Saturday, March 28, 2009

Iraq vets challenge KBR contract in Hays County, TX

Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for printing this story on the front page of today's Metro section. Iraq war vets, Bryan Hannah and Greg Foster testified this week before Hays County Commissioners about the record of KBR contractors in Iraq, asking commissioners to delay the decision to award a local road contract to KBR in order to give more time to consider the implications of supporting KBR with tax money.

Along with citing the deaths of US soldiers due to faulty electrical wiring by KBR contractors in Iraq and soldiers' exposure to carcinogens in a KBR water project, Bryan and Greg also spoke about KBR's record of bribery and its suppression of reports about rape and sexual assault committed by its employees against its employees.

See this link to video of Bryan and Greg's testimony.

Greg and Bryan both spoke at the Winter Soldier hearing held in Austin last month. If you missed the link last time, here is an excellent article about the regional Winter Soldier proceedings.

"I regret 3 minutes is not long enough to inform you of the magnitude of this company's transgressions against this nation."
-- Bryan Hannah, speaking before Hays County Commissioners about KBR

"Let's see if we can find a way to get our road built without giving money to companies that profit from the deaths of American soldiers and the rapes of their own employees."
-- Greg Foster, speaking before Hays County Commissioners about KBR

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Saints Go Marching in Downtown Austin

This spring break week in Austin, the SXSW music, interactive and film festivals converged to make Austin an absolute epicenter of the creative arts. What a fabulous week! The city literally hummed.

My partner and I gravitated to the documentary films and took in as many of the offerings as we could at the festival. Notable among them was the premiere screening of "Saint Misbehavin', The Wavy Gravy Movie," produced and directed by Californian, Michelle Esrick. Making the film was a 10-year project for Esrick, and her commitment has achieved a first-rate visual biography of the 60's icon, interspersing recent interviews with footage from Wavy Gravy's Woodstock and Hog Farm bus tour days, including remarkable scenes from the group's trek across Europe through the Middle East and Asia in 1970.

Wavy Gravy's evolving persona as poet, storyteller, merry prankster, jester and clown reveals a deeply spiritual and resourceful man who has used his gifts of humor and wit in dangerously charged situations to defuse tension, prevent violence, turn the tables and achieve positive, constructive outcomes. Through his own stories, recollections from his closest family and friends and accompanying film vignettes that show Wavy Gravy in action, we are shown how nonviolence actually works. And, in typical Wavy Gravy fashion, he transforms even this kind of work into play. His long-time projects involve teaching children nonviolence, meditation and performance techniques (at his legendary Camp Winnarainbow in Northern California), and supplying medical services to restore vision to cataract patients in underserved parts of the world (through the SEVA Foundation he co-founded 30 years ago with several colleagues, including his wife, Jahanara Romney and his good friends, Ram Dass and Dr. Larry Brilliant, who are also featured in the film).

My partner and I attended the Saint Misbehavin' premiere on the first Saturday of the SXSW film festival and were so taken with the story that we returned for the final showing the following Saturday with a friend who was in town to visit. Wavy Gravy was present at each venue, answering questions with characteristic aplomb.

And the compassionate clown gave Austin even more. Earlier in the day of his final film showing, Wavy Gravy became the somewhat impromptu grand marshal of the Million Musician March for Peace that marked the 6th anniversary of the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. Organized by the local musicians' group, Instruments for Peace, the march was a colorful, family-oriented New Orleans-style parade led by musicians through downtown Austin, past SXSW venues, beginning at the Texas state capitol and winding up at Austin's City Hall plaza for a concert where some of Austin's finest musicians performed for the marchers.

At the head of the parade, Wavy Gravy and Michelle Esrick were ensconced in a festively decorated pedicab, the perfect peace convoy, leading us in tye-dyed, bubble-blowing style.

We CodePink folks were also on hand with eye-catching fuzzy peace signs made by our own Heidi Turpin. Heidi presented Wavy Gravy with one of the multi-colored peace signs that matched his attire to a T.

