Camp Casey, PTA

Making the decision to go to Crawford, Texas and visit Camp Casey was easy -- it's just a two hour drive from my house in Austin, and the stubborn righteousness of Cindy Sheehan puts to shame any weak excuses I could make. I made the decision about a week ahead of time, assuming that protest conditions would remain more or less static.

I was wrong.

During the course of that week, Sheehan was suddenly pulled from her vigil by her mother's stroke, taking most of the media with her. But strangely enough, Cindy's departure didn't slow the momentum of the demonstration, which was, after all, about more than a single woman's question -- it was about Bush's refusal to take responsibility for this war that is being paid for, one way or another, by all of us.

Of course, what emboldened the anti-war protesters more than anything was the chance to change locations from the side of the road to the ranch of Crawford resident Fred Mattlage, whose cousin Larry had gained a bit of notoriety when he fired his shotgun near Camp Casey to, as he put it, prepare for dove season. The move protected them from passing traffic and enabled them to spread out more.

And spread out they did. My traveling companion had gone out to Camp Casey last week and was blown over by how, in the past week alone, the influx of assistance and donations has managed to turn a makeshift operation expanding from one woman's tent into, well, something much bigger and much more organized.

The first inkling we had of this growth was at the Crawford Peace House. On the drive up, my friend remarked on the humor of watching a few people try to feed the dozens arriving at the Peace House on the previous weekend, at one point even pitching in to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches required to feed the arrivals. This time we were greeted with tables of food, much of it honest-to-god hot meals and cooler after cooler of soda and bottled water.

Arlington West
Camp Casey II has used donations to upgrade the camp with a large tent and a small stage where people sing songs and make speeches to pass the time waiting.

We got there early and it wasn't hopping yet, but tons of cars were already there. In order to make the entire thing less of a strain on the people of Crawford, the Peace House organizers were putting volunteers to work driving shuttles down the narrow roads out towards Bush's ranch. So we parked our car, got a snack and then grabbed a ride with a shuttle volunteer and another visitor to Camp Casey.

We arrived to find that Camp Casey was actually in transit to a new location. Shuttle drivers insisted that visitors stop at one and then the other. As we approached Camp Casey I, it was hard not to sympathize with the cops' request that this entire circus be shut down, as it was a traffic hazard. The roads out there are narrow and Camp Casey has turned into a snarl of cars, tents and people standing in the middle of the road staring at the long line of crosses representing the dead.

My friend noted that last week it had just been crosses, but people have been adding things like American flags, handmade dolls, handmade coffins, flowers and photographs of the dead, which made some onlookers burst into tears. The baby pictures were especially moving. The memorial was so engrossing that I didn't even notice the two counter-protesters across the street, and was genuinely shocked to hear that they were there at all.

A resident of Vidor, TX, our shuttle driver had decided to go to Camp Casey after hearing about it on Air America's Randi Rhodes show. We had the typical conversation liberal Texans have in these situations, which is to mock our fellow Texans who bought this war hook, line and sinker.

He told me he got into an argument with a 19-year-old co-worker who supported the war. When he asked her why she didn't enlist and go fight if she was so gung-ho, she piously replied, "God has other plans for me." He responded in standard East Texas fashion, involving some blaspheming and a whole lot of cursing, which may have shocked the more gentle member of our group. I'm afraid that being a liberal in Texas does teach one to use the F-word frequently and with enthusiasm.

Crawford Coffin
This coffin is covered with the names, pictures, and details of all the soliders who've died in Iraq.

People at the Peace House told us that Camp Casey II was bigger than Camp Casey I, but we weren't prepared for just how much bigger it was. This was no ragtag group of tents on the side of the road. This was a huge tent with electric lights, a small stage and tables and signs. This overwhelming display was paid for, an organizer told us, with donations to the Peace House and built with volunteer labor. Someone had painted a huge banner with Casey Sheehan's portrait, but the most compelling display was a 20-foot coffin covered with tiny little stickers. As you approached you realized that each sticker had a picture of a fallen solider with age, hometown, and details of his or her death.

My friend pointed out that even if this entire thing doesn't change a single mind about the war, it will still be worth it for the comfort it provided to the bereaved and for them to see that so many people around the nation are supporting them. All of a sudden, the arguments that this shouldn't be big and shouldn't be loud seemed extremely silly. The military families who had shown up to brave the weather and the abuse to demand, if nothing else, that the cost in human life of this war be acknowledged by the President deserve to have as much physical, emotional and financial support for their mission as we can give them.

I guess I read too many right-wing blogs, because I really did fear that this was going to be a load of navel-gazing hippies, but they represent only a tiny minority of the people milling around. The majority of the people we saw at both camps and at the Peace House were middle-aged women in shorts with sensible shoes and sensible hats. Really, if I didn't know what was going on and just stumbled upon this group of women putting up signs and tables, putting out food and chatting amicably, I would have thought it was the local PTA throwing a high school dance.

And the way that all this came together -- so quickly, so amiably and so well-organized -- seemed to be a direct result of just that fact -- you were looking at women who'd put together their share of high school dances and church bake sales and other community events, and they saw no reason to have their anti-war protest be any different. In fact, it hardly seemed like a protest as we're used to thinking of it.

