In this piece, a skeptical Andrew Gumbel says that a visit to Crawford, Texas, was enough to persuade him of Cindy Sheehan's potential as a national leader of the antiwar movement.  --  UFPPC will be reading Gumbel's new book, Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America, in Digging Deeper IX, UFPPC's book discussion circle, beginning Sept. 12....


By Andrew Gumbel

** The protest in Crawford has far greater meaning than just ‘one woman sitting in a ditch’ **

LA City Beat
September 1, 2005

CRAWFORD, Texas -- I’ll be honest: I went to Camp Casey this past weekend, the last of the summer before President Bush leaves his Texas ranch for the White House, with distinctly low expectations. I have absolutely no argument with Cindy Sheehan’s grief over the death of her son, or the emotionality of her appeal to the president to explain to her exactly why he had to lay down his life. She has brought the humanity and suffering of the war into American living rooms like nothing else since the fall of Baghdad, and for that alone her initiative deserves to be roundly applauded.

I did worry, though, that the very personal sense of disconsolate anger that has made Sheehan so attractive to the news networks might not be the most solid of foundations on which to build an antiwar movement. I also worried about the integrity of a protest so glaringly exposed to the media limelight. Would I find evidence of a genuine popular uprising in the making, crossing the usual lines of party and political ideology, or just the usual depressing spectacle of Jesse Jackson and a gaggle of other celebrity media whores mugging for the television cameras?

My first impressions were not entirely encouraging. I drove straight into a traffic jam created almost entirely by counterdemonstrators called to Crawford to show the world not everyone considered Casey Sheehan’s ultimate sacrifice to have been wasted. “Casey was our son too,” read one of the more disconcerting anti-Sheehan placards – disconcerting because it suggested the dead soldier was no longer regarded as a human being so much as a partisan political football ripe for the kicking.

The counterdemonstrators certainly included more than their share of fruitcakes. One retired pastor from Florida called George Lucas made a particularly startling speech in which he accused Sheehan of working for the devil; she and her supporters were “blaspheming” against President Bush, he contended, because Bush had been placed in office by God Himself.

The Bushies congregated on Crawford’s main drag, right in front of a replica of the Liberty Bell and two stone plaques of the Ten Commandments that had been wheeled in for the occasion. The Sheehan supporters, meanwhile, were invited to gather across the railroad tracks at the Crawford Peace House, where the rhetoric was less loopy but no less trenchantly partisan. The Socialist Workers were there, of course, as was a pile of lazily anti-Bush literature – copies of the most damning passage in the Downing Street Memo to substantiate the “Bush lied” mantra, digs at the “chicken hawk-in-chief,” and so on. The beatification of Cindy Sheehan was also in full swing, as a handful of handwritten “Songs for Cindy” posted on the door made clear. “Cindy,” gushed one, “She came . . . she spoke . . . she conquered!”

What made these things disappointing was not their validity in and of themselves, but the fact that they portended a complete lack of dialogue across the usual battle lines. In other words, it seemed hardcore Democrats and hardcore Republicans were screaming past each other all over again and all but ignoring the key question -- what to do about the growing Iraqi nightmare. That, though, was before I hopped on the shuttle bus to Camp Casey itself, at which point my impressions brightened considerably.

First off, it was clear the protest was outstandingly well-organized. The shuttle driver lectured us about the need to avoid dehydration in the 105-degree heat and humidity of central Texas, and from the moment we left his air-conditioned cocoon it was impossible to take 10 steps without having someone thrust an ice-cold bottle of water into our hands. Not only was everything free -- the water, the organic salads, the Internet access, and the ever-replenishing roster of musical acts -- it was all offered with enthusiasm and passion.

More importantly, all indications were that everyone was there for the right reasons. The Iraq veterans, military family members, bereaved relatives, radical priests, and hardcore pacifists represented a pleasingly broad social and political spectrum. The media mingled easily with the crowd but attracted no undue attention. Sheehan herself has evolved into an accomplished public speaker. She quite rightly laid into President Bush for flying in and out of his ranch by helicopter, all the better to put the protesters out of sight and out of mind, and took great pleasure in the way she and her supporters had nonetheless ruined his summer vacation. She adroitly wrested the Christian mantle back from the warmongers (“We know our Lord does not stand for killing”) and delivered a central point that struck just the right tone of indignation and urgency without making any potentially divisive policy prescriptions. “This,” she said, “is America standing up and saying we’ve had enough.”

After almost a month of Sheehan mania, the spontaneity that drove Cindy’s original act of protest – “one woman walking down a road and sitting in a ditch,” as one organizer, Lauren Sullivan, put it – remains largely intact. The numbers of protesters joining her under the awning of Camp Casey and sleeping under the stars next to the row of crosses memorializing the Iraqi dead may not, ultimately, be as significant as the avalanche of financial contributions big and small that has been cascading in since the second week of August.

The money has certainly saved the bacon of the Crawford Peace House, which was down to its last few dollars and was about to have its phone cut off. But it has also emboldened Sheehan to take her protest further afield – to the district offices of key pro-war congressmen, starting with Tom DeLay, and thence to the streets of Washington for three days of demonstrations at the end of this month. As the protest has grown, at least some organizers appear to have held on to the importance of reaching out to the broadest possible audience.

Patricia Foulkrod, an L.A.-based activist who is completing a film about the ravages of the Iraq War on returning soldiers, underlined the point that it was the humanity of Sheehan’s gesture that struck such a chord – in a way that close political argument about the inadequacy of battlefield equipment or the curtailing of veterans’ benefits has not. “The reason this is working,” she said, “is that it’s one mother with a question, and there’s no easy comeback to that.”

For now, the momentum is still running in the Sheehan camp’s favor. Leaving Bush’s poll numbers aside, it was clear from my day in Crawford that the greater energy and enthusiasm is on the antiwar side of the fence. When a counterdemonstrator plowed his pickup through the field of crosses at Camp Casey a couple of weeks ago, it not only triggered a national wave of revulsion. According to Foulkrod, it also elicited the sympathy of many otherwise dyed-in-the-wool conservative locals, including the police.

Still, the danger remains that the emotion of the protest could yet lead it in unwise political directions. Already, some Democratic politicians have distanced themselves from the notion, echoed by a sizeable portion of Sheehan’s supporters, that the troops should come back from Iraq immediately. The appearance of Al Sharpton at Camp Casey last Sunday was probably counterproductive.

If the protesters were smart, they would avoid all policy prescriptions on Iraq and instead lay the burden entirely at President Bush’s door to come up with a way out of the untenable mess he has created. They would also do well to reach out to military families uncomfortable with their protest – something they have started to do on a limited scale.

The broader point is that Iraq is a national, and global, tragedy, not a partisan dogfight. If Cindy Sheehan and her sympathizers can focus on that, their movement could yet prove devastating to the neocons’ misguided dreams of empire and effect real change.

--Andrew Gumbel is the author of Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (Nation Books).