I hope Michelle Esrick's fine film is distributed and reaches a wide audience. If its warm reception in Austin is an indication, the film will indeed carry the Wavy Gravy message forward: Put your good where it will do the most. Then, you will have fun doing it!
photos by makingpeace and Jeff Webster

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Obama garden: a project of the people

It was great to read today's news about the organic garden that the Obamas plan for the White House lawn! This project is the result of a truly grassroots lobbying effort, not only by well known proponents like chef, Alice Waters, but by a groundswell of gardeners and local food advocates all over the country who have called on the Obamas to support local farming through their own example.

Once again, the people lead.

I've been fortunate to have a vegetable garden almost every year and place I've lived since college. Our current yard is quite shaded in the summer, but this winter and early spring, I put in a small salad greens bed in the front yard to catch the winter sun, and it has done well. I installed a second rain barrell yesterday and look forward to the next rain (it's GOT to come sometime....) to see how it works. We have had a compost pile as long as I've been gardening, and since we don't cook with meat, we are able to compost almost all our food waste. With the new single-stream recycling system, we have been able to whittle our throw-away trash down to about half a grocery sack weekly for the two of us. Compared to most of the rest of the world, we still consume and throw away too much. But, we're trying to move in the right direction.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Six years, countless tears

It's been six long years since the US began its cruel reign of terror in Iraq.
Iraq Veterans Against the War issued a statement on the anniversary, with which I concur.
On this occasion, I think about those who have spoken out during these 6 years to tell the truth about what is happening in Iraq, many of whom have risked punishment by refusing to participate any longer in the occupation.
Here is an excellent write-up about some of those people, members of IVAW who held a regional Winter Soldier hearing in Austin on February 28th.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Combat Paper: Threads that can heal

I enjoyed reading the story in today's Austin American-Statesman about the public art on view around Lady Bird Lake and other locations in Austin. Austin is a great place for these kinds of accessible art pieces.

My partner's sister, Sharon Webster, is an artist, poet and teacher who lives in Vermont, and she just sent us a link to a review she wrote about another kind of interactive art event in Burlington, where she lives.

Some time this year, I wrote a blog post about Iraq war veterans who have been using the art of paper-making to express some of their feelings about their war experience. They call their project "Combat Paper" and they have a new show/workshop going on in Burlington at the moment.

As it happens, one of the co-founders of Combat Paper, Drew Cameron, had been one of Sharon's art students back in 2004, and she has been an avid fan of the project Drew began with other artists.

Check out Sharon's review, published in Vermont Art Zine:

Combat Paper at the Firehouse Gallery
by Sharon Webster

“That’s pretty,” Drew Cameron says as he scoops a bit of combat uniform, red thread, & scrap of paper with the Constitution written on it from the bubbling vat of paper mash. His hands move the way someone’s might move through bread dough, intuitively. Boiled down to abstraction the globs are indeed pretty and rest comfortably in a person’s hand. Then he throws it up to the ceiling where it sticks – a way of sifting imperfections from the mash, I’m told.

The Combat Paper Project, currently at the Firehouse Gallery, is made up of a growing number of Iraq Veteran artists who beat their uniforms to a pulp – literally – and then turn them into striking and stirring visual artworks and books. They have set up shop at the Firehouse Gallery on 135 Church St., where they will work and invite the public to join them in the process until April 11, 09.

Since it’s a working paper-making shop, the first thing you see is the machinery. The gallery/studio is authentically ooey gooey and get-down dirty. Pools of water from draining paper collect on the floor. Clunky apparatuses abound. But there is a Renaissance feeling to the place as well. Intellectual tools are assembled beside the mechanical ones, and many disciplines coexist easily. Poems, musings, letters are tacked to the wall. Stacks of favorite books, souvenirs from a shared surreal past are given space in the gallery, including jarringly clear reports from the other side of the globe. Most interesting are the inner travels & the visual vestiges of those travels. They acknowledge painful realities, move through & inside of it, ever widening the vision. With this art, seeing is transforming.

A few specifics: Jon Turner’s dog tag pieces have poetic elegance and an arresting presence. Leaving a stirring amount of negative space, he uses the tags as stencils for spattered red pigment with restraint and sophistication. In Eli Wright’s Open Wound series, the gaping holes in the paper are as meaningful as their deep blood color. A collection of deftly rendered black and white portraits by John LaSalce portrays a group of soldiers united by their experience after different tours. “Our Tours Were Different, Now Our Work Is Together.”

