Dubbed Baghdad Cindy by the pro-war right, Sheehan's name alone can spark outrage among conservatives who, as Bill O'Reilly said, believe her dissent "borders on treason." Sheehan visited St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church last night and met with a far friendlier audience. She was introduced by Sen. Becky Lourey, who also lost a son in Iraq, before addressing a crowd of nearly 1,000 people. She discussed a new take on patriotism (“Matriotism is love of humanity first.”), her dislike for Hillary Clinton, and the strategy of counter-recruitment, or “countering the lies” told to high-schoolers about the military. “If we dry up their cannon fodder,” she says, “we dry up their war.”
Before the talk, she granted me an exclusive interview. Given her role as a lightning rod for right-wing ire and her high profile protests and actions, including a meeting a year ago with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (she says she’ll do the same if invited by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), I was surprised by her calm demeanor and quiet voice. Wearing a sweater with the word "Peace" silkscreened on the front and with heavy eyelids, she seemed tired, almost sad—but far from combative; she'd save that for the St. Joan of Arc stage. Every morning and every night, she says, she still thinks of Casey, whose memory gives her "laser beam focus on her mission" — bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq. Here's what she had to say:
It seems your activism has shifted. Casey was killed April 4, 2004, so it’s been nearly three years since his death. In the nearly two years since you started your vigil outside the Bush ranch in Texas you've been arrested several times. Is that civil disobedience a strategy to raise the profile of your cause, or did it just happen?
I’ve been arrested seven times now, and it’s only been planned twice. The other times—like when I was arrested at the State of the Union last year for having what they call a protest t-shirt—that was a total shock. I had no idea. But the other times it was just when people tried to take my rights from me or inhibit my rights. I just refused to let them takes my rights away from me.
Early on, you were a voice in the wilderness. Some of us were with you, but very few people supported you in Congress. How does it feel to have more people on the same page?
It feels a little less lonely than it did at first. At first I was a voice crying out in the wilderness because I was so far ahead of everybody else. And there were amazing peace activists that I partnered with and they mentored me along the way. Since three-quarters of the country is with me now, and a lot of people in Congress and the Senate, it feels a lot less lonely. I feel like a lot of the pressure has been taken off of me.
Who were some of those mentors and what did you learn from them?
What got me out speaking is when I joined Military Families Speak Out. It wasn’t really a group for grieving parents; it was for people who have loved ones in the military. They actually got me speaking. I joined them in July of 2004. In January 2005, I founded my own organization, Gold Star Families Speak Out, which is for people who have lost loved ones in war. During the 2004 campaign I went down to Florida to campaign against George Bush, and I spent a lot of time with Medea Benjamin from Code Pink. Ray McGovern has been a really, really good mentor. He’s really grounded, so it’s been good to be good friends with him. And since I’ve been doing this, especially at Camp Casey, some people have become re-involved who have given me a lot of wisdom, like Joan Baez and Daniel Ellsberg… Believe it or not, Jane Fonda has given me a lot of wisdom from her experiences being "Hanoi Jane" — and now I’m "Baghdad Cindy." So she’s given me a lot of tips on how to handle negative criticism. So, yeah, I’ve had a lot of really amazing people who have really inspired me. During Camp Casey I got to know the other founder of Code Pink, Jodie Evans, and she’s been such a great advocate for me, and such a support system.
Speaking of negativity, how do you respond to military families or those who’ve lost children in Iraq but need to believe they died for something good?
Actually, I’m never confronted personally by those people. I think they have a right to believe what they want. This is America. I don’t have any more right than they do to believe or be any more active in a way they feel is right in their heart. I really think a lot of the parents who believed in it at first, and their child was killed, just like the rest of the country, have gone through a metamorphosis. When I set out at Camp Casey in August 2005, not even 50 percent of this country was against the war and against George Bush. Now it’s changed to 67, 70 percent, depending on what polls you look at. That transcends all demographics. That’s Republicans. That’s old people, young people, military families, active-duty military. I was just in Los Angeles over the weekend and a Marine came up to me and said, “Cindy, I just want you to let you know there are more of us on your side than you would even believe.”
You’re familiar with the Appeal for Redress movement? Last time I checked more than 1,200 active-duty military had signed a legal petition calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Given the size of the military, if that many people speak out, it’s only a drop in the bucket. But, given military culture, it may suggest there are a lot more that are remaining silent.
Probably for every one that signed it, there are a hundred who haven’t been exposed to it, who haven’t heard of it, or who want to sign up but they’re fearful. When I hear that 72 percent of active duty soldiers in Iraq say they want to come home and they don’t understand what we’re doing there, I think, wow, if 72 percent that will admit it, it must be 85 or 90 percent who feel it. Because it’s a different culture. It’s definitely a different culture.
What’s it like being asked to speak at the same St. Joan's podium where activists like the late Sister Rita Steinhagen [who protested the School of the Americas] and Gloria Steinem have spoken?
