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Cindy Sheehan's vigil ignites a new wave of protest
Turning point for the antiwar movement

August 26, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

ERIC RUDER looks at how--and why--support for Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey in Crawford spread across the U.S.

CINDY SHEEHAN brought the antiwar movement to George W. Bush's doorstep in Crawford, Texas. And inspired by her example, activists across the country brought the movement back into the streets at more than 1,600 vigils from coast to coast last week.

In big cities and smaller towns, "red" states and "blue" states, these vigils provided the opportunity to stand up and speak out that opponents of the war have longed for. Largely organized through the Internet, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life turned out for the events, eager to show support for what began as a one-woman vigil and has turned into a phenomenon sweeping the country.

More than 1,000 people turned up at three different vigils in Phoenix, Ariz.--an area with a high concentration of military families. In New Haven, Conn., more than 350 people gathered on 48 hours' notice. "I didn't know this many people were going to come," said organizer John Shanley. "I would have brought a bullhorn."

In New York City, more than 100 turned out for a vigil at Union Square that was sprinkled with signs reading "We support Cindy Sheehan" and "Troops out now." Alex Ryabov, a cofounder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, came to the event to lend his organization's support. "The people make change happen," he said.

The next day, Cindy announced that she was leaving Crawford after learning that her mother suffered a stroke and was in a Los Angeles hospital. But Camp Casey didn't fold.

Instead, attention shifted to the many other members of Gold Star Families for Peace--the organization of relatives of soldiers killed in the war co-founded by Cindy--who had come to Crawford. Over last weekend, hundreds more people visited the camp to keep up the pressure, listen to musicians like Steve Earle and Joan Baez, and show that this movement has real staying power.

Cindy's departure gave her the opportunity to reflect on the explosion of media attention caused by her trip to Crawford--and to answer some of her critics.

Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly, radio host Rush Limbaugh, right-wing cybergossip Matt Drudge and leftwing-pundit-turned-neocon Christopher Hitchens have all taken their shots at Cindy Sheehan. They're obviously desperate to find a way to blunt her broad appeal.

But the right's vicious personal attacks and attempts to portray her as a "radical extremist" haven't got much traction.

"The media are wrong," wrote Cindy on August 20. "The people who have come out to Camp Casey to help coordinate the press and events with me are not putting words in my mouth--they are taking words out of my mouth. I have been known for sometime as a person who speaks the truth and speaks it strongly. I have always called a liar a liar, and a hypocrite a hypocrite. Now I am urged to use softer language to appeal to a wider audience."

Recalling an e-mail from someone who said she shouldn't use so much profanity because there are "people on the fence that get offended," Cindy replied, "You know what, goddamn it? How in the world is anyone still sitting on that fence? If you fall on the side that is pro-George and pro-war, you get your ass over to Iraq and take the place of somebody who wants to come home. And if you stand on the side that is against this war and against George Bush, stand up and speak out."

Cindy isn't just uncompromising about how she speaks, but what she says. In a conference call with reporters the day before the vigils, she said that she blamed all violence in Iraq on the U.S. presence--and that she held Bush responsible for her son's death. "The person who killed my son," she said, "I have no animosity for that person at all."

The antiwar movement can learn from this example. Leading voices in the movement have been on the defensive since last year's presidential election, convinced that activists must tailor their message to an increasingly conservative population.

Liberal organizations such as the Internet network have explicitly abandoned opposition to the U.S. war. Last week, MoveOn managed to appeal for support for Cindy without committing itself to opposing the occupation of Iraq.

Cindy Sheehan's example presents a stark contrast to this timidity and conservatism. She has stood for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, justice for Palestine and sympathy with Iraqis trying to free their country from foreign occupation--and she has reached and inspired millions of people opposed to the war.

Rallying around Cindy across the country

FOR THE millions of people who think the Iraq war was a mistake, Cindy Sheehan's vigil has touched a nerve.

Nearly silent since last year's election, the antiwar movement took to its feet last week. Tens of thousands turned out to show their solidarity with Cindy at some 1,600 vigils, many organized through the Internet by on short notice.

In Phoenix, an area with a high number of military installations, more than 1,000 people turned out to three vigils. Two military moms from the area with sons who served in Iraq (one of whom was killed, the other is still serving) have gone to Camp Casey in Texas.

In San Francisco, tents lined the sidewalk at City Hall in a tribute to Sheehan's roadside encampment, as protesters staged a 24-hour vigil organized by Not in Our Name and Courage to Resist. At an afternoon rally, speaker Judith Ross, of Military Families Speak Out, whose son is returning to Iraq for his third tour of duty, told the crowd, "We need to bring the troops home now!"

In Seattle, close to 20 separate neighborhood vigils brought out more than 1,500 people. Carrying homemade candles and antiwar signs, Cindy's supporters gathered all over the city outside colleges, parks, churches and coffee shops--any place they could make their voices heard. The largest protest drew more than 400 people in a march around Green Lake Park, and included military families and veterans, longtime peace activists as well as first-time protesters.

In New York City, despite short notice, a protest organized by the Troops Out Now Coalition in Union Square turned out 100 people. A group of Stuyvesant High School students said that they came because they wanted to show that they are "against the war and torture in Guantánamo Bay." Protest is important, they said, because "nothing gets done without it."

Outside the Federal Building in Springfield, Mass., more than 30 people attended a vigil that also served as a memorial for Jeff Lucey, an Iraq war veteran who committed suicide following his return after suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jeff's mother, father and sister read stirring letters that Jeff had addressed to Bush, and veterans from other wars also spoke out. There was also a display of combat boots representing each of the Massachusetts soldiers who have died in Iraq.

The numbers might not sound like much individually: nearly 200 in downtown Chicago; 250 in Toledo, Ohio; several hundred at two separate vigils in Providence, R.I. But multiply those numbers by the hundreds of separate vigils organized across the country--often in places where antiwar activity hadn't been seen in months.

In many cases, the numbers exceeded the expectations of organizers. An estimated 500 turned out in Ithaca, N.Y., and more than 350 gathered in New Haven, Conn., on less than 48 hours' notice. In Rochester, N.Y., more than 300 came out. As passing cars honked and drivers flashed peace signs, protesters held signs reading, "What did Casey die for?" and "No more children for oil!"

Now, many activists are gearing up to take Cindy's antiwar message to Bush's doorstep in Washington--with the September 24 antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Bale, Brian Cruz, Chris Dugan, Michelle Finley, Andrea Hektor, Kate Johnson, Shaun Joseph, Dennis Kosuth, Justin LeFurjah, Brian Lenzo and Leela Yellesetty contributed to this report.

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