Many of the largest works get their color through pulp “paint,“ and of course, their texture. The texture being the signature trait here - grainy and gnarly as the desert sand.

Combat Paper is important because it assures that people cannot look the other way from the reality of war. It blurs the lines between art, activism, politics. It is also clear that the truths told in these art works are not just military truths, but human truths. Painfully, plenty of people who have never been to war have experienced traumas that embattle them every day. A strength of this art movement (I say movement, not show, because I know that they’re not done yet) is how single-mindedly they chase after the fissures…& identify artistically the threads that can heal.

My Introduction to Studio Art class participated in a papermaking workshop recently. The experience was rich and complex. “Is that real Iraqi money?!” queried a student on seeing a piece embedded with Saddam heads and Arabic writing. Yes. Not only were there new artistic skills to absorb, but cultural and political relevancies to consider too. Combat Paper also does poetry readings and powerful performance art. A performance to culminate their Firehouse gig is scheduled for March 28 at 1-4pm. The Iraq Vets Against the War, have published two Warrior Writers volumes of poetry: Move, Shoot and Communicate, and Remaking Sense. Both are available on the website & elsewhere.

Jon Turner could have been one of those performances on the day of our visit. With monk-like concentration he pulled a stitch through the pages of a handmade book with unwavering precision, oblivious of the roomful of excited young people. In spite of bubbling activity, a quiet but tangible work ethic pervaded the space. On the walls, a common vein of passion united the show; the creative process courted here without censorship. The artists, too, are united by that passion & fellowship. A look at their commitment and how prolific they have been suggests it is a policy that other “regular” artists might emulate. The images seen in this zine are just a few. Go to Combat Paper’s beautiful website for some more. But go to the Firehouse for the Feel!

Cameron says he’s happy with the amount of foot traffic Combat Paper is getting in the busy, urban hub on Church Street. “It’s amazing how many people stumble in who have no idea how paper is made,“ he says. Stumble in and see for yourself!
photo above: Paper Stack, by Drew Cameron, posted at Combat Paper

Monday, March 2, 2009

Checking Under The Hood in Killeen, Texas

March came in like a lion lying down with a lamb. Or maybe the day was about recognizing that the lion and lamb exist together in each of us. In any case, collaboration was the theme yesterday, March 1, as soldiers and civilians, men and women, children and adults, locals and out-of-towners, seasoned and new organizers gathered to celebrate the opening of a meeting place in Killeen, Texas on the edge of the world’s largest US Army base. “Under The Hood” is the catchy name of the new coffee house that is up and running near Ft. Hood as a long-wished-for resource for soldiers and military family members who find the culture of silence around military bases detrimental to their health and well-being.

As stated on the café’s website, the purpose of the coffee house is to provide a welcoming setting for the free exchange of ideas and information, as well as offering a family-oriented entertainment space for soldiers and civilians. The house rules encourage talking, flirting, learning and debating, and from what I observed at the opening yesterday, the café is functioning just as it was intended.

The engine propelling Under The Hood is its warm and able manager, Cindy Thomas, a native Texan, military spouse, mother of two young daughters and step-mother of a military-aged son. While her husband was serving a tour in Iraq last year after having been injured there on a previous tour, Cindy looked for support for her own family as well as the military families she saw around her who were dealing with issues involving physical and mental health, housing, education and GI rights.

I first met Cindy in the Fall of 2007 when she walked up to the Café Caffeine in Austin along with her two girls, all of them sporting something pink, to attend a CodePink meeting after having heard about the national group on the Rosie O’Donnell show. By coincidence, as Cindy and her daughters joined us, we were finishing up an interview with a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman just before the official start of our meeting. I was impressed with Cindy’s candid and cogent answers to the reporter’s questions, even though she hardly expected to be interviewed by the press the moment she arrived to meet a new group of women a hundred miles from home.

It was a fortuitous meeting. Our Austin CodePink group already had been actively engaged in outreach to GIs and military families, forming alliances between civilians, soldiers, activists and veterans through several projects in support of GI resisters. Cindy’s outgoing nature and capable organizing skills blended well with the abilities of kindred souls in our group. Together with the fledgling Central Texas Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace and the reinvigorated Movement for a Democratic Society, a committee formed to fundraise and look for a location for a coffee house in Killeen.

