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Cindy Sheehan: Resistance, matriotism and belief



The Saturday before Palm Sunday, the dappled gray choir packed Santa Barbara’s Veterans Memorial Building, where there seemed to be almost as many cameras as there were people. A woman survivor of the rambunctious 60s and 70s later asked plaintively what they had to do to attract the young.
Since the day two years ago when her crusade began, on the sands of Santa Barbara’s Arlington West “Beach of Crosses,� Cindy Sheehan has shot to national and international fame. She sparked the in-your-face demo at Camp Casey, outside Mr. Bush’s Crawford Ranch; been removed from the gallery of Congress; been arrested in Washington and New York; visited Venezuela and openly espoused the cause of Hugo Chavez, not Mr. Bush’s favorite Latin American political leader
She has been a festering thorn in the side of the President and All The President’s Men and Women in her vigorous, unrelenting-but-non-violent campaign against the War in Iraq . . .indeed, against all wars, and the sacrifice of any nation’s youth.
In pursuit of this ideal, Sheehan has founded a movement she calls “Matriotism,� a “peaceful paradigm,� the opposite, she points out, of patriotism—a curse on militarism’s warriors.
She has also been maligned and scorned by the dwindling percentage of the populace which backs the aggressive Bush-Cheney overseas policy; but her followers would happily canonize her if they could.
As Sheehan spoke in the Veterans Memorial Building, back for the two-year anniversary of Arlington West, the crowd rose time and again in vociferous, appreciative applause that she had lit the torch of resistance. And in support of her impatience with a political process which sacrifices the nation’s young for questionable motives: “We don’t want Bush saying we have to stay the course on this shitty mission. Yes, we’ve made a difference ... We’re in so much peril right now ... shredding the Constitution ... War crimes ... Spying on us ... He’s a traitor, a squatter in the White House, stealing our souls .� And she didn’t reserve her scorn for the Republicans, but scathed Democrats for ineffective opposition.
Next day, a barely-rested Cindy sat down for a spell of self-examination. In addition to her talk at the Vet’s (after a long drive from the Bay Area), she had scheduled a speech at the beach, then it was off to L.A., then on to Crawford and Washington. A crusader’s itinerary. Several times as we chat, people come up to hug her or press her hands. “I want to thank you so much.� At one point a gentleman at the next table scrambles to help her with her laptop, and thereby earn himself a couple of minutes of chat-time with his hero. A shy smile of deep gratitude spreads across her face. She’s never too busy to pause for a quick chat with those who take the trouble.
Life had already been rough, but she has had experience of tough times: “I bore four kids in six years, and there’s nothing harder. Nothing. People who don’t think so are guilty of misunderstatement,� she quips, happily pre-empting the famous Bushism.
Now, she says, sixty-seventy percent of the populace is against Mr. Bush’s war, and the polls seem to back her up. But the resistance hasn’t reached the crescendo of the mass demonstrations and the confrontations that Vietnam caused 35 years ago. So why has Cindy emerged as so powerful a symbol in the national anti-war movement? It seems strange when juxtaposed with her down-home style, and her own, so-obvious, humility.
She recalls a shuttle flight from Washington to New York. Her seatmate was a woman who worked somewhere deep in the Pentagon. “You don’t know how right you are,� the military woman told her, very quietly, she says, and totally off the record. “I resonate with women especially. I support the mothers, and work against sending other people’s children over there. The power of what I’m doing is not that everyone is a mother, but that everyone, has one.� As she says this, one can almost see an image of the agonized, erupting Iraqi desert cross her face; then her look returns to reflective sadness.
“Right now, there aren’t many people left sitting on the fence. We’re working toward massive non-violent demos against [war profiteers like] Halliburton and Kellogg Brown Root on the Fourth of July. “Is the country ready? I think so.� But Sheehan also knows things “can be organized to death. The trick is to find somewhere in the middle between total spontaneity and rigid order, and it’s not easy. I don’t believe in getting permits, as long as it’s peaceful assembly ... I want my rights back.�
She is well aware that she raises hackles; in fact she received death threats at Crawford. She turned them over to the local sheriff who passed them on to the FBI. She has never heard anything further. “I take all the crap they throw, but it slides off me ... I have no moments of doubt.
I asked about the public relations firm which suddenly surfaced at Camp Casey in Crawford, leaving Sheehan open to charges of grandstanding. “I asked for them. I was in touch with Move On and had worked with their PR people before. That first week, I did 250 interviews. I needed some help. It had not been, as I suspected at the time, a takeover.� Now, for the most part, she travels on her own, with no minder or PR flack to hold her hand or couch her phrases.
Her organization, Gold Star Families For Peace, operates on little more than a wing and a prayer. Her sister, DiDi works part-time as her scheduler and manager; the organization has two other part-timers, some assistance from her publisher, and she has an agent who books her. Sometimes she gets travel expenses, sometimes her work is supported by donations. She has no “life coach� or therapist, and that’s one of her principal appeals: she is so far from the cardboard fa�ade created by some hip Madison Avenue spin doctor, who pervert “real� and “�genuine� into abused, commercialized qualities. Clearly, something spiritual is at work in her. Maybe it’s a memory of resistance championed by other political movements, such as the work of the Berrigan brothers at the time of Vietnam. Unlike the Berrigans, Sheehan was not raised Catholic but she did convert to Catholicism with the birth of her last child. But she acknowledges that, “Right now, I’m re-assessing my Catholicism.�
Finally I asked Cindy: Where does the energy that keeps her incessantly on the road come from?
“I take inventory ... Yes, I feel that angels guide me, that there’s a Universal Creator who has a plan for everything. When I unburdened myself, something freed me to live every moment. It just happens ... Everything is taken care of. I don’t worry about money. My meals and shelter, where I stay, they’re always provided. I know I’m always surrounded by my soldiers. They’re not from this world ... I dream about Casey, and I talk to him. He helps me to make sure I’m on the right path. He’s always with me.� ∆

Bayard Stockton can be reached at drayab@silcom.com

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