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The Rosa Parks Of The Anti-war Movement


The protest outside President Bush’s ranch by Cindy Sheehan, whose soldier son was killed in action, has raised awareness of the continued devastation in Iraq. 

ON APRIL 4, 2004, a barrage of grenades and small arms fire from Iraqi insurgent groups killed U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan in Sadr City. Two months later, his family went to see President George W. Bush. Mr. Bush walked into the room and said, “Who we’ll honorin’ today?” “His mouth kept moving,” recalled Specialist Casey’s mother Cindy, “but there was nothing in his eyes or anything else about him that showed me he really cared or had any real compassion at all. This is a human being totally disconnected from humanity and reality. His eyes were empty, hollow shells.”

Cindy Sheehan joined Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), an anti-war organisation that has played an important part in raising awareness of the continued devastation in Iraq. It is because of people like Ms. Sheehan and groups like MFSO that a majority of Americans now believes that the Occupation of Iraq is going badly, and that U.S. troops must leave forthwith. These past months have seen the number of fatalities rise quite dramatically, as the Iraqi insurgents use more powerful bombs and better intelligence. Military leaders are quite openly entertaining the idea of a withdrawal, as anti-war activity continues. Mr. Bush’s personal approval rating is at an all-time low.

On August 4, 2005, Mr. Bush retreated to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for another vacation. He has spent a fifth of his time as President on vacation, and he is now poised to break a record: he will spend five weeks in Texas, which is longer than any President has spent away from the White House in at least 36 years. “Spending time outside of Washington always gives the President a fresh perspective on what’s on the minds of the American people,” his press secretary said. “It’s a time, really, for him to shed the coat and tie and meet with folks in the heartland and hear what’s on their minds.”

When Mr. Bush went to Texas, a person from the heartland decided to go and meet him. Cindy Sheehan, now a seasoned activist, travelled to Crawford and dug in outside Mr. Bush’s ranch. She requested a meeting with the President, but he refused. Instead he sent his aides to assuage her when Ms. Sheehan’s vigil became a public relations nuisance. As Mr. Bush drove out of his ranch for a fund-raiser, an undaunted Ms. Sheehan stood outside with a sign that read, “Why do you make time for donors and not for me?”

At Camp Casey, the vigil site named after Ms. Sheehan’s son, almost a hundred activists gather amidst signs and white crosses that bear the names of fallen U.S. soldiers. On August 15, in Cleveland, Ohio, Rosemary Palmer and Paul Schroeder buried their young son, 23-year-old Lance Corporal Edward Schroeder who was one of 16 Ohio marines killed by a roadside bomb. Mr. Schroeder told the press, “Our comments are not those of grieving parents. They are based on anger Mr. President, not grief. Anger is an honest emotion when someone’s family has been violated.” Ms. Palmer echoed these sentiments, and then reached out to Ms. Sheehan in Texas, “We consider her the Rosa Parks of the new movement opposing the Iraq war.”

In 1955, Rosa Parks, refused to rise from the front seat of a segregated bus. Her act turned the eyes of the nation to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. This diminutive African-American woman exemplified courage, as she took on the immense power of U.S.-style apartheid. Only later did the country learn that this woman had not stayed in her seat because she, individually, decided that she could not sit at the back of the bus. Rosa Parks has spent many years as an activist in the Civil Rights movement, and she had trained to do just this kind of action at the Highlander School. Rosa Parks became a symbol of resilience and of civil disobedience, and her role pushed forward the movement from Birmingham, Alabama, to Washington, DC. At the March on Washington in 1963, Parks was widely recognised as one of the movement’s levers.

Like Parks, Cindy Sheehan is not in this struggle alone. The Boston Globe (August 17) got it wrong when it characterised her vigil as “a testament to the power of the individual.” Ms. Sheehan is part of MFSO, and other likeminded organisations rushed to aid her vigil. These groups are part of a wider sentiment against the war. Mr. Schroeder and Ms. Palmer are part of that changing opinion, as they are given courage by Ms. Sheehan to speak out as they bury their son. Anti-war organisations have begun to harness this sentiment, but they are also politically savvy.

Mr. Bush’s refusal to meet with Ms. Sheehan does not come from obduracy. His handlers know that the longer they wait, the clearer it becomes that Ms. Sheehan is not the mother that the media loves. She is a part of a movement, and if that is the case, then the administration will dismiss her as just another voice in the partisan battlefield. Ironically her relationship to the organised faction of the movement will be the weapon by which she is neutralised. This is the dance of the political strategists.

Ms. Sheehan is a part of this political tussle, but her tragedy is real, and it manifests the heart-felt frustration and anger of the bulk of the American people. They have been hijacked by an administration notoriously able to manipulate the media and the political agenda. Cindy Sheehan is the Rosa Parks of this anti-war movement. Her movement has to be careful in how it handles her tragedy and the wiles of a government keen to spin the story.

(Vijay Prashad teaches International Studies at Trinity College, U.S.)

 

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