Viktar V. Yolkin of Spring Branch, Texas, one of three Texas soldiers killed when their Bradley fighting vehicle “overturned”. He had come to America in 1998 and according to the Houston Chronicle, “he insisted on joining the Army two years ago so he could wear the uniform of the nation he had come to love.” His ex-wife, who tried to talk him out of the military, said his body would probably be buried back in Belarus.

Robert Wise, a 21-year-old Florida National Guardsman, killed in Nov. 2003 by an improvised explosive device or IED. At high school in Tallahassee he played soccer, ran cross country, and was commander of the ROTC. He had been in Iraq seven months and was looking forward to seeing his newborn godson. When two helicopters collided, killing 17 soldiers, Robert’s father David told the AP that his son was greeting them in heaven, “Making it better on them … you know, with that goofy grin that he had.”

Isela Rubacalva from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico was killed by mortar May 8, 2005 near a chow hall. Her father Ramon is quoted by John Ross saying, “she died on Friday thinking about coming home to eat carnitas and beans, drink a beer and go to a dance. This war is useless, as useless as Vietnam.”

Jonathan B. Shields of Atlanta was killed when “a tank accidentally struck him.” As he prepared to join a mission to Falluja, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he emailed his wife in Texas: “This is the last time we’re going to talk. I’m not coming home from this.” Before all that, he had planned to enroll in culinary school, open a restaurant, and add more children to his family.

Among the crosses, one finds an occasional crescent or star of David.

Behind me, a late model Chevy 2500 eases quietly up the nameless lane from Prairie Chapel Road. Down comes the window and a middle aged fellow looks out, his spouse smiling from the passenger seat. “Good job, good job!” he says indicating the row of crosses. “We’re driving back from California to SouthEast Texas, but we just wanted to stop by and tell you how much we appreciate you.” Several of us thank the guy for stopping by, up goes the window, and the family trip resumes. I double back down nameless lane and turn SouthEast on Morgan Road to check the leg of road where folks are parking.

*****

It looks like headquarters here, the land of the goddess warriors. Near an open van several CodePink organizers pace with their cell phones. Camp director Ann Wright is here, too. Cindy Sheehan is sitting on an ice chest speaking with a reporter.

Further up the parking ditch, here’s a pure Texas classic. From the driver’s window of her brightly polished red Ford pickup truck stick the brown leather boots of legendary Texas activist Diane Wilson. The inveterate nonviolent warrior who changed chemical history down along the coast with her hunger strikes, and who was grinning and tromping around camp at dawn like a trooper on caffeine, has now gone sound asleep in the mid-day heat. She’s hunger striking again, in case you haven’t heard. The hunger strike started on Saturday the moment the cops stopped Cindy in the bar ditch and told her she could go no further. “Are you with me?” she asked Jodie Evans, and Jodie said sure. So Jodie and about 100 others are hunger striking this action.

About this time, Biscuit’s mother comes walking by, so we chat about the little guy. I tell her that I took him for a walk. She tells me the story of how he was found near a Houston highway at the age of eight months. He’s about three years old now. I wonder if he’ll ever get over his abandonment anxieties.

As I’m marveling at the purple color of the bud or fruit of a five foot tall nettle or thistle, up comes a new car. “I’m playing hookey from work,” admits the man from Austin as he locks up and walks toward camp. The newly installed Port-O-Potty has been inserted into the line of cars here. So the foot traffic is a little heavier than before.

Attached to a car, with California Premium Trailer plates, is an artful steel trailer. Into the panels that surround the trailer an artist has cut reverse silhouettes of the symbol of battlefield death: a bayonetted rifle stuck upside down into the ground with a helmet on top. So this is how the crosses got here. Cicadas and crickets sing as waist high grass blows in the westerly wind. In the ditches one finds abundant evidence of the media flood that has come and gone, leaving tire marks in the lush grasses. Along the East side of Morgan road the fence posts are metal. Along the west side, wood. I’m out on the prairie again any my mind runs free. Dragonflies make their way against the wind.

Back down Morgan Road toward camp, I am beginning to get a sense of family. Here is Annie from the Louisiana delegation running an errand, and Diane Wilson is awake now speaking on the cell phone. She lifts a boot to wave hi, and I make a note: it’s the left boot. Cindy Sheehan and the departing reporter exchange hugs.

