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PROTEST ON THE ROAD
San Francisco Chronicle
Anti-war demonstrators leaving Bush's Texas ranch to take their message to the people, leaving media short of story ideas
- Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Even though Cindy Sheehan is likely to leave Crawford, Texas, this morning without having accomplished her goal of meeting with President Bush, there's little doubt the Vacaville resident brought renewed energy and attention to the anti-war movement through her story of grief.
But Sheehan's story became a phenomenon in part because she was surrounded by a press corps starving for stories outside Bush's ranch in the slow news days of August.
The next test of the anti-war movement's revival -- and Bush's support for the war -- will come over the next couple of weeks. That's when three vanloads of Iraq war veterans and military parents, including others who have lost children in the war, will wend through the nation's politically red states to carry on the question that defined Camp Casey: For what cause did Sheehan's son Casey and other U.S. troops die in Iraq?
The peace activists are going to be making most of that trip without Sheehan, who will leave Friday in Houston to make other appearances and tend to her ailing mother.
Without the most visible face of the anti-war movement, will people in such cities as Wichita, Kan., and Raleigh, N.C. -- two stops on the Bring Them Home Now Tour -- be interested? Or will they stay home because they identified with -- or were repulsed by -- Sheehan's campaign to speak with a president she thought disrespected her during a meeting last year shortly after her son's death?
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday found that 53 percent of respondents said they supported what Sheehan was doing in Crawford, and 42 percent did not. While 3 of 4 respondents said they had heard of Sheehan's story, 8 of 10 said it hadn't persuaded them to change their attitude toward the war.
"She was a marker, a way for bored journalists in Texas to illustrate the growing discontent with the war," said Mo Fiorina, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute and political science professor there. "But without Sheehan, I don't think there will be much interest in this (tour).
"I'm sure there's a lot of questioning of the war in the red states, but many aren't that thrilled with Cindy Sheehan. Even during the height of opposition to the Vietnam War, a lot of people didn't like protesters."
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank, said Sheehan's story had created a focal point for people who "know the war is wrong but don't know what to do about it."
"She put a human face on a war that has been described so far with abstract facts," Bennis said. "She gave people the answer as to what to do next: Bring the troops home now."
But Sheehan's opponents say her success was predicated on good timing.
"I'll give Cindy Sheehan credit for this: She happened to be in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people," said Melanie Morgan, a conservative radio host at San Francisco's KSFO who organized a counter- protest last weekend in Crawford that drew 2,000 people.
"But a lot of people think that what she is doing is jeopardizing the young men and women over in Iraq by emboldening the terrorists," Morgan said. "Cindy Sheehan's 15 minutes of fame are over."
Anti-war activists concede that media coverage along the van tour probably won't match what happened in Crawford. But they believe that Sheehan tapped into vein of discontent with the direction of the war.
They point to the hundreds of pro-Sheehan vigils earlier this month organized by the liberal MoveOn.org online hub. Many of those drew large crowds to places that aren't known to be foaming cups of political activism, such as Pleasant Hill, the Contra Costa County suburb where a rally attracted 400 people.
There are other signs that more people are willing to speak out against the war. Between 10 and 20 families a week had been joining Military Families Speak Out, an anti-war group, since its founding in January 2003, co-founder Nancy Lessin said. Since Sheehan began her vigil Aug. 6, that many have joined every day, said Lessin, whose stepson Joe served a tour in Iraq with the Marines in 2003.
Larry Syverson, an engineer in Richmond, Va., who has four sons in the military, has staged nearly 200 noontime vigils in the former capital of the Confederacy since the war started. Many times, he was the only person there. On Friday, he said, there were 40 others, many of whom said Sheehan had inspired them.
"I'm a Southern white man with four sons in the military," Syverson said. "Not your typical anti-war protester. There's a lot of people in the South who oppose the war."
Still, van tour organizers expect more intimate gatherings as they chug through the nation.
"We've been telling people to keep their expectations modest," said Lisa Fithian, an organizer with United for Peace and Justice. "The national media probably won't be there focusing on Cindy, but even if we just get local media, that's more than what we're getting now."
And there will be counterprotests following the tour, said Kristinn Taylor, a spokesman for FreeRepublic.com, a conservative Web site that helped to organize anti-Sheehan demonstrations in Texas. "There will be people dogging the tour," Taylor said.
The anti-war protest's vans, filled with about a dozen activists apiece, are scheduled to leave Crawford this morning. One contingent will head through Missouri, Kansas and Michigan and New York. Another vanload will travel through Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And one crew will cut through Bible Belt states, including Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.
The vans are scheduled to converge in Washington, D.C., for a Sept. 24 rally, where Sheehan will rejoin them.
Each vanload will be carrying icons from Camp Casey, such as the white crosses and empty pair of combat boots representing U.S. troops killed in Iraq. While such iconography is familiar to those who have long opposed the war, Sheehan's vigil brought it to the attention of many other Americans.
"Before, people always said that you couldn't be against the war and for the troops," said Lessin of Military Families Speak Out. "But Cindy uncoupled those two. She showed that you could be for the troops and still disagree with the war."
E-mail Joe Garofoli at email@example.com.