In the three weeks or so before Hurricane Katrina blew across the Gulf Coast and blew her off the television screens, Cindy Sheehan
, the mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan who was killed in Iraq, and whose protest camp outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, had become a focal point for opposition to the war in Iraq, was everywhere. In September 2005, as she began a countrywide tour to raise awareness of what was happening in Iraq, tented areas known as Camp Caseys sprang up around the nation.
Union Square was the venue for protests throughout the lead up and prosecution of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this time was no exception. On September 17, in the shadow of the statue of George Washington, I met Bob Nash, a trim-looking sixty-something bike activist and veteran protestor who told me that he’d attended his first demonstration in 1967 (he was a little hazy about the year), in New York City, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. and H. Rap Brown
of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
against the war in Vietnam.
“It’s the Vietnam era all over again,” he said. “Except this time it’s not communism—it’s terrorism.” He felt good about the protests and resistance to the war that were beginning to happen, and was happy to staff, with his friend “Zool” the Camp Casey USA tent. He had to admit, however, that unlike in Crawford, the tent wasn’t occupied twenty-four/seven. “It’s more symbolic than anything,” he added ruefully, noting that the police had them take the tent down each night. But it wasn’t a big problem. “This work is easy compared to burying your child.”
Bob had a simple question for the President—and supplied a few answers of his own. “What was the noble cause Casey died for? Was it freedom and democracy? Bullshit! He died for oil. He died to make your friends richer. He died to expand American terrorism/imperialism in the Middle East. We’re not freer here, thanks to the so-called Patriot Act. We are not free. You get America out of Iraq and Israel out of Palestine, and then you’ll stop the terrorism.” He paused. “There, I used the ‘I’ word—imperialism. And now I’m going to use another ‘I’ word—impeachment: not have these people pardoned. They need to be tried on war crimes and go to jail.”
“We’re all in a struggle together,” Nash said, his voice husky from spreading the word for the various groups affiliated with the protest—the Green Party
, Move On
, International Answer
, and Troopsoutnow.org
. Yet, why, I asked him, had one person managed to mobilize public opinion when all these groups had not made an impact? “Cindy got through because she took a stand outside his ranch. It was the physical proximity. People are fed up with this war—sixty percent of them are.”
I asked Bob how he felt about conducting this protest in Union Square—a site of so many protests (for labor rights, for women’s suffrage, for civil rights, and against the Vietnam War) over the years. “It’s a breath of fresh air,” he replied, lifting his face to the late summer sun. I have to be here, he said. “I have grandchildren. And there’s the unborn. If we can’t make the world a better place for them, what can we do? Everyone is doing the best they can.” And that was what he was doing, he continued, stirring things up. “There used to be a lot of troublemakers in the past and now the world needs more troublemakers to stand up for truth and justice. It’s our constitutional right.”
I wondered when he wasn’t protesting what was wrong, what his vision of America that was righteous would be—an America where he could feel he didn’t have to protest anymore. “Clean air,” he responded immediately. “Free health care, free education, affordable housing. Nobody should be homeless in the richest country in the world. I don’t care who’s in control, but that’s what I want.” When I expressed surprise that he didn’t care who was in control, he was dismissive. “It’s a treacherous illusion that voting matters. There has never been a good president,” he said. “I would have supported Eugene Debs, and I supported Nader. I never even registered to vote until Nader ran.” He fell silent.
So, echoing veteran Todd Gitlin
, I asked him what his advice would be to a young activist wanting to get involved. “That it’s all about love, total acceptance of reality. Stand for justice and non-violence.” Things might not change immediately, he added, but “I’m hopeful it can happen. But if it doesn’t, the journey is more important than the destination.”