Antiwar icon gets 2 minutes before police pull plug
By Jefferson Siegel
Cindy Sheehan’s son, Casey, was killed in Sadr City, Iraq in April, 2004. This past summer, in the third year of the war, Sheehan set up a tent outside the entrance to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex., demanding a meeting with the president. Her action galvanized a frustrated antiwar movement and Camp Casey was born. Symbolic camps sprang up around the country in solidarity.
Last Monday, Sheehan and antiwar family members of other Iraq casualties came to New York’s Camp Casey in Union Square. In front of 150 onlookers, Sheehan’s first words were, “I love New York City.” By the end of her two-minute speech, her opinion may have been somewhat dampened as police swarmed in to confiscate sound equipment. One person, Paul (zool) Zulkowitz, who had maintained the Union Square Camp Casey throughout most of its 36-day existence, was arrested for unauthorized use of a sound device. The confiscated speaker system had been loaned to the rally by Time’s Up!, the East Village bicycle advocacy group.
By some estimates, George Bush has spent 20 percent of his presidency on vacation. Last August, Bush was at his Crawford ranch mountain-biking and cutting brush when Cindy Sheehan, of Vacaville, Cal., arrived at the front gate. Her son, Casey, was 21 when he enlisted in the Army in 2000. Five months after the Iraq invasion, Casey re-enlisted, and his unit, the 1st Cavalry Division, was sent to Iraq shortly afterward. A month later, as part of a quick reaction force sent to Sadr City to aid American soldiers, he was killed.
A former youth minister in her Roman Catholic church, Sheehan had no activist background before her son’s death, but she energized an antiwar movement that had been largely ignored by both the press and the administration. Bush’s refusal to meet with her made headlines worldwide. Within days, family members of war casulties and other activists flocked to join her.
At the same time similiar campouts were occuring nationwide, the West Village-based Troops Out Now Coalition established a local Camp Casey in Union Square. One of the group’s organizers, Dustin Langley, a Navy veteran, left for Crawford soon after setting up the camp to join Sheehan.
“We can’t talk about timetables,” Langley said at Monday’s rally. “We can’t wait for Republicans or Democrats. What Cindy has shown us is the responsibility for stopping the war lies on each and every one of us.”
As of last Monday, 1,903 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq.
As the new national symbol of the antiwar movement, Sheehan left her encampment on a bus tour whose ultimate destination is a rally planned for this Sat., Sept. 24 in Washington.
The Union Square camp, which was only intended to exist for several days, was adopted by Zulkowitz, who enlisted a group of activists, veterans and the homeless to occupy it around the clock. Parks Department rules forbid overnight camping in any city park, so between the hours of 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. the tent was collapsed and someone sat in its place.
Before Sheehan spoke on Monday, several family members of soldiers killed in Iraq gave impassioned speeches. Carlos Arredondo of Massachusetts lost his 20-year-old Marine son last year. In his grief, Arredondo burned a Marine vehicle. Al Zappala’s son was the first Pennsylvania National Guardsman to die in combat. Sheehan put an arm around Zappala’s shoulder and rested her head against him to offer comfort as he spoke of his loss.
“I hear this is a pretty fun town,“ Sheehan said to applause, speaking of her time in New York. “We know that we have a good country but, you know what, we’re standing here to make it better. We can raise our children and our grandchildren in a paradigm of peace and love; where we take care of our communities before we feed the war machine.” Some estimates have put the cost of the war at $200 billion, the same amount recently estimated as the cost of restoring New Orleans.
As Sheehan uttered the rally’s last amplified words, police, who had surrounded the backstage area, unexpectedly moved in and confiscated the loudspeaker. The brief cheers offered to Sheehan instantly turned to boos and cries of “shame” as scuffles broke out.
Todd Eaton, a Brooklyn antiwar activist and moderator of the riseup.net listserv, watched as police moved in. “There were about a dozen people with arms locked around the stage protecting Cindy Sheehan and the Gold Star families,” he observed just before the meelee.
Lisa Fithian of the Bring Them Home Now tour said, “The police came in from behind the stage, pulled people out, disrupting the closing of our event.”
Sheehan was surrounded by members of her tour group and quickly escorted away. When a reporter from The Villager caught up with her moments later, Sheehan politely declined comment but appeared rather stunned at the sudden turn of events. Zulkowitz, who had been standing next to Sheehan, was arrested and taken to the 13th Precinct on East 21st Street. He was charged with “operating a speaker without a permit” and was released by 7 p.m.
A Parks Department spokeswoman deferred a request for comment on the day’s events to the Police Department. Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said, “There’s a simple process for demonstrations throughout the city. As long as you’re not disrupting traffic or causing a safety issue, then people can gather and speak.”
After his release Monday night, Zulkowitz complained of the bureaucratic difficulties in holding protests in the city, including long lead times in applying for sound permits and last-minute decisions that make planning amplified rallies difficult. “George Bush says he’s exporting democracy to Iraq,” Zulkowitz said. “With the help of Mike Bloomberg, he’s exporting our democracy.”
Browne replied, “If you go to any precinct five days in advance of the event, people are accommodated. Every year, below 59th Street, the police department has about 600 events, everything from ethnic parades to protest events.” Browne said the rally’s organizers were aware of the need for an amplified-sound permit. At the start of the rally, Zulkowitz advised the crowd they had no sound permit, but added, “This is the birthplace of the union movement,” and noted the square’s long tradition of speak-outs and free speech rallies.
After Zulkowitz and the loudspeaker were led away down the disabled ramp at the southeast corner of the park, police blocked the exit as people confronted them, asking, screaming and pleading for an explanation.
Fithian waded into the space between police and the angry onlookers, holding up her hands and pleading for calm. “After 51 cities in 21 days, we have never been treated like this,” she said to the seething crowd. After several tense minutes police left the park.
Sheehan’s tour planned stops this week in Newark, Baltimore and Norfolk. Her arrival in Washington on Saturday is timed to coincide with a three-day antiwar protest, including a mass march, interfaith services and a day of lobbying politicians.