Cindy Sheehan brought her anti-war crusade to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, arriving with a caravan of three RVs and several cars ferrying about three dozen military families and Iraq War veterans on the final leg of their 21-day Bring Them Home Now tour.
The tour included members of Gold Star Families for Peace , which Sheehan helped found, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Veterans for Peace. They set off from their encampment outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, on August 31 and covered 51 cities in 28 states in a hell-bent sprint to mobilize public opinion against the war in Iraq while building momentum for what they hope will be a 100,000-strong peace march in D.C. this Saturday.
The plan was to close out the tour by converging on the steps of the Capitol for a noon press conference, where they would lambaste Congress for continuing to fund the Bush administration’s misguided war. But the schedule was derailed by Capitol police, who blocked the lead RV Sheehan was traveling in, claiming they could not let the RVs pass until a bomb-sniffing dog had searched the vehicles.
“RVs aren’t allowed on Capitol Hill,” said one of the officers. “That’s standard protocol. We aren’t allowed to let any campers through unless they’ve been previously authorized.”
“We were told we had clearance to drop people off,” said tour organizer Lisa Fithian, who spent several minutes trying to negotiate a way around the impasse. Police eventually detoured the caravan to a side street on the west side of the Capitol, where the peace campaigners were allowed to unload.
After the past two months, when they’ve seen their memorial crosses mowed down in Crawford and had the mic yanked away by the NYPD in Union Square, Sheehan and the other
military families did their best to shrug off the road block as just the latest hurdle in their effort to get their message heard.
”No blood for oil!” and “Not one more!” they chanted, bearing posters of their lost children and other relatives as they marched onto the Capitol lawn. They were quickly mobbed by a scrum of TV camera crews battling for a shot of Sheehan—including one clumsy photographer who managed to topple the podium with all the mics attached before the show even got started.
Sheehan often sets off a media frenzy, and the questions thrown at her tend to be less about her cause and more about the latest slur cast by Rush Limbaugh and the Freeper clan. “Is it true that your tour is being funded and controlled by Michael Moore and MoveOn,” one rather aggressive cable broadcaster asked, shoving a mic in her face. (“No it’s funded by grassroots donations,” the peace mom responded.)
Another reporter queried: “Is this really the right time to demonstrate [against the war] in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Gulf Coast?”
“Nine Americans were killed in Iraq yesterday, and over 200 Iraqis died in the last week alone. There is still a war going on. It’s still a story. Innocent Iraqis and innocent Americans are dying every day. This story isn’t going away, so it is absolutely the time,” Sheehan responded, with a note of exasperation.
Sheehan and the other family members say the devastation caused by Katrina is only more reason to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and redirect the billions of dollars going to the Pentagon and Halliburton contracts in Iraq into hemorrhaging cities back home. On the road, Sheehan’s posse and the two other legs of the Bring Them Home tour visited several areas damaged by Katrina, delivering food and water to evacuees at the Houston Astrodome and at makeshift clinics in Covington, Louisiana. “We were told by the people that it was the first aid they had seen,” Sheehan said of the desperation they found in Covington.
Until now, most of the anti-war movement’s ire has been focused on President Bush. By making Capitol Hill their first stop, Sheehan and other members of the Bring Them Home Now tour sought to turn up the heat on Congress, both for authorizing the war and then failing to act after all of the Bush administration’s rationales for the war have proved so patently false.
Saying she had been told by lawmakers for the last two years that it was not a “politically appropriate time” to demand that the troops come home, military mom Anne Roesler demanded: “I want to know, when it will be politically appropriate to end this war?
“I want to thank those few Congress members who stood by our side [to oppose the war], but it’s not enough,” charged Roesler, whose son is now serving his third tour with the 82nd Airborne Division. “I lay awake. I worry about my son,” she said, adding, “It’s chaos there. By staying, they’re just a magnet for the insurgency.”
Former Army specialist Cody Camacho, who was on the ground at the start of the U.S. invasion, was even more blunt. “This is a message for Congress,” he said. “Get off you butts and do something!”
The speakers’ targets went way beyond the Republican party. “There’s Democrats that voted for the war. This is not about right or left, it’s about right or wrong,” Camacho insisted.
Camacho also had some sharp words for the media, who he said are always tagging after Cindy Sheehan. “Ask where are the WMDs, ask what’s the exit strategy, ask what is the noble cause?” he challenged the camera crews, referring to Bush’s oft-repeated claim that American soldiers are fighting in Iraq for a “noble cause.”
“Freedom of the press? They’re going to cut my face right out, so don’t even waste your tape. They don’t want to put a face on this,” he told the TV crews.
Peace mom, fellow activists on the march (photo by Sarah Ferguson)
Although her critics have sought to portray Sheehan and her supporters as hijacked by the far left, it would be hard to typecast the anguish voiced by Philip Waste of Shellman Bluff, Georgia.
“I was in the military and it was good to me,” said the 65-year-old grandfather, who now has three sons and two grandchildren on active duty. “But I am guilty, I am so guilty, because I recommended that my sons join the Army to defend their country.
“In my family, we don’t cry over spilt milk, and Congress shouldn’t either,” Waste continued, his voice rising in anger. “They may have had faulty information to vote for this war, but they don’t now. I would ask Congress what is noble about the illegal occupation of Iraq? It is we the people who are making the sacrifice, and we who are now asking that Congress do their duty and bring our troops home.”
Waste and his wife, Linda, are an example of the kind of people catalyzed by Sheehan. In early August, they heard her interviewed on NPR, and the next day were on their way to Crawford. “We found that Cindy was a courageous and sincere woman, and she is what she says, so we joined Military Military Families Speak Out right then,” Waste said.
“When she asked the question of Bush, how is this war a noble cause, I’m a pretty smart man and I couldn’t answer it.”
Sheehan hasn’t given up on her crusade to make Bush answer that question. After the press conference, she and the other members of the tour marched over to the front gate of the White House, where they attempted to deliver a letter to Bush demanding that he answer this question: “What noble cause are our loved ones fighting and dying for?”
“My name is Cindy Sheehan, and I have a letter to deliver to the president,” she told the guards.
“Karl Rove may call me a clown, but there’s a lot of people who agree with what I say,” she told the news crews pressing around her.
The guards wouldn’t let her past the gates, of course, but a White House suit took the missive and walked away with it.
Mission accomplished, for now at least, Sheehan and her followers retreated to their RVs and set off for the Washington Mall, where they set up a fully permitted Camp Casey Memorial, named after the 24-year-old son she lost in Iraq.
Tomorrow Sheehan and the other members of the tour will start knocking on the doors of Congress. Sheehan has meetings scheduled with Representatives Marilyn Musgrave, Dave Reichert, Jeb Bradley, and Henry Waxman and with Senators John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Edward Kennedy. She also hopes to meet with Senators Bill Frist and Elizabeth Dole, though organizers say Frist and Dole have repeatedly refused requests for a meeting.