Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sheehan in Philly--The Peace Rally

The Peace Rally last night on the lawn next to the National Constitution Center near Independence Hall ran a little late, simply because there were so many speakers trying to squeeze into the 2-hour timeframe, but it felt like it went quickly.

They said we were the largest crowd they had yet encountered on the tour, and though I'm not good at estimating that kind of thing, it seemed like there could have been 500, all told.

What I missed, having had to hoof it across the city to get there after right after work, was Councilwoman Blondell Reynold-Brown reading the Resolution Against The War passed the day before by the Philadelphia City Council. Although she was the sponsor who introduced the resolution, it was co-sponsored by 12 other council members, including two Republicans. Here's what the website had to say about it:

"On the urging of members and friends of the Bring Them Home Now Bus Tour, the Philadelphia City Council voted today 16 to 1 for a Resolution calling on the federal government to "rapidly withdraw US troops from Iraq expeditiously." Following a Thursday morning caucus session in which Gold Star Families for Peace co-founder Celeste Zappala and other Bring Them Home Now Bus Tour members were introduced to council members..."
In addition to Cindy Sheehan's Gold Star Families for Peace members, other groups represented at the rally included Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace, and Military Families Speak Out. There were a wonderfully representative group of speakers, and some singer-songwriters who played and sang beautifully. Although the crowd spanned the age range, it seemed a bit on the older side. That will certainly change when the draft comes down. And, as so often happens with political activities like this, it was way too white. If this message is to start taking root and have resonance, outreach efforts have to be made more strenuously to link to and include minorities and their advocacy groups, especially since they are the ones doing a disproportionate amount of the fighting on the ground. But enough of that. It was inspiring, and I was glad I could be there. It lacked the carnival atmosphere that attends many such gatherings, but that was okay. Members of various groups circulated through the crowd handing out flyers and stickers, and the Iraq vets were selling IVAW T-shirts (I wanted one but at $20 I just couldn't spend the cash. I'll pick one up at the DC rally.) Further up, close to the speaker's platform were places to buy buttons and tour shirts. People stretched out on the grass, dogs rolled, babies cooed, bicycles served as impromptu chairs. Many threads ran through the speeches, not the least of which were calls for impeachment and rallying for attendance at the DC anti-war mobilization next Saturday. It was a night of strong rhetoric, much stronger than I had expected.

