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Moving from activism into politics

‘Peace Mom’ Cindy Sheehan visits Vermont, prepares to run for governor of California

WILLIAMSVILLE—When Spc. Casey Sheehan, a member of the Army’s First Cavalry Division, was killed in action during the Iraq War on April 4, 2004, his mother, Cindy Sheehan, went through all the emotions that accompany the death of a child.

Mourning eventually gave way to anger, and anger eventually gave way to action. In 2005, Cindy Sheehan established Camp Casey outside of then-President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The co-founder of Gold Star Mothers for Peace had a simple request — she wanted to hear from the president himself about for what noble cause her son gave his life — and would not leave until she got an answer.

Camp Casey soon became the epicenter of the antiwar movement as thousands flocked to Crawford to protest the Iraq War. In the process, Sheehan became an internationally known heroine.

The media attention that the 56-year-old Sheehan once garnered is mostly gone now, but she never gave up her devotion to the cause of peace. She’s written two books. She became a war tax resister. She’s been arrested more than 20 times for nonviolent civil disobedience. She blogs, gives talks, and travels constantly to spread the message of peace and social justice.

On Sept. 27, Sheehan stopped by Amazing Planet Farm in Williamsville to speak at the annual New England Gathering of War Tax Resisters and Supporters. She spoke to The Commons before her presentation.

Earlier this year, Sheehan embarked on a 3,000 mile cross-country bike ride she called the Tour de Peace, cycling from her son’s grave in Vacaville, Calif. to Washington, D.C.

When she began the ride on April 4, the ninth anniversary of her son’s death, organizers said the goal was “to end wars, to end immunity for U.S. war crimes, to end suppression of our civil rights, to end the use of fossil fuels, to end persecution of whistleblowers, to end partisan apathy and inaction.”

The Tour de Peace, much of which followed historic Route 66 from California to Chicago, concluded on July 3 with a small protest at the White House. In between, she made many stops to speak to her fellow Americans to convince them to fight for a cleaner, more sustainable world, a world she said can only happen when peace is achieved.

“It was a pretty awesome experience,” she said, adding that one of the goals of her cross-country bike trip was to get people to think beyond two-party politics.

She said it is easy for people to become disillusioned with the political process. She remembers that in 2006, she worked with others to help Democrats regain control of the House.

“The Democrats promised us they would help us end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they got back into power and did nothing, ” she said.

Likewise for President Obama, of whose election Sheehan said lulled many activists into a false sense of accomplishment.

“The base said, ‘We don’t have to do anything more,’ and even worse, they felt they didn’t want to because it would embarrass the Democrats,” she said. “We have these ‘elections’ and nothing changes because the president is only the representative of the 1 percent. He’s the public representative of empire. The same policies continue no matter who’s president.”

After helping to get the Democrats a majority in 2006 and elevating California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to Speaker of the House, Sheehan ran against her in 2008 on an anti-war platform.

Sheehan was unsuccessful, but that marked the moment she developed a taste for combining activism with electoral politics. She ran for vice-president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 2012, and she is running for governor of California next year against Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown.

She says she wants to update the 1934 campaign platform of author and social activist Upton Sinclair for the 21st century. That year, Sinclair ran on a platform he called EPIC (End Poverty in California).

“Autocracy in industry cannot co-exist with democracy in government,” Sinclair wrote. “The existence of luxury in the presence of poverty and destitution is immorally contrary to ethics and sound public policy. ... [The] remedy is to give workers full access to the means of production and let them produce for themselves and their communities and share in common the benefits and profits.”

“I grew up in California in the 1960s,” Sheehan said. “The public schools were good, the state colleges and university were tuition-free, and the social safety net was still there. I think that it’s possible to have the kind of shared prosperity again.

“Jerry Brown says he improved the economy, but he only did that by raising taxes on working people, eliminating social services, and cutting back on education. People are floundering in California, and they are starting to get that it’s all about the 1 percent: the elite.”

Sheehan is again running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. If she has learned anything over the past decade, she said it is that there is not a great deal of difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to matters of war and peace.

“I used to think Republicans were intellectually dishonest,” she said. “Now I see that it’s not exclusive to the Republican base. The Democrats have the same level of intellectual dishonesty. What the politicians are doing in Washington, D.C. — or ‘WashedUp, DeCeit,’ as I like to call it — is what they’re going to do. And they’ll only keep doing it because we keep supporting that myth that there’s a difference between the Democrats and Republicans.”

Even though she’s been an activist for about a decade, she recognizes that many others, like the war tax resistors she was speaking to later that evening, have been doing it for much longer.

“I’ve only been doing this since my son was killed nine years ago,” she said. “Some of these people have been doing this since the Vietnam War. It’s not a short-term thing. It’s a lifestyle. This is my lifestyle, and that’s why I can’t stop. I have a chance to touch people, so I have to do what I can do while I still can do it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #223 (Wednesday, October 2, 2013).

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