One day I was sitting on my friend's porch in Los Angeles with Tom Hayden and Daniel Ellsberg, and we were talking about politics and talking about the war. And I was like an active participant in this discussion with these two legendary historic men. And they actually cared about what I was thinking. As for celebrity, I barely think about it. These people are my friends. I’m friends with people I actually worshipped, like Jackson Brown and Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Willie Nelson. And political people like Daniel Ellsberg, who saved millions of lives by what he did but regrets not doing it sooner. But it’s just another day. I wake up every day thinking about my son. I wake up every day thinking about the people in harm’s way for lies. I have this laser-beam focus on my mission, and that’s what helps me be grounded…
It must be interesting being friends with people like Joan Baez and Jackson Brown, but then remember that you know them through this tragedy that happened in your life.
That’s why it hasn’t gone to my head, because I’ll be doing something really amazing and meet really amazing people but then think, wow, I wouldn’t even know you if my son wasn’t dead. It does put a moderating effect on my life.
Right-wing talking heads have been pretty brutal about you, saying you're really here for fame. Ann Coulter said of you that the left really needs to learn how to mourn and referenced the Paul Wellstone memorial.
Ann who? Who’s that you’re talking about? It kind of rhymes with Hitler? [Laughs] I totally don’t give them any countenance. If she thinks I’m in it for fame, she’s in it for money. I think people like that want to project the way they are onto me. I’m not responsible for their illnesses. I’m only responsible for myself and what I do in my heart every day. And I don’t have to answer to any of them. If I can go to bed every night with a clear conscience—the only person I have to answer to is myself.
You're often portrayed in the media as being extreme—you recently met with Hugo Chavez and said you’d meet with Iran’s president, two men the right says hate America. Is saying that a form of rhetoric, or do you see these men as kindred spirits?
First of all, of course, they don’t hate America, and if they hate George Bush, they might have good reason. As I told president Chavez, it’s not very effective to call each other names. They should sit across the table—or sit next to each other like I did with him—and talk. Hugo Chavez certainly doesn’t hate me. In fact, he admires me, and there are billboards of me in Venezuela. I think we need to model this kind of behavior, that talking is something we need to do. We’re not at war with Venezuela. We’re not at war with Iran, yet. I think by talking and going to these countries [we find] these people aren’t boogeymen and women. They’re people just like you and me. And if we allow our leaders to bomb them, we’re going to be killing innocent people for no reason. The leaders might not be people we want to follow or agree with, but they have millions of innocent people in their beautiful countries. I’ll go anywhere and talk to anybody if has a chance for [bringing] lasting peace. I think people who are opposed to that have let the other people be demonized. That’s what I’m trying to do: undemonize people. I’ve even tried to undemonize George Bush when I go around the world. Just saying he’s a human being like you and I. He’s not a good human being, but he’s a human being, just like you and I.
What about strategy? What can those who oppose the war in Iraq do?
Even though I think these issues transcend politics — they’re not partisan political issues — we have to work in the system we have to solve them. The Occupation Project is a program where people will go into Congresspeople’s offices on the week of Feb. 4 and stay there until they agree to vote no on the funding for the war. I think it’s going to take massive nonviolent civil resistance. Part of the country's not there yet, but I’m tired of being the only one who goes to jail for peace, and I think that’s what it’s going to take: everyone caring so much that they’ll put their bodies on the line for peace.
As the anti-war movement, we’ve done a good job of convincing America that this war is wrong. From Camp Casey on, the paradigm in this country has changed dramatically. I think we’ve convinced about as many people as are convincible. Everybody else who is still with him, he could do just about anything and they’d still be with him. Now it’s our job to convince this 70 percent. We don’t see 70 percent of people out on the streets. We need to get out in the streets; we need to get into congresspeople’s offices. If they can’t do that, letters work really well. Every congressperson tells me that letters and phone calls work really well. And I’m all for counter-recruitment. That’s stopping children from joining the military. Being in front of recruiting offices. Going into high school campuses. Being a counter to the military that goes into campuses all the time.
The new ad campaign for the National Guard is interesting because it’s saying, basically, “They’ll call me up when they need me, and in the meantime I’ll get a good education.” Everyone knows they need you now—they need bodies--but the ads don’t say that.
If you join, you’re going to Iraq. That’s for sure. But they’ll tell them they’re not. Almost everybody I’ve talked to who’s joined in the past two years was told they wouldn’t have to go to Iraq. As soon as they finish basic training, they’re on their way to Iraq. So, it’s a lie. Veterans and military families are really good at counter-recruitment. American Friends Service Committee is really good. ConscientiousObjector.org is really good for counter-recruitment materials, to counter the lies the recruiters tell.
So when will you get a good night’s sleep? When will you rest?
I’d almost sell my soul to the devil for a good night’s sleep. I haven’t had one of those for a long, long, long, long time.
[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]