Politics & Policy

The Cindy Sheehan Peace Train

Peace signs, Peter, Paul and Mary, anti-globalism operatives--they're all along for the ride.

It’s not easy staging a cross-country antiwar protest, even a tiny cross-country antiwar protest. Just ask the organizers of Cindy Sheehan’s “Bring Them Home Now” tour, which rolled into Washington Wednesday, starting with a hassle with police near the Capitol and ending with a minor traffic accident just a few yards from the White House. It was that kind of day.

Sheehan was scheduled to appear at noon on the front lawn of the Capitol. It couldn’t be called a rally; just a handful of Washington supporters showed up on the lawn to join dozens of journalists. The real stars were the TV crews; 15 cameras were set up in a semi-circle in front of a bank of microphones where Sheehan would speak.

But noon came and went, with no Sheehan. A young man named Ryan Fletcher, from an organization called the Mintwood Media Collective, paced around, a cell phone to his ear, getting updates from the three buses in which Sheehan and her supporters were riding. Less well-known than Fenton Communications, which advised Sheehan last month during her protest near the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, Mintwood describes itself as “a worker-owned and operated public relations firm born in the aftermath of the mobilization against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington DC, April 16th and 17th, 2000.” During that protest, Mintwood boasts, it came up with “a comprehensive media strategy that succeeded in placing stories on the front pages of major newspapers, on local and national television and radio, and Internet information sites worldwide.” It promises to do the same for clients today.

But on this day the clients were having a hard time getting to the media. Fletcher explained that the buses had been held up by Capitol Hill police while officers performed routine searches for weapons and explosives. They’d be arriving soon.

But 15 minutes passed, then 30, then 40, and still no Sheehan. Finally, after another call, Fletcher said the problem was not, apparently, the searches, but that the cops would not allow the buses to roll right up to the base of the Capitol grounds. Instead, they would have to stop at Third Street, across the Reflecting Pool from where everyone was waiting. So the camera crews made their way over there, to wait a bit longer for the shot of Sheehan stepping off the bus.

But when the buses arrived, they weren’t buses at all. Instead, the “Bring Them Home Now” bus tour–the “o” in “Now” was a 60s-style peace sign–consisted of three rented recreational vehicles, each with perhaps ten or twelve people on board. That was it.

First out was a woman named Lisa Fithian. A well-known organizer in the world of anti-globalism anarchists and antiwar protesters, Fithian played a major 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. Last month, Fithian told National Review Online that she had been with Sheehan since the first day of the Crawford protest. And Wednesday, in Washington, Fithian was clearly the woman in charge.

“Kiss the bumpers, man! Kiss the bumpers!” she yelled, signaling to the RV drivers that they should inch their vehicles directly behind one another. “The banner! The banner!” she shouted as Sheehan and her supporters began to walk toward the Capitol without first unfurling their “Bring Them Home Now” sign. “Move back! Move back!” she ordered photographers as they closed in on Sheehan.

As they walked, the small group began call-and-response chants. “WHAT DO WE WANT?” they yelled. “TROOPS HOME! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!” Every now and then, they chanted “NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL!” and “NOT ONE MORE!”

When the group made it to the microphones, it soon became apparent that, after six weeks in the public eye, there was nothing much that Sheehan could say that she had not said–and had not been reported–a thousand times before. “Hi, it’s been one month and fifteen days since I sat down in a ditch in Crawford, Texas,” she began. “I had no idea that this would be the result. I knew we were going to be here for the United for Peace and Justice rally in September, on the 24, and I knew I was already asked to speak at that, but I didn’t know we were going to be bringing a whole movement with us.”

Well, sort of. After Sheehan and a few others spoke, the group pulled out a blow-up of a letter to President Bush, which Sheehan signed as photographers captured the scene. As the rest of the group added their signatures, Sheehan walked away to sit on the lawn behind the microphones. A few photographers followed her, and when she sat down she seemed to muse on the strangeness of it all. “Cindy Sheehan sitting on the grass,” she said.

As she did, Fithian assembled a huddle of the organizing team and began to give orders for the rest of the day. She explained how they would be going to the White House, how they would set up a mini-Camp Casey on the Mall, how they would take the subway to a hostel that had been arranged for them to stay during the protest.