The speakers included (list leaves out a couple speakers I couldn't catch and the musicians who performed):
  • Celeste Zappala, Philadelphia, PA, a co-founder with Sheehan of Gold Star Familes for Peace, whose son Sgt. Sherwood Baker was the first PA National Guardsman to die in combat since World War II, killed in Baghdad on April 26, 2004. Celeste is an articulate, eloquent speaker with an electrifying style coming straight out of her deep pain and anger. I saw her speak before, at the union hall with Al Franken during a MoveOn-sponsored election tour in 2004, and she had us all in tears. She was easily the best and most moving speaker there last night. (I also learned that night that she and her family are neighbors of my daughter's boyfriend, and her son Dante is one of his friends. Small, small world.)
  • AFSCME District Council 47 President Tom Cronin spoke of union solidarity for the peace movement and the upcoming DC demonstration.
  • Former City Councilman Angel Ortiz, Philadelphia's most famous unlicensed driver, roused the crowd with Bush epithets and his repeated cries to "Impeach Bush!" (Not the last time that was heard that night.)
  • Bill Perry, Levittown PA, a member of Veterans for Peace and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who was a paratrooper during the Tet offensive in 1967 and 1968, spoke of the "karmic debt" he owes for what he did in Vietnam, and how the anti-war work he is doing now is part of that. He pointed the crowd to the site.
  • Rabbi Art Waskow, Philadelphia, whose cries for "Shalom! Salaam! Peace!" rang out through the crowd. (Check out his piece on Frist, here.)
  • Dante Zappala, son of Celeste and brother of Sherwood Baker, spoke about how his brother was killed (searching for WMDs), how divided the country is, and how embracing others' losses as our own is the key to finding common cause.
  • Sherie Cohen, Philadelphia, sent a message from her dad, City Councilman David Cohen reiterating support for the resolution and calling on the crowd to pressure their representatives to end the war.
  • Kellisa Stanley, Texas, whose husband at Fort Hood did a one-year tour of duty in Iraq and is scheduled for redeployment next year, said she had 2 exit strategies for the troops: "Boat. And plane." She spoke of the fear with which she lived while her husband was in Iraq, waiting with dread each day between 6 to 10 a.m., because those are the hours during which the military is allowed to deliver the news of a death to a soldier's family.
  • Patrick Resta, Philadelphia, with Iraq Veterans Against the War, served as a combat medic from February to November, 2004. His aunt and uncle were killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. He wondered why a 28-yr. old friend in his platoon had to die when an explosion tore into his behicle because 1/2" sheets of plywood had been nailed into his Humvee instead of the armor that should have been there. He wondered, because as he said, there were plenty of armored Humvees---they were used to go to meetings and USO shows, but not for patrols. He talked of people dying because the paperwork needed to release them couldn't be done. He talked of his own fears and anger because he had to buy his own body armor; because he was issued a gas mask that was useless because it didn't fit; because just before going into combat he was issued a rifle he'd never held, never sighted or been able to prep.
  • Vince George, West Virginia, of Veterans for Peace and Military Families Speak Out, talked about being an Arab-American with a brother in the National Guard who was previously in Kosovo before being orderd up to Iraq. His "fascist gangsters" remark referencing Bushco got an especially heartfelt hand from the crowd. He, too, called for impeachment, saying the next election needs 11 seats taken back from the Republicans to get it done.
  • Pat Bonner(sp?), PA, has a son in the PA National Guard who was sent to Egypt to police their elections. She wanted to know what we would think of having them come here to do the same to us. She was a firebrand, leveling war crimes charges at Bushco, and calling for revolution.
  • Lietta Ruger, Washington state, with Military Families Speak Out, has a son in law and nephew in Germany who have served extended 15-month tours of duty in Iraq and are presently under “stop loss” orders. They are scheduled to deploy to Iraq this fall. She said we must always challenge a president to define the mission before jumping into war.
  • Jeff Key, Alabama, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq in 2003, was easily the most charming and charismatic of the speakers. A friendly, almost puppy-like, young gay man, he spoke in a sweet drawl of the early idealism that led him to join the Marines, and finished up by pointing at the Liberty Bell on the other side of the street behind him, saying the first time he saw the layers of bulletproof plastic in which it was encased, he wondered where the bell was. "Then I saw it. It's kinda like America's obscured, but I know it's still there somewhere."
  • Beatriz Saldivar, Texas, a Gold Star Families for Peace member. Her nephew Daniel Torres was killed in action on February 4th, 2005 in Baygii, Iraq on his second tour of Iraq due to stop loss orders after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded and hit his unarmored Humvee. He left behind a pregnant fiancee whose baby is due this weekend.
  • U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah, Philadelphia, spoke words of encouragement, and of how more and more folks are agreeing that we were miled into war with lies. He spoke of meeting Cassandra Bryan at Walter Reed hospital, where she was sent to recover after losing both legs in Iraq, and he spoke of the thousands of others severely injured.
  • And finally, Cindy Sheehan herself. She told of her initial hesitancy in becoming an activist because "I thought one person can't make a difference. Then I said, 'If I can't make a difference, at least I'll know I tried. I can look at myself in the mirror, and tell my grandchildren that I tried.'" She spoke of "Bush's insane & moronic policies", and of the Bush chickenhawks, how they wouldn't risk dying for their country when they had a chance to, but now want to send others to again do their dying for them. She spoke about their "dangerous incompetence". She talked about the reasons put forth by Bushco for the war: Freedom & Democracy ("An Islamic constitution is not a democracy that takes rights away from women, that gives power to a puppet leadership"); and Keeping America Safer ("How did it make America safer to invade a country that was no threat to us? Why are their babies more important than our babies? Katerina proved that we're more vulnerable now because of this war").

Cindy finished as volunteers circulated through the crowd with candles for a candle-lighting ceremony at the end of the night, saying that "It's not about politics, or who's a Republican or Democrat. It's about flesh and blood. It's about life and death." She talked about the tour, and how they would end up in D.C. for the anti-war march, and invited the crowd to join them there. Jeff Key played taps as he had done in Crawford, while we stood in silence, remembering the dead and maimed.

When we disbanded, I felt good about my country. It's been a long time since that happened.

Editor's note: Special thanks to Monique Frugier for the photos.

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