Cindy Sheehan is about to start another anti-war camp. This one will be in Washington, and it could conceivably last for months. The problem?
“I’m kind of over the whole camping thing,” she admits.
It’s a fair enough statement for Sheehan, who gained international attention in 2005 for “Camp Casey,” a five-week protest outside of then-President George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch during which she demanded a meeting with the commander in chief to hear an explanation for her son Casey’s death in Iraq. She spent most of that time in a ditch on the side of a road leading to the president’s grounds.
Five years and a new president later, however, Sheehan will be sleeping under the stars again, and for the same cause. Her new coalition, Peace of the Action, is launching the Camp OUT NOW! tent city at the base of the Washington Monument next week in an effort to get President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhite House debates vaccines for air travel Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward MORE to pull troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan immediately. (Sheehan concedes that this time around, she will rent a bedroom in which to store her belongings, take showers and occasionally sleep.)
Sheehan could also be over the whole camping thing for another reason: After shutting down Camp Casey, she went places, did things and had experiences previously unthinkable to her. She ran against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the 2008 congressional election. In 2009, she went on a 40-city tour for her book Myth America: 10 Greatest Myths of the Robber Class and the Case for Revolution! And just this month, she flew with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on his official plane to conduct an interview for her radio show, “Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox.”
So it’s no wonder there’s a flatness in her voice when she describes her newest push to end America’s wars in the Middle East. Not only has she soared to places far beyond a tent city in Texas, but despite her efforts, she feels her cries have so far gone unheard.
“I’ve [protested] outside the system, I’ve tried to do this inside the system … it’s time to get together and organize things. That’s how you get something done,” she says during a phone interview from Philadelphia, where she is preparing to speak at a conference about how the anti-war movement can work with the 9/11 Truth movement. A day earlier she had returned from a whirlwind trip to Venezuela, where she accompanied Chavez on his trip to Uruguay for new President Jose Mujica’s inauguration.
“It wasn’t closure at all for George Bush to leave office,” she says.
Detours Pelosi, Chavez
Sheehan decided to ride the wave of celebrity when she announced her 2008 bid to challenge Pelosi for her San Francisco House seat.
“I decided to run against Pelosi because she refused to end the wars and impeach Bush,” she explains. “I didn’t think I was going to win, but I thought it would be a real challenge to bring up these issues.”
Sheehan, who ran as an Independent, achieved ballot status after four months — a major victory unto itself, she says — and raised more than $700,000 for the bid, but she came in a distant second.
“The one thing I learned, I think, was that it’s practically impossible to get our voices heard that way,” she says. “The electoral system is stacked against challengers in the first place.”
Sheehan says she came away from the experience realizing that directing her protests at just one public official — Bush or Pelosi, for instance — wasn’t fruitful.
“I know I came to this really late in life, but I realized it was the system that we should fight against, not just a certain politician,” she says.
Sheehan expanded her breadth of work to include America’s military presence around the world and what she calls the U.S. efforts at imperialism. She put in a request to interview Chavez for her radio show and also began planning to film a documentary on Venezuela. Her interview request was granted in six weeks — lightning speed compared to the months she heard it can normally take.
“I think this is really important to get this out,” she says. “[In the U.S.] there’s just one way that Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution are portrayed, and that’s in a very negative way.”
She says her radio interview is scheduled to air on the Pacific networks later this month, and the documentary’s release is planned for June.
A lonely year
Meanwhile, Sheehan didn’t think the anti-war movement could get much worse than during the George W. Bush administration, but then Obama was elected, and it all but died, she says.
“It was very lonely at the beginning when Barack Obama was elected because I lost a lot of friends and contacts who worked for him and supported him,” she says. Sheehan voted for Green Party candidate and former House member Cynthia McKinney in the 2008 presidential election. “How could I support somebody who said he was going to send more troops to Afghanistan?”
Sheehan’s book came out in March 2009 and her tour kept her busy until September. She says during that time she saw many of her comrades in the anti-war movement give Obama “a free pass.”
“I felt like I was one of the lone ones out there saying, ‘C’mon, people, people are still dying,’ ” she says.
That brought her to her latest idea, Peace of the Action. She decided the anti-war movement needed to be a broader coalition — “When George Bush was president, I’m sorry to say, but it was basically a bunch of older white people” — and be based on a clear list of demands.
Her new organization has reached out to groups like Students for a Democratic Society, The World Can’t Wait!, the Campus Anti-War Network and the Black is Back Coalition. Its demands are: removal of American and allied troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; stoppage of drone bombings; and closure of permanent bases and military prisons. Sheehan also wants the president to convene a peace council composed of grassroots members of the anti-war movement.
The coalition is planning to set up camp on the lawn of the Washington Monument on Monday, and its first act of civil resistance is scheduled for March 22 somewhere around the White House, she says. The group plans to concentrate its efforts around Congress later this spring when legislators are expected to consider the president’s request for supplemental war funding.
This strategy, Sheehan says, is a result of what she characterized as politicians’ empty promises and dead-end meetings in her previous push for peace.
“I’m not about meetings; I’m not about signing petitions,” she says. “I’m about direct action, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Michael Heaney, a University of Michigan political science professor who studies the anti-war movement, says Sheehan felt alone after Obama was elected because she was. His research shows that the number of Democrats publicly turning out to protest the wars dropped after Obama took office because their partisan loyalty trumped their alliance to the peace movement. Sheehan’s top priority, on the other hand, is an issue rather than a political party, he says, adding that she may be able to breathe life back into the cause with this new effort.
“She’s got attention, and she’s got resources, and you know what? Nobody else does,” he says.
Sheehan contends that she continues to operate on a “shoestring” budget. Her book sales have provided cash, she says, and she often gets funded for special appearances. (In December, for instance, she went to Oslo to protest Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize at the invitation and expense of an independent group.) She says her radio show also brings in donations.
The question now is whether she has the stamina. She says she’s physically tired — her voice confirms that — but not emotionally. Her two grandchildren “give me more inspiration to work every day,” Sheehan claims, and she still feels the sense of urgency that inspired her to start Camp Casey.
“I love doing what I’m doing. I wish I didn’t have to,” she says after expressing optimism for her latest effort. “I think it might happen like it happened in 2005: If we build it, they will come.”