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The protester does more good than the politician
By Cindy Sheehan
First of all, I would like to thank the student board of the Yale Political Union for giving me the honor of speaking at your organizational meeting for Spring 2009 semester.
This may come as quite a shock to you, hissers and pounders alike, (note: at the YPU, if a student agrees, he/she pounds on the desk; if a student disagrees, he/she hisses) but on this question: Resolved: The protestor does more good than the politician; my position is not on the extreme one-way or the other.
On the one hand, I don't think any relevant or profound changes have come from politicians without the force of a protest, or grassroots movement behind it, We the People are what should give our politicians political backbone, but on the other hand, systemic change cannot be made without the law making or law abolishing roll of the politician.
One of the reasons that I ran for Congress in 2008 was because I could see the limitations of a grassroots movement or activist.
In my opinion, one of the only reasons that we need the politician at all is that while movements or causes may have popular support here in the US, one never sees the numbers out on the streets so to speak that would grow such systemic change organically.
For sure, we have seen protest movements in our country that were militant or supported by hundreds of thousands of warm bodies on the streets, bridges and in town squares; and I believe that these public protests are necessary in promoting change all the way from editorial support (or condemnation) to finally political support, which usually only comes after years of protesting.
Even the American Revolutionary (note: hisses from the Tory party of the YPU) movement was never supported by a majority of Americans at the time and a violent overthrow of the government was only even contemplated by the upper classes in response to violent oppression by the imperial power. Indeed, Thomas Paine wrote in his bestselling pamphlet, Common Sense, after the incident at Lexington-Concord on April 19th, 1775: "No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before that fatal 19th of April 1775, but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened and sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England forever." Which shows that most people have their limits and if an egregious situation continues for any length of time, most citizens will turn against it if given enough time, which is true of the infamous eight years of the Bush II regime. George Bush enjoyed almost unanimous approval after the tragic events of 9-11 now he will be slinking out of office as the most unpopular president in American history. (note: lots of pounding from all parties).
There are many instances of grassroots protest movements that have changed the course of history and have made heroes of protester and politician alike…sometimes, as in my case, in totally organic ways. I believe that for a protest movement to be successful the conditions have to be right. One person wrote of my protest in front of Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, that I "lit a prairie fire." Well, that fire would have sputtered out if the conditions weren't ripe for that fire. If the grass was green and moist, the match would have gone out before the fire was lit, but in the summer of 2005, the grass was dry as a bone and ready for the spark that renewed a movement.
However, the movements that gained ultimate success, in bills or constitutional amendments being passed have also oftentimes joined together protesters and institutions. The black and female suffrage movements worked the best when they worked together and the Civil Rights movement was joined by religious elements and labor unions and many of its leaders did go on to become political forces. John Lewis is still a Congressman from Georgia and he was one of the most militant/strident members of that movement.
Also, many leaders of the female suffrage movement were born out of the abolitionist movement for obvious reasons: women wanted not only universal male suffrage, but became political activists in their own rights as courageous abolitionists and suffragettes. Indeed, Sojourner Truth cried out at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio: "Ain't I a woman?" while she was there advocating for universal suffrage.
The anti-Vietnam war movement had a big influence (over the course of about 12 years) in ending that conflict; but then again, we had some militant anti-war Congress members who helped facilitate the end of the draft and the end of funding for war. However, no war can end unless there is a political will for it to end no matter what the public will is. The current occupation of Iraq is a perfect example. Public opinion of the occupation had already turned against it before I sat in a ditch in Crawford, Tx, but certainly now, over 70% of Americans want a swift end to it, yet we still have over 160,000 troops and uncounted independent contractors vying for profit mired in that country. Why isn't public opinion able to affect public policy in the case of Iraq? As someone who has been intimately involved in "socially accepted" ways of change: lobbying Congress and protest to some extent; and less socially accepted ways such as tax resistance, physical civil disobedience, (tax resistance is a form of c.d. and in my opinion a very honorable form); and being arrested over a dozen times, I think I have a unique perspective.
n January 2005, I founded Gold Star Families for Peace with nine other Gold Star Families; a Gold Star Family is a family that has lost a loved one in war. I think the "For Peace" part speaks for itself. I began to actively protest and write against the war and the Bush administration, at that point, he had just been "re-elected" and I believe that the anti-war movement was at its nadir in January 2005.