Of course, it was early in the day, but from talking with people around, it was clear that these anti-war protesters weren't really the shouting, marching types. And this normalcy, the mom-ness really, was exactly their strength. People told me that when the right wingers would show up and shout at them, it seemed nearly as peculiar and off-putting as if they'd showed up to shout at a PTA meeting.

In fact, contrary to the claims of conservative pundits and bloggers that this is simply a bunch of unreformed hippies pulling a stunt and yearning for the '60s, most people I talked to said that they'd never done anything like this before, that they'd never been to a single protest and didn't really like politics outside of the bare minimum of civic duty -- reading the paper and voting. I heard the story repeatedly -- didn't like the war, didn't ever do much about it, heard about Cindy's stand and decided they needed to help. People were tired, but they were joyful and it was hard to find room to be cynical in the face of so much good-humored but stubborn determination to smoke President Bush out of his hidey-hole to answer Cindy's questions.

One exception -- we had to laugh when the people setting up the stage tested the sound system by playing the most earnest and unintentionally comical protest song I have ever heard. At one point, the lyrics even referred to a "smear campaign," which made us laugh so hard we never did hear what he tried to rhyme with "smear campaign." And then I started to cry, because it was so painfully earnest I could only imagine that it was like twisting the knife in the hearts of those present who had lost sons or daughters in Iraq.

It drove home how it must feel to be Cindy Sheehan -- everywhere you looked, there were references to the war dead. You couldn't escape the grief for even a moment. The only thing people had to distract them from their grief and sorrow was hard work. To be in the middle of this, I thought, must feel like someone is rubbing salt in your wounds without end, and all for the purpose of getting President Bush to stop for even a moment to consider how many lives his little adventure has ended or ruined.

Organizers told us that a big counter-protest was expected that afternoon, but we saw no signs of it so we headed back to Crawford. On the way we watched the cops prepare for the counter-protesters, turning the church across the road -- the one Bush attends -- into a mini police station. And that's when we saw it -- though us Camp Casey newbies didn't realize that's what it was initially. A seemingly endless stream of motorcycles poured out of Crawford and headed towards the ranch.

The shuttle driver identified them as counter-protesters, noting that that was the way they protested -- driving down the road with their lights on. She said they occasionally tried to stop and yell at the protesters, but since the cops were making them keep their distance they were rendered impotent and wouldn't stay long. On the way back, I made note of the counter-protesters at Camp Casey I -- three people with signs referencing 9/11.

But we didn't get to gloat for long about how small or impotent the counter-protest was, because while the anti-war faction had taken over the roads leading out to Bush's ranch, the pro-war demonstrators had taken over the one real intersection in the town of Crawford.

Corner store
The corner store in Crawford that was hosting the counter-protest. This monument is the Ten Commandments flanking the Liberty Bell.

When we got there, we saw where all the motorcycles had come from. They had amassed at a convenience store and were leaving two at a time towards Bush's ranch. More intriguingly, across the street was a huge and tacky store that seemed to depend on Bush's proximity to sell most of its merchandise. They had built a monument of the Ten Commandments flanking the Liberty Bell and decorated it with American flags. It was like some big kitsch-magnet with giant knick-knacks attaching themselves randomly. Gazing at it in awe, we noticed the pro-war rally right next to it, where about 40 people were milling around.

They looked friendly enough so we joined the pro-war rally. The man and the woman emceeing it were on horseback holding an American flag and handing the microphone to a series of people to make speeches about why they supported the war and President Bush. We were curious to hear one of these speeches so we stuck around.

The hosts of the small counterprotest in Crawford emceed on horseback. The counterprotest was apparently called "Fort Qualls" after the fallen son of a Bush supporter.

A man dressed as a revolutionary solider approached and politely offered us water but we thanked him and declined. We listened to one speech by a middle-aged man whose main pro-war points were that Cindy Sheehan was prostituting her son's name and that Camp Casey wasn't as uncomfortable as people were saying it was. He sounded like he was reading a blog post by Michelle Malkin.

As we left, I pointed out that it didn't surprise me that the supposedly big man President was scared shitless of a sweet, middle-aged woman, as he is the very definition of a sniveling coward. But it was truly surprising to see this outpouring of anger and fear from ordinary people, most of whom have to live in the real world and therefore should be made of tougher stuff in the face of Cindy Sheehan's grief.

And we just started cracking up. It seemed so ridiculous, all these people in such a rage, arranging over-the-top counter-protests and bringing out an army of motorcyclists all to bear down on a group of floppy-hatted, middle-aged women in matching pink shirts. But the more people who turned out to protect George Bush from having to answer Cindy Sheehan's questions, the more ridiculous he looked -- it's hard to maintain the manly man cowboy image when you cower in fear behind a group of bullies who stoop to attacking the character of a bereaved mother.

One thing is for certain -- I never thought I'd see the day that a bunch of Harley-riding men in leather jackets would come out to scare a bunch of hard-working soccer moms because they were angry that the soccer moms were counter-cultural threats to authority.

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