About that time, a cameraman shooting the scene noticed something. “I’ve seen a lot of these people before,” he said. Pointing to a woman a few feet away, he said, “That one was at the World Bank thing. They’re professional protesters.”

And indeed, that one–Fithian–had been at the protests in Washington a few years earlier. And so had some of the people working with Fithian. And Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, exchanging a warm hug with Fithian on the Capitol lawn, had been at hundreds, if not thousands, of protests. There were some real protest veterans in the group.

Indeed, the photographer’s observation pointed to something telling about the day. On close examination, the Cindy Sheehan phenomenon appears not to be a mass movement of any sort but rather to consist of a small group of relatives of U.S. servicemen and women–there were perhaps 30 in all with Sheehan on Wednesday–accompanied and guided by a group of full-time organizers like Fithian, Benjamin, and the people from Mintwood Media Collective. People like Sheehan and the other Iraq relatives–many of them grieving and angry–don’t know how one goes about organizing protests. Fithian and Benjamin do.

After the Capitol meeting broke up, the group re-boarded the RVs and headed toward the White House. They parked on Pennsylvania Avenue, about a block away, and walked toward the Northwest Gate. As they walked, they began to sing:

“All we are saaaayyyying is give peace a chance.”

“All we are saaaayyyying is give peace a chance.”

At the White House, the small group was nearly crushed by photographers as Sheehan handed the signed letter through the iron fence to a staffer inside the White House grounds. Sheehan was asked about a report that top Bush adviser Karl Rove had referred to her as a “clown” in an off-the-record discussion. “I may be a clown, but a lot of people who are in there are criminals,” Sheehan said, pointing behind her. “And we need to get them out of our house.”

After a few more questions, Sheehan headed back to the RVs. When the group arrived, someone turned on an external sound system, which began playing “The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary.” The air was filled with folk music from many decades ago.

“This land is your land, this land is my land…”

The entourage began to pull away. But just at that moment, as the RV in the rear of the group began to move, someone on the sidewalk yelled out, “The Vespa! The Vespa!” It turns out the rear bumper of the RV had caught on a motorcycle parked on the sidewalk; when the RV moved forward, it dragged the Vespa to the ground and broke off a large piece of its windshield.

Peter, Paul and Mary kept singing. “How many roads must a man walk down? Before you call him a man?”

Fithian stuck her head outside the RV. “Oh, sh*t,” she said, seeing the fallen cycle.

“You broke the Vespa!” someone yelled from the street. “You broke the Vespa!”

Fithian called for some men to help her prop up the cycle. She then began to write a note to leave for the Vespa’s owner. At that point, a man came out of a building–he said he knew who owned the cycle–and began to write down the RV’s license plate number. He said he would go find the owner.

Fithian decided to wait. Unable to stay still for long, she paced back and forth for a while before pulling out a cigarette. “No wonder I started smoking,” she said as she lighted up.

Peter, Paul and Mary kept singing. “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe…”

After a while, the owner, a middle-aged man, came out, carrying a small digital camera. He was quite understanding about the accident and exchanged information with Fithian. He took a few pictures of the damage. Fithian pulled out the RV rental brochure–on the front, it said “Your fun has just begun”–and pulled out a document to give the man. There was a long wait while someone went inside to copy it.

Peter, Paul and Mary kept singing. “That’s what you get for lovin’ meeeee…”

While all this was going on–a half-hour passed before the situation was cleared up–Sheehan and the rest of the group were stuck in their RVs, waiting to leave. And just when it looked like they could go, a uniformed Secret Service officer drove up and asked what was going on.

It was too much for Fithian. “J*s*s!” she said as the officer asked to see a driver’s license and a permit to park the RV. As it turned out, Fithian had all the right papers, and the officer then politely gave her directions to the Mall. Fithian ordered everyone into the RVs, and they began to pull out.

And Peter, Paul and Mary still kept singing–”Come gather ’round people wherever you roam”–as the buses disappeared down 17th Street, heading for the next stop on Cindy Sheehan’s Camp Casey media tour.

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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