From the July 2013 edition of The Progressive magazine...
It was 96 degrees on another miserable August day in Bush Country circa 2005 when Cindy Sheehan finally got the attention of CNN.
Cindy Sheehan, the lone peace mom who showed up in Crawford, Texas, and sat herself down in a ditch to protest the war, had just lit a fuse and didn't even know it. The peace bomb was set to blow right down the street from her own personal Ground Zero, where the man responsible for sending her son off to die was chopping up tree trimmings in front of news cameras and, for some godawful reason, running the whole of the world.
Cindy's arrival in Crawford was not the beginning of the resistance movement in Bush's hometown: Her sustained presence there was supported by a community of dedicated activists largely unknown to the media and the public. As one of the key architects of the reemergence of the peace movement later told me, "We made a city rise out of practically nothing" in the summer of 2005, setting a genuine Texas brushfire under the pants of the most powerful man on the planet.
Fast forward eight years. I'm standing outside the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas. Cindy Sheehan is here again. I can't help but remember what it was like to watch the rise and fall of Camp Casey out there on the Texas prairie. I covered the madness as a reporter for The Lone Star Iconoclast, and I tell you truly, it was more or less Peaceapalooza out there. Well over 15,000 people from all over the country suddenly flooded into this, this Peacestock, barnstorming a town of just 700, each of them absolutely thrilled just to be dissenting in relative proximity to him.
And what had this movement become just eight years later? Looking out across the crowd gathered to bang on drums and shout about Bush and torture as all five living Presidents christened W.'s fancy new library, I couldn't help but feel depressed. True, that very day marked the official end of the Bush era, but as I soon realized, it also marked the official end of the peace movement as Americans knew it during those years.
It's not that the peace movement is any less relevant in 2013; on the contrary, its message is more pressing than ever. But as I watched Cindy speak to the crowd of about 200 activists gathered to protest the Bush Library, it occurred to me that no matter what they do, so long as the goal is to get the attention of media people like me, they are doomed.
As local news cameras buzzed around the crowd, Cindy spoke over a bullhorn and described her latest project, a nationwide bike ride called "Tour de Peace." For weeks she had been riding her bike across the country followed by a couple of minders, hoping this would somehow change America's warlike nature, or maybe just get some media attention. Her campaign for the Presidency on the Roseanne Barr ticket didn't do the trick. Neither did her failed run against Nancy Pelosi.
"Turns out I'm the only one riding," she glumly told protesters. "I'm also thinking, if Romney were President, or McCain were President, I'd have thousands of people riding with me ... If you want to join us, we have a couple extra bikes. You don't even have to bring your bike. But it gets lonely riding fifty to sixty miles a day."
Her observation pinched me, hard. Of course she's right, I thought. When I turned to look across Interstate 75, the snipers on the roofs of the SMU buildings reinforced her point. The man these people helped elect in 2008 is over there right now praising the man they spent years raging against. God, how awful.
The cabbie who gave me a ride home the night prior put it simply, amid one of those random and deep conversations that only strangers can have, and only in very rare instances. "The poor man today, he has no voice, and this is the problem," he told me through a thick Zimbabwean accent. "Obama, he should not do this thing, to come here. I do not know why he does this."
The protest rattled on, complete with drum circles and men in orange jumpsuits. The day's most haunting contribution came from a group of silently marching protesters dressed in black, wearing eerie white masks on their faces and placards around their necks bearing the names of people killed in Bush's wars. Two other protesters wearing large papier-mâché masks resembling Bush and Dick Cheney were arrested when they stepped into a street. Watching "Bush" and "Cheney" get arrested made for an amusing activism video, but little else.
Overall, the scene could not have been more different from 2005, when thousands of people were streaming into Crawford just to sit down across the street from folks they disagreed with and shout at one another for hours on end. Even the Republicans were energized to just come and stew in Crawford for a while, making a big show of it for no apparent reason. To think, the whole insanity was brought about by one anguished mother and a tiny group of activists from the Dallas Peace Center, who somehow got the inspiration to set up shop in Crawford over a year before Cindy showed up.
At that moment under the blazing Texas sun, the peace movement seemed truly alive again, for the first time in my life. It seemed to be making a difference, breaking Karl Rove's grip on the American media's post-9/11 narrative. Yet, by April 2013, Sheehan was riding a bicycle across the country by herself, while the handful of activists who once helped her capture the whole world's attention busied themselves making videos of their friends getting arrested in costume.
The night before the Bush Library protest, I caught up with Leslie Harris, the solitary organizing force behind what was officially dubbed "The People's Response to the Bush Library," a four-day series of events articulating the peace movement's message. It was moments after a screening of the heart-wrenching documentary Body of War, about Iraq veteran Tomas Young, who was shot while riding topside in an unarmored Humvee. Harris looked dog tired.
Every few minutes as we spoke, someone would walk by and say: "Leslie, oh my gosh, please get some sleep!" or, "You're still up? Gee, go to bed already!" and she couldn't help but admit that the event was taking its toll on her. An attempt to reach her mobile phone earlier in the day revealed that her voice mail was completely full. Harris had been pressed into service by the understaffed Dallas Peace Center.
"I was appointed by a group of people that were having lunch together, and I guess they couldn't decide who to hit up," she told me. "Since I wasn't there, they made a group decision and let me know about it. Actually, they sort of delegated it to me. I was informed after the fact, you could say."
Then I hit her with a question she wasn't prepared for: "What the hell happened to the peace movement?" Leslie looked a little taken aback, then let out a deep sigh. "It seems like we had a lot of team players, if you know what I mean," she said. "The only real new blood around here are a few folks from Occupy, but even most of them didn't stick around." Then she really dropped the dime: The Dallas Peace Center is "on the brink of insolvency," Leslie said.
Peace, it would seem, is hanging up a Going Out of Business sign.
Obama came to Dallas on Bush's special day because there is no resistance movement to speak of. There is, as the cabbie says, no voice for the poor man on the Texas prairie anymore.
And the media, they long ago lost interest in the peace movement's message, especially once viewers tuned out, turned off, and clicked away. The Iraq War was ending, so who cares? I heard this meme from colleagues in the media over and over again. Clearly, Cindy Sheehan and her band of protesters didn't matter that much anymore -- hell, maybe they'd even discredited themselves, for whatever reason -- and since nobody's reading stories about them anyway, let's move on. That's how the peace movement died: not with a bang, but with thousands of tiny edits.
The peace movement's fatal mistake, I realized that April day in Dallas, was focusing on forming allies instead of creating friendships.
What the Dallas peace activists, and the peace movement as a whole, so sorely lacked is a real-live community of friends and neighbors and a real service that helps their community, wherever it may be. This is why Occupy Wall Street survives today as Occupy Sandy. Occupy's foreclosure protests were far more useful than banging on drums in front of reporters who don't otherwise give a rat's ass. It's also why CodePink keeps on trucking.
"If it weren't for these ladies, I don't know what I'd do," Desiree Fairooz, the CodePink protester who got in Condoleezza Rice's face with blood-covered hands, told me in 2006. "They're like my new family and I'd do anything for them."
The last time a proper American resistance movement really committed to forming a community and becoming a lasting presence, we witnessed the birth of the Black Panthers, who found success through a free breakfast program. But after the government realized they were truly becoming a threat, the FBI cracked down hard and fast, a clear sign that something was working there. And if it worked for militant blacks in the '60s and '70s, by God it can work for the peace people today.
Help the community, make friends out of your neighbors, and when it's time to conquer the streets in the name of peace, the numbers may be with you.
That's a better bet than a lonely bike ride.