Saturday, December 18, 2010

Veterans carry out civil disobedience mission at White House gates

In cold and snowy conditions in Washington DC on Thursday, some 131 peace advocates, most of them military veterans, were arrested at the White House gates in a planned nonviolent civil disobedience action organized principally by members of Veterans for Peace. Among those arrested was Daniel Ellsberg, who, along with journalist, Chris Hedges and others, spoke eloquently before their arrests. Good videos and photos posted at the Veterans for Peace website.

photos above by Ellen Rachel Davidson

Thursday, November 18, 2010

March of the Dead at SMU

Good piece by Medea Benjamin, published on Huffington Post:

Several thousand people lined up to see George Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice shovel dirt into a hole at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the site slated to become the George Bush Presidential Center housing a museum, library and archives.

Over 100 peace activists showed up to protest, including New York City artist Laurie Arbiter, who helped organize a March of the Dead and carried a sign asking "Does America Have a Conscience?" "Rather than build a library, we should leave the broken ground and just fill it with a big pile of rubble," said Arbiter. "That would truly represent the catastrophic results of the Bush Administration."

As part of the March of the Dead, protesters dressed in black, wore white death masks and had signs around their necks representing dead Iraqis, Afghans and U.S. soldiers. The dramatic march stopped traffic and provoked strong emotions in passers-by, participants and even the police. Renee Schultz, who drove from Indianapolis to join the protest, wore the death mask and a sign representing a 23-year-old female U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. "When I first put on the mask, I just stood there and cried. I kept thinking, 'I am 23 years old and had my whole life ahead of me. Why did I die?'" Schultz looked over at the riot police and noticed that one of them also had tears streaming down his eyes.

When the marchers attempted to reach the public viewing area, the police forced them back to the designated "protest pen" far from the ceremony. One of the protesters, a wheelchair-bound veteran of the Korean War and World War II, angrily told the police that he did not fight in two wars to be told that his freedom of speech would be confined to a "protest zone."

The gathering was part of a three-day People's Response, filled with rallies, marches, teach-ins, and exhibits of crosses and soldiers' boots to represent the war dead. Organized by Texans for Peace, The Dallas Peace Center, CODEPINK and Veterans for Peace, among others, the speakers included former FBI agent Colleen Rowley, former CIA agent Ray McGovern, retired Colonel Ann Wright, professor Robert Jensen, and Texas State Representative Lon Burnam.

Among the protesters was also Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who led a prolonged protest outside Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2005. "Bush should not be allowed to profit from war crimes, crimes that he has even admitted to," said Sheehan. "It's not right that he will make millions from his book and speaking engagements, while millions have been killed, displaced, tortured and had their lives ruined because of him."

The protesters focused on the lies Bush told the American public to justify invading Iraq, his authorization of torture and the need for accountability. "Accountability is the sign of a true democracy," said former CIA agent Ray McGovern. "No one should be above the law and the truth must not be buried or rewritten."

Protesters were also concerned about the policies the new Bush Center will promote. President Bush said the Center would include an "action-oriented institute" to advance the principles his administration stood for, including the "benefits of limiting the role of government in people's lives." According to local organizer Leslie Harris of CODEPINK, "this really means promoting the same kinds of disastrous policies that brought us pre-emptive war, economic crisis, environmental disaster, unprecedented presidential power, and diminished civil and human rights. We can't let one of America's worst presidents shape our future policies."

The peace activists who came to protest Bush also discussed their disappointment with the Obama administration and the difficulties they anticipate in pushing the new, more conservative Congress to stop funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the actions they encouraged were:

· supporting the Midwest anti-war activists whose homes were raided by the FBI and supporting the January 15 FBI protest in Washington DC;
· promoting local campaigns, including citywide resolutions, to bring our war dollars home;
· reaching out to allies, particularly groups victimized by the economic crisis, but also reaching out to members of the Tea Party who want to see cuts in Pentagon spending;
· pressuring the State Department to stop using private security contractors;
· supporting the December 16 veteran-led civilian disobedience in Washington DC;
· organizing a delegation to Iraq to take testimonies from Iraqis about George Bush and the legacy of the US invasion;
· building on the new calls by Amnesty International and the ACLU to prosecute Bush for war crimes;
· stopping John Yoo, author of the "torture memos", from teaching law at the UC Berkeley law school.

For some light entertainment after long days of protest, a group stopped by local Barnes and Noble to reshelve -- and photograph -- Bush's Decision Points in a more appropriate place in the store. These included placing the book next to The Murder Business in the True Crimes section, Wing Nuts in the Fantasy Section, When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice in the Legal Section, and our favorite in the Children's Section, Dr. Seuss' Will You Please Go Now?" With the renewed media attention on George Bush, including his sanctioning of torture, Bush might do well to take Dr. Seuss' advice.

AP photo by G.J. McCarthy

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The ground truth of the Bush Lie-Bury

Great AP photo by G.J. McCarthy from today's demonstration during groundbreaking ceremonies for the Bush Lie-Bury at SMU University.

Friday, September 24, 2010

International Day of Peace

On International Day of Peace, Sept. 21, we CodePink folks headed down to an intersection near City Hall to hold a large sign made by Heidi and a peace sign to accompany it. Just as we arrived, rain began to pour, so we stood a bit back from the road under the City Hall amphitheatre awning. Fortunately, Heidi had made the lettering large and bold, and we carried on!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Kathy Kelly: A Ground Zero Reflection

Posted on today's Waging Nonviolence blog:

The Indefensible Drones: A Ground Zero Reflection

by Kathy Kelly

Libby and Jerica are in the front seat of the Prius, and Mary and I are in back. We just left Oklahoma, we’re heading into Shamrock, Texas, and tomorrow we’ll be in Indian Springs, Nevada, home of Creech Air Force Base. We’ve been discussing our legal defense.

The state of Nevada has charged Libby and me, along with twelve others, with criminal trespass onto the base. On April 9, 2009, after a ten-day vigil outside the air force base, we entered it with a letter we wanted to circulate among the base personnel, describing our opposition to a massive targeted assassination program. Our trial date is set for September 14.

Creech is one of several homes of the U.S. military’s aerial drone program. U.S. Air Force personnel there pilot surveillance and combat drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with which they are instructed to carry out extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan and Iraq. The different kinds of drone include the “Predator” and the “Reaper.” The Obama administration favors a combination of drone attacks and Joint Special Operations raids to pursue its stated goal of eliminating whatever Al Qaeda presence exists in these countries. As the U.S. accelerates this campaign, we hear from UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, who suggests that U.S. citizens may be asleep at the wheel, oblivious to clear violations of international law which we have real obligations to prevent (or at the very least discuss). Many citizens are now focused on the anniversary of September 11th and the controversy over whether an Islamic Center should be built near Ground Zero. Corporate media does little to help ordinary U.S. people understand that the drones which hover over potential targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen create small “ground zeroes” in multiple locales on an everyday basis.

Libby, at the wheel, is telling Jerica about her visit to Kabul, in 1970. “I worked for Pan Am,” said Libby, “and that meant being able to stay for free at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. After landing in Pakistan, we hired a driver to take us across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. All along the highway we saw herds of camel traveling along a parallel old road. I wonder if the camel market in Kabul is still there?”

Jerica says she’ll look for it. She and I have been hard at work to obtain visas and arrange flights for an October trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan. [Libby is exceptional in that she hasn't tried to talk Jerica out of the dangerous travel.]

Conversation switches to whatever CD has just come on, and I tune out, wondering if I’ve done my share of issuing warnings to Jerica about traveling in a war zone.

Tinny music and rural Texan countryside blend together.

My thoughts drift to the Emergency Surgical Center for Victims of War, in Kabul. A little over two months ago, Josh and I met Nur Said, age 11, in the hospital’s ward for young boys injured by various explosions. Most of the boys welcomed a diversion from the ward’s tedium, and they were especially eager to sit outside, in the hospital garden, where they’d form a circle and talk together for hours. Nur Said stayed indoors. Too miserable to talk, he’d merely nod at us, his hazel eyes welling up with tears. Weeks earlier, he had been part of a hardy band of youngsters that helped bolster their family incomes by searching for scrap metal and unearthing land mines on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Finding an unexploded land mine was a eureka for the children because, once opened, the valuable brass parts could be extracted and sold. Nur had a land mine in hand when it suddenly exploded, ripping four fingers off his right hand and blinding him in his left eye.

On a sad continuum of misfortune, Nur and his companions fared better than another group of youngsters scavenging for scrap metal in the Kunar Province on August 26th.

Following an alleged Taliban attack on a nearby police station, NATO forces flew overhead to “engage” the militants. If the engagement includes bombing the area under scrutiny, it would be more apt to say that NATO aimed to puree the militants. But in this case, the bombers mistook the children for militants and killed six of them, aged 6 to 12. Local police said there were no Taliban at the site during the attack, only children.

General Petraeus assures his superiors that the U.S. is effectively using drone surveillance, sensors and other robotic means of gaining intelligence to assure that they are hunting down the right targets for assassination. But survivors of these attacks insist that civilians are at risk. In Afghanistan, thirty high schools have shut down because the parents say that their children are distracted by the drones flying overhead and that it’s unsafe for them to gather in the schools.

I think of Nur, trapped in his misery, at the Emergency surgical center. He’ll be one among many thousands of amputees whose lives are forever altered by the war and poverty that afflict his country. Many of these survivors are likely to feel intense hatred toward their persecutors. 300 villagers in the Sayed Abad district of Wardak province took to the streets in protest on August 12, following an alleged U.S. night raid. “They murdered three students and detained five others,” one of the protesters said. “All of them were civilians.” Villagers, shocked by the killing, shouted that they didn’t want Americans in Afghanistan. According to village eyewitnesses, American troops stormed into a family home and shot three brothers, all young men, and then took their father into custody. One of the young men was a student who had returned to the family home to celebrate the traditional “iftar” fast at the beginning of Ramadan. Local policemen are investigating the allegations, and NATO recently conceded that they may have killed some civilians. (see Afghanistan Atrocities update).

The drones feed hourly intelligence information to U.S. war commanders, but the machinery can’t inform people about the spiraling anger as the U.S. conducts assassination operations in countries throughout the 1.3 billion-strong Muslim world. “Sold as defending Americans,” writes Fred Branfman, “(it) is actually endangering us all. Those responsible for it, primarily General Petraeus, are recklessly seeking short-term tactical advantage while making an enormous long-term strategic error that could lead to countless American deaths in the years and decades to come.”

The Prius is comfortable, but my side of the backseat has become a makeshift office. The most important file contains Bill Quigley’s comprehensive argumentation as to why the court should allow us to present a necessity defense based on international law. Bill is the Legal Director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. On September 14, we want to call on him as an expert witness. We and our codefendants have chosen to mount a pro se defense to try to persuade our judge that far from committing a crime we have exercised our rights and our duties, under international and U.S. law, to try to prevent one and to raise public opposition to usage of drones in “targeted” assassinations.

Jerica hands me the questions we can use to elicit Bill’s testimony. We try to word our questions so that the evidence will be admissible in court. “Could Bill please inform the court about citizen’s responsibilities under international law, could he explain to the court what articles and statutes we will be invoking?” To a layperson, it seems like an elaborate game of “Mother May-I,” and we haven’t even started developing questions to ask Col. Ann Wright, the former U.S. diplomat, who had helped re-open the U.S. Embassy in Kabul shortly before resigning her job in a refusal to cooperate with buildup toward the May 2003 U.S. Shock and Awe invasion of Iraq.

Rounding out our trio of expert witnesses is former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. We hope his personal experience within the U.S. government might arouse the court’s more careful attention to the seldom-discussed legal issues that are fundamentally at stake here. However, the judge has already indicated that his calendar only allots one day for our trial.

Libby, Jerica, Mary and I have blocked out at least ten days, inclusive of travel, for our small contribution to an ongoing effort of people around the world working to put drones on trial. We’re in New Mexico now. I feel cramped and restless, and I wonder if Tucumcari, where we plan to stop for lunch, has internet. We can’t possibly bring the testimony of Afghans and Pakistanis to court this Tuesday. Their testimony, borne on bodies scarred and mutilated and harbored in memories of nightmare, will never be given away and cannot be given in court. Extrajudicial killings are killings without rule of law, without trial. Few if any Afghan or Pakistani civilian survivors of U.S. wars will ever travel to a U.S. court of law for consideration of their grievances.

And at this moment I realize that if we were four Afghans or Pakistanis or Iraqis traveling in a war zone, we’d have spent this entire trip watching not the Southwestern landscape, but the skies.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Under The Hood press conference coverage: Killeen Daily Herald

Good article from yesterday's Killeen Daily Herald. The online posting also includes testimony offered by visiting speaker, Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, whose joint Jewish/American/Iraqi heritage gives her a special perspective on what is happening in Iraq.

Rally for Peace
by Amanda Kim Stairrett, Killeen Daily Herald

Peace activists gathered in Killeen Monday morning to speak out against U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The event, which was hosted at Killeen's Under the Hood Café, focused on Iraq and the president's recent announcement that U.S. combat operations ended there today. Speakers also questioned the deployment of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to Iraq. The final of several thousand of the regiment's troopers departed Fort Hood for the Middle East Friday in what military officials call an advise-and-assist mission. Those soldiers will assist Provincial Reconstruction Teams and help prepare Iraqi security forces to care for and protect their own nation.

The 1st Cavalry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team will deploy soon for the same mission.

Central Texas activists were in town Aug. 23 to protest the regiment's deployment. As buses carried soldiers from main post to West Fort Hood's Robert Gray Army Airfield, demonstrators waited on the overpass with their headlights turned off, according to information from Fort Hood and videos posted on YouTube by participants.

As the buses drove south on Clarke Road Gate at about 3:40 a.m., the demonstrators held up banners and chanted. Several blocked the buses' path for a short time.

"Acting to protect Department of Defense personnel and equipment, Fort Hood police moved the demonstrators away from the intersection to the sidewalk," read a statement from Fort Hood.

Individuals were released without incident and the bus convoy continued to the airfield, it went on to read.

Post officials did have advance knowledge about the demonstration, they said.

Monday's speakers included Cynthia Thomas, Under the Hood manager; Rep. Lon Burnam, a Democrat from Fort Worth and former director of the Dallas Peace Center; Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, a peace activist of Muslim and Jewish heritage; Larry Egly, of the Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA; and Leslie Cunningham, of Texas Labor Against the War.

CodePink Austin, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans For Peace were also represented.

Monday's event was just one of two in Central Texas "aimed at peeling back the mass deception surrounding 'the end of