The Cindy Sheehan show
Searching for peace at Broadway and 16th Street
Sitting in Tower Cafe on a Friday night, Cindy Sheehan sipped down a long, tall glass of sangria in what seemed like seconds flat. It’s not always easy being one of America’s most prominent anti-war activists. A waitress removed the empty glass and Sheehan ordered another one. It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet.
She’d just spent the previous two hours working the large crowd of anti-war protesters who’d gathered at the corner of 16th Street and Broadway for one of Stephen and Virginia Pearcy’s regularly scheduled demonstrations. The Pearcys, who gained national notoriety after they hung the effigy of an American solider from their Land Park home in 2003, are close friends with Sheehan. They’d invited her up from her home in Vacaville to help draw as large of an audience as possible to what might have been, in the wake of the Tower Records bankruptcy, one of the last demonstrations at the defunct record chain’s Broadway location.
There’s no doubt that since her son, U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in action in Iraq in March of 2004, Sheehan has become one of the peace movement’s top draws. More than 200 people attended the demonstration; many had come specifically to see her. Wearing a faded lemon-lime “Peace is my prayer” T-shirt, khaki trousers and Skechers sneakers with no socks—“Casey ’79-’04” is tattooed above her left ankle—tall, auburn-haired Sheehan greeted each person with humble patience and grace.
“Thanks for coming out,” she’d say.
“You’re doing a wonderful job!” they’d effuse.
“Oh, thank you.”
Then on to the next person.
“Cindy, this is my partner …”
A plethora of protest placards advertised displeasure with the current political regime: “Worst president ever,” “Diebold or live free,” “Leave Iran alone.” Cowbells, tambourines and drums beat out a primitive rhythm punctuated by frequent horn blasts from passing automobile drivers. “Bush is the devil!” cried one driver, echoing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s recent U.N. speech. A clerk from nearby Tower Books brought out copies of Sheehan’s latest book, Peace Mom. She signed the copies, which quickly sold out. One book went to local high-school teacher Stacey Willett’s young son, Aidan.
“I can identify with Cindy Sheehan,” Willetts said. “It terrifies me to think that it could be my son. I admire her courage. If you lost a son, it would be real easy to just shut yourself down.”
For Sheehan, admiration is a two-way street.
“They tell me that I’ve inspired them to do this,” she said, referring to the protesters lining up to meet her. “They mean so much more to me than I mean to them. They give me so much energy and encouragement. It’s not so easy all the time, but when I come to things like this, it makes it a little easier.”
No, it’s not always easy being Cindy Sheehan. The memory of her deceased son continues to haunt her; she prefers not to discuss the subject. Her rise as an activist has stressed family relations, leading to her recent divorce. She’s constantly traveling and misses her three remaining children—two daughters and a son, Casey’s younger sisters and brother.
The almost-demure Sheehan seems a far cry from the angry, shrill leftist portrayed in the mainstream media. Critics have gone to great lengths to denigrate her quest for peace. Her meeting with Hugo Chavez, President Bush’s greatest nemesis in the Western Hemisphere, was characterized as treasonous. Many pundits have pointed out that when she first met with Bush in 2004, she came away praising him for what seemed like his heartfelt condolences. Sheehan agreed that she’d gone light on the president at first.
“We decided not to go into our opposition to the war, because we wanted him to hear about Casey,” she said. “I’ll never do that again. I’ll never be nice again. I didn’t really start speaking out about our meeting with the president until the Republican National Convention, when he said he meets with the families and the families tell him they’re praying for him to complete the mission, to honor their sacrifices. That’s when I started talking about the meeting, because he lied about it. He used it for politics.”
The rest is history. Sheehan requested to meet with Bush a second time; Bush refused. So in August of 2005, Sheehan set up camp outside the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, a vigil that many say marked the beginning of the American people’s disenchantment with the war in Iraq. Now Sheehan has purchased land in Crawford, where she plans to establish the Camp Casey Peace Institute.
“It’s going to be the permanent place where Camp Casey is going to be,” she said. “We’re going to work for peace forever. I’m gong to have a private residence there, and we’re going to have public buildings. We’re getting the infrastructure in place right now. I’m thinking that by next Easter, when we have Camp Casey again, I’ll be living there.”
The demonstration lingered on well beyond its scheduled completion at 6 p.m. Stephen and Virginia Pearcy quietly surveyed the scene they have helped foster, and wondered if it might be the last demonstration at 16th Street and Broadway.
“We’re concerned about it,” Virginia said. “Tower has been very lenient about allowing us to set up on their property. We’re not sure what the new tenants might be like. That’s really why we wanted to get as many people out here this time as we could.”
About a dozen people—the Pearcys and other local activists—adjourned to Tower Cafe to have dinner with Sheehan, who was flying out of Sacramento later that evening. It was but a momentary respite for a woman who has quite suddenly found herself in high demand.
“I’m going to L.A. tomorrow to march in a peace march with Gandhi’s grandson,” she said. “I’m going to be the grand marshal of the peace parade. Then I’m going to Crawford and D.C. We’re having a big protest in D.C. from the fourth to the ninth. We want to have a big sit-in. Next month, I’m going to Korea. I’m going to Chile. So I’m still very busy.”
The waitress brought her another drink and Sheehan casually reached over and closed this reporter’s notebook. The interview was over.
“It’s time for you to close up shop,” she said. “The second sangria is here.”