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Peace House a center of dissent in Crawford

August 11, 2005
By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY

CRAWFORD, Texas — When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrive at President Bush's isolated ranch Thursday, they'll face an unwelcome greeting: scores of peace protesters who have joined a vigil by the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq.

Local authorities and activists also are gearing up for a possible confrontation Friday. The group's protest site sits beside a two-lane country road between Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch and the Broken Spoke Ranch, where his top campaign fundraisers are invited to a barbecue with the president.

The base for the protesters — these and others over the past three years — is a modest two-bedroom bungalow near the center of town with the grand name of the Crawford Peace House. Since 2002, it has served as refuge, kitchen, laundry, flophouse and launchpad for thousands of protesters in this town of 705 residents.

Operating on a shoestring, the protest center has been an annoyance for the White House and an embarrassment to some town residents. But it often has succeeded in its goal of getting publicity for a range of causes and groups at odds with the administration.

This spring, protesters even won a $43,000 settlement from the town, McLennan County and the Texas Department of Public Safety after a judge ruled that the arrest of five demonstrators in 2003 was unconstitutional. Their protest had begun and ended at the Peace House.

Joe Cuff, who sells gifts and Bush souvenirs at a Crawford shop called Main Street Place, says protesters "should voice their opinion and go home" instead of holding a rally every time Bush is around. "It's just becoming a nuisance," he says. "All they want to do is see the press."

He's right. And the group's impact is especially visible now, with media attention focused on Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, Calif., who has vowed not to leave until she gets to meet with Bush. Her son, Spc. Casey Sheehan, 24, of the Army's 1st Battalion, was killed in Iraq on April 4, 2004.

She has drawn peace activists and relatives of other fallen soldiers. Since her vigil began Saturday, she has become a celebrity on liberal blogs, appeared on television talk shows and been featured in articles on NPR, CNN and newspapers around the nation, including USA TODAY.

Her cause is being adopted by other anti-war protesters. On Wednesday, demonstrators in Montgomery, Ill., where Bush went to sign a transportation bill, urged him to meet with her. A dozen others protested in front of the White House. Some supporters from across the country have called the Coffee Station in Crawford and the Subway restaurant in nearby McGregor to order and pay for bottled water and sandwiches for those at the vigil.

Sheehan has been faulted on and other Web sites for bashing Bush even though she praised him in June 2004 after he had met in Fort Lewis, near Seattle, with her family and others who had lost loved ones in Iraq. She says she "was still in shock at that time." Since then, she says, Bush has used such meetings for political advantage.

Diane Wilson, a co-founder of a women's peace organization called CodePink, has been camping with Sheehan since Saturday and said she is grateful Peace House exists.

"They made the place available for people that want to take a shower, wash, cook," says Wilson, 56, of Seadrift, Texas.

This month's protests have dented White House efforts to produce a stream of positive stories about the president at work on the ranch, including meetings with his economic advisers on Tuesday and his national security advisers today.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy declines to criticize Peace House. "The president feels that freedom of speech is one of the most cherished rights of Americans," he says. "It's a free country, and people are free to express their views."

John Wolf, 51, co-founder of Peace House, raised money for part of the down payment on the $54,000 house in 2002 by selling anti-war buttons, and he contributed about $8,000 of his own money. When donations wane, Wolf says, he reaches into his own pocket to pay the mortgage.

About 15 key volunteers, mainly from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, do most of the organizing. An additional 200 volunteers from a group called Waco Friends of Peace — Waco, about 25 miles down the road from Crawford, is the nearest sizeable city — regularly fix meals, clean the house and tend the garden.

The first rally in Crawford instigated by Peace House founders protested a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who met with Bush in April 2002 to discuss plans for the Iraqi invasion. The anti-war demonstrators were joined by pro-Palestinian protesters.

"It was intimidating to be there because this was (Bush's) hometown and dissenting voices weren't welcome here," says Wolf, a Dallas resident who builds sets for theaters and TV shows. "We decided we would buy a house so people who came to protest would feel that they have a place here."

Since then, the center has provided logistical help for protests by Arab-Americans, Latino groups, human rights activists and others during visits by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Wolf also acts as a liaison between the local police and protesters — including those who have decided they want to get arrested.

Last summer, the Peace House screened Michael Moore's anti-war documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, in a parking lot near the Crawford High School football stadium. More than 3,000 people attended from as far away as North Dakota and helped the group raise $16,000.

When groups arrive, the Peace House can feed 400 to 500 at a time from a kitchen outfitted with stainless steel tables, industrial-size woks and a commercial stove. There are 20 sleeping bags for those who want to spend the night. Organizers plan to buy 20 hammocks today for those who want to rest in the garden.

"We ran out of steam last month, and we couldn't pay our phone bill," says Hadi Jawad, another co-founder who sells heavy equipment in Dallas. He became politically active in 1998 to protest international sanctions against Iraq. The publicity about Sheehan has turned things around again, he says. "Now we're getting support from all over the country."

The phone was reconnected Tuesday.


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