Politics & Policy

Cindy Sheehan’s Radical Strategist

Have you heard of Lisa Fithian? A veteran of the Seattle WTO riots and scores of other protests, she's been with Sheehan from the start.

A notice on Cindy Sheehan’s website, meetwithcindy.org, asks for donors who might be able to offer a camper, or an RV, or just money, for Sheehan’s upcoming cross-country tour, scheduled to begin Wednesday in Crawford, Texas, and end in Washington at the big antiwar demonstration scheduled for September 24. At the end of the note, readers with something to offer are asked to “please call organizer Lisa Fithian.”

To anyone familiar with the world of professional protesting–protests against globalism, capitalism, war, police tactics, and dozens of other causes–the presence of Fithian is a sign of how far Cindy Sheehan has strayed from the roots of her “one mom” crusade against George W. Bush. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a sign that the “one mom” crusade was never just one mom. Fithian is a legendary organizer who operates in the world of anti-globalism anarchists, antiwar protesters, and union activists; an advocate of aggressive “direct action” demonstrations, she protested the first Gulf war, played an important role in the violent shutdown of Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting, was a key planner in protests at the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 2000 and 2004, and organized demonstrations at trade meetings in Washington, D.C., Prague, and Genoa.

Although she has received virtually no attention from reporters covering Sheehan, Fithian has been part of the Crawford protest from the very beginning. In a telephone interview with National Review Online on Sunday, she explained that she was with Sheehan in Dallas at a meeting of the antiwar group Veterans for Peace during the first days of August when the decision was made for Sheehan to go to the president’s ranch. On August 6, when Sheehan went to Crawford–in a bus with the words “Impeachment Tour” emblazoned on the side–Fithian went along. “I came the first day and helped her [Sheehan] set up the initial encampment,” Fithian said. With the exception of one brief absence, she has been there ever since.

Switching back and forth between talking to NRO and giving out orders–”When’s your meeting? 5:15? Can you get your people together for that?”–Fithian was modest about her role in the Sheehan protest. “I vary from janitor to facilitator to action organizer,” she said. “There’s not any one person in charge.” In general, she explained, her work involves “a lot of coordination.” But Fithian’s history suggests it is unlikely she is playing a subordinate role.

In November 2003, Fithian was profiled by The New York Times Magazine as she prepared to take part in protests at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami. As she did with NRO, Fithian demurred when asked if she was a leader of the demonstrations–she claimed that the movement was “nonauthoritarian” and “nonhierarchical” and had no leaders at all–but the Times was not convinced. “To say that Fithian is not a leader is an admirable political idea, but it’s not entirely honest,” the paper reported.

And she was a tough-minded leader, not at all a peace-and-love type. Her specialty was action; she wanted to break in, cut through fences, and shut things down. “You don’t go to Fithian when you want to carry a placard,” the Times profile said. “You go to her when you want to make sure there are enough bolt cutters to go around.” Asked for a fuller explanation of her role in the protests, Fithian said, “When people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I say I create crisis, because crisis is that edge where change is possible.”

That sometimes involves breaking things. In an July 2001 interview with The International Socialist Review, Fithian–who told NRO she’s been arrested “probably at least 30 times”–spoke of moving beyond the tradition of civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.; her inspiration, she explained, was not so much those leaders as the anarchist movement in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century. And that meant different ways of doing things. “Nonviolence is a strategy. Civil disobedience is a tactic,” Fithian said. “Direct action is a strategy. Throwing rocks is a tactic.”

“I guess my biggest thing is that as people who are trying to create a new world, I do believe we have to dismantle or transform the old order to do that,” Fithian continued. “I just fundamentally don’t believe it will ever serve our interests as it’s currently constructed.”

These days, Fithian’s tactic for dismantling the old order–at least her tactic for the moment–is Cindy Sheehan. On Wednesday, Sheehan will begin her cross-country tour, winding her way toward Washington. And Lisa Fithian will be with her.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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