Nearby, Bill Mitchell is trying to get some shade and downtime, but he’s being harrangued by a lefty on revolution overdrive who want a petition signed pertaining to some issue that apparently needs lots of explanation. “I’m here,” says Mitchell finally, “because my son was killed in Iraq.” That seems to startle the lefty somewhat, but I don’t hang around long enough to learn whether it shuts him up.

The chalk tally where the crosses begin marks today’s official tally at 1,841 killed in Iraq, 13,769 wounded. Next to that is a poster with thumbnails of the first 1,000 faces. While looking at these signs I can’t help but notice the one right behind them: “Posted No Trespassing.” It won’t be too many days before the juxtaposition of these signs will define a conflict.

*****

“Motorcade incoming!” someone shouts as we all freeze and look NorthEast along Prairie Chapel Road. Is it Condoleeza Rice? Donald Rumsfeld? Bush? Because the line of cars contains a cop car, someone jokes: “He’s been in office seven years and they finally figured out what he’s guilty of.” But the joke draws an immediate rejoinder: “They won’t arrest the head honcho.” A television news truck peels away from the ‘motorcade’ and parks inside the triangle as banter in the crowd continues. “Somehow these people think you don’t have the right to change your mind.” Both this ‘motorcade’ and the next dissolve before our eyes. They were purely accidental arrangements of vehicles that somehow just got bunched up on these narrow country roads.

The precinct four road department is back again, with the driver of the truck asking, “Where’s my help?” And the response: “What do you need help doing?” The atmosphere seems to be loosening up quite a bit between protesters and officials. I take in some last images of animal life out here, Lucky Dog, a buzzard, and a butterfly, before taking the next shuttle back.

“What’s your name?” asks the woman in the passenger seat. After she hears from the driver and me, she says, “I’m Gen Vaughan.” Wow, talk about dropping a heavy name. If you don’t know, do a Google on Genevieve Vaughan to get lots of details on this pre-eminent feminist organizer and philanthropist, proponent of gift economics, matriarchal studies, and women’s radio. Then get out your calendar and save these dates for the Second World Congress on Matriarchal Studies: Sept. 29 – Oct. 2, San Marcos, Texas.

Back at the Peace House I’m going for some trunk supplies in the Honda that I rode in, but I’m also distracted by what’s parked nearby. It’s a friggin Yellow Cab! I mean here in Crawford a Yellow Cab? The mystery is answered somewhat when Air America political satirist Barry Crimmins climbs into the cab and rushes toward camp, but I wonder, did he catch that cab on Park Avenue? Anyway, I’m thinking I should hang out here at the Honda. Last car I saw here was driven by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, but that was hours ago.

The side lawn of the Peace House is now drawing a small crowd, thanks to Hadi’s world famous wok veggie deluxe. Recipe: get a Texas sized wok, preheat on an outdoor cylinder grill, add veggies and spice to taste, and serve with rice. Mark Green is going crazy for the stuff, chomping down his third bowl and telling me how to trade in electricity the honest way.

Austin musician Bill Passalacqua is singing vintage Prine and updated Zevon. He had the whole house grinning up at the VFP convention last weekend. And he’s getting some grins here too. Dick Underhill is shaking everybody’s hand. He tells me that Kay Lucas is the story to go for, so make sure the guys from truthout, Air America, and Rolling Stone don’t hear this, because I need the scoop.

But what’s remarkable here on Thursday afternoon in the side yard of the Peace House, August 11, is the tent that’s going up. Three foot metal posts are being pounded into the ground by guys that look like they’ve done this thing a time or two, and a large white canopy is secured overhead. A half dozen volunteers are dragging out cases of water from inside as portable water coolers are being dragged over the stones of the labyrinth.

Jim from Austin wants to videotape my philosophy of religion, but I take a rain check on that. The heat and the hours are swimming my thoughts around. Under this freshly raised tent, I may be getting religion right about now, but I couldn’t unpack a concept for him. We agree to try again in air conditioning.

*****

Going for a bottle of water, I meet the most interesting fellow. His name is Tom and he didn’t drive too far to get here. By some kind of luck he got out of the military in the summer of 2001, but he knows lots of soldiers who were still in when 9/11 hit. One of those soldiers, a friend of his, went to Iraq. Back from Iraq, the friend fell into deep depression and was eventually discharged. “They messed him up,” says Tom. “And if they messed up my friend, that’s not right.” So Tom went and bought a brand new digital camera, because his favorite bloggers on the internet want to see more pictures. “How do we get to camp?” asks Tom. To which I reply, “Come with me, I’ll show you.” This tent is working great.