In some respects, Under The Hood is a reincarnation of the Oleo Strut, one of the most vibrant of the GI coffee houses that sprang up in the 1960’s as active duty soldiers organized in resistance to the US war in Indochina and in opposition to the use of soldiers to thwart civil rights and antiwar demonstrations in the US. As described in the history of the Oleo Strut documented by Thomas Cleaver and posted on the Under The Hood website, one of the most awesome acts of resistance by GIs during the Vietnam war was launched from Ft. Hood when 43 decorated African-American GIs refused to board planes destined for the Great Lakes Naval Training Center where they were to be used as backup for Chicago police against demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Oleo Strut had opened just a month prior, taking its name and purpose from a mechanical part on a helicopter that functions as a shock absorber. The Oleo Strut distributed its own GI newspaper, “The Fatigue Press,” and became a beehive of activity where soldiers could hang out, organize and mingle in a supportive atmosphere with civilians. The coffee house also hosted poets and musicians, including the renowned Pete Seeger and the as-yet-unknown 16-year old Stevie Ray Vaughn and his blues band.

Under The Hood doesn’t resemble the Oleo Strut much in terms of looks, judging by photographs and accounts of those who were there both yesterday and back in the day. But, there is a strong spirit of life, love, resistance and support in the café that bridges the years while also evolving with the times. I saw it in the tears that photojournalist and Veteran for Peace, Alan Pogue, brushed from his eyes as he took pictures during yesterday’s opening while remembering The Oleo Strut he photographed in its heyday. I saw it in the tears that Cindy brushed from her eyes as she was being presented with a medal by members of the Ft. Hood chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. On one side of the medal was an engraved portrait of Thomas Paine, who coined the term “Winter Soldier” that Vietnam Veterans Against the War and IVAW adopted. On the other side of the medal was an inscription from the IVAW chapter: “Love and Thanks from Man and Woman.”

Others from CodePink Austin were honored by IVAW, as well, for assistance with the café project in everything from fundraising to painting, carpentry, cleaning, cooking and counseling. CodePink seamstress extraordinaire, Heidi Turpin, made the handsome curtains and banner that adorn the café’s windows and walls. She and her husband, Jim, made the sign that hangs in front of the house and installed the ammunition box that was transformed into a donations box (bills, not bullets!). Jim, a vegetarian, amiably helped grill chicken and sausages all afternoon for the hungry flock that arrived for the opening. Fran Hanlon, active with CodePink and the GI Rights Hotline, and Alice Embree, active with CodePink and MDS, have served with Cindy in the Ft. Hood Support Network that has powered the project from the beginning.

These folks and other volunteers combined their time and talents to create a welcoming space that is beautiful in both form and function. There are games to play, books to read, films to see, and comfortable places to sit and talk, think and peruse the materials that are made available. There is good light, good coffee and good company. ( Check out the slide show of photos taken during the opening by Alice’s husband, Carlos Lowry and posted to the site.)

Under The Hood is an experiment. It’s a labor of love. It’s an antidote to the “divide and conquer” mentality that undergirds war. Soldiers are taught to distrust and separate themselves from civilians, but the coffee house brings soldiers and civilians together. The military is a male-dominated institution, but this coffee house project has been led by women. Children are welcome. Music is welcome. You are welcome, all you lions and lambs, so come on in.
photos by Heidi Turpin (top) and Carlos Lowry

Winter Soldiers in Austin and Killeen

The regional Winter Soldier Hearing held in Austin this Saturday was an excellent and well-attended event, as was the grand opening of the GI coffee house, Under The Hood, in Killeen yesterday afternoon.
More about both events soon. Meantime, check out this slide show of photos posted by Carlos Lowry from the Under The Hood opening yesterday.
Pictured above are Winter Soldier panelists, Ronn Cantu, Brandon Neely, Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, Rooster Romriell, Greg Foster and Bobby Whittenberg (speaking at podium)
photos by Ron Brewer, Houston Veterans for Peace