I attended meetings with handfuls of attendees and rallies with a few dozen. It was pitiful and dispiriting but I vowed then, as now, to never give up until our last soldier was home.
GSFP was also very involved in lobbying Congress and I remember one meeting with my rep, George Miller, who is a democrat who is generally pretty good on the issues. He told me: "Cindy we can't do anything because we are a minority." I told him: "George, that is a cop-out, you have dozens of colleagues in Congress and if you wanted to, you could be more outspoken against the policies of the Republicans. I am one person, George, and you mark my words, I will see to it that this war ends and George Bush is held accountable." Two months later, I was camped out in front of Bush's ranch and George Miller was writing a resolution (signed by many other members of Congress) requesting that the president meet with me.
Some people would say that my protests had no ultimate affect, but I would say that's wrong. First of all, middle America, the majority of the country that doesn't reside on the north-east coast or west coast, never realized that there was an anti-Iraq war movement and although opposed to the war, never knew how to publicly protest or voice their opinions. Literally thousands of people became activists after my protest at Camp Casey. Also, the international community got visible proof of an America that was against Bush and his policies and I have been all over the world since then as a sort of peace ambassador from America.
Two things combined in August of 2005 to be George's Waterloo, Katrina and me, and things were never the same for that administration again, thankfully.
One thing my protests did was have a very unintended, by me at least, consequence: it had the effect of putting democrats back into majority in both houses. For sure, the anti-war movement played a big part in this, and many organizations (political and activist) used the energy of the movement that was revived at Camp Casey in Crawford to solely elect democrats and here is where I think the entire system breaks down because many politicians of both main parties have supported the phony war on terror and the rationale or claims are equally responsible for its continuance.
You see, (according to the spin doctors) we are not quagmired in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are fighting "the war on terror," just as we were not mired in the jungles of Vietnam, we were fighting "communism." When the US fights against ideology by using our own ideology backed with terrible force, I have come to realize that the resistance to outward and violent expression of these ideologies has to be with a competing and more logical, peaceful and moral ideology; not solely with marches or sit-ins.
While I will still attend marches, rallies, and sit-ins, I think they must be combined with a smart strategy of political platforms that express integrity with compassion and political movements to whittle away at the true systemic block to peace: the US political system.
Why else would an alleged "peace" candidate like Barack Obama not be held to the same account by the movement for his hostile comments towards Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and others as we did the Bush regime? How can we expect our politicians to have integrity, when our movements don't?
Hillary Clinton once said: "The center is where we live and breathe." I strongly disagree with that statement. I think the center is where ideas and profound change suffocate. I hate to take a centrist position on anything, as I am as far left as one can go, without returning full circle back to the right, but there has to be a synergy of protest movements and politics to get anything for the people done, barring what happened here in 1776; especially if that synergy is based on tension; or what the ancients would call yin/yang.
Friction is what moves the universe and it is what moves our government towards the greater good. I will continue to be that sandpaper that tries to remove the layers of BS from public discourse and policy. If you call a protest I will be there, but then when the true nuts and bolts of supporting a legitimate peace candidate presents itself, then I will support that person, or expect to be supported myself by the movement when I am a candidate.
I must step a little to the left of center on this issue and say that without the protester, the politicians would not make good change, so the protester is more relevant and therefore does more good.
Again, thank you for giving me the honor of speaking to your organizational meeting and I hope you have a great semester and I honor your union's commitment to a free exchange of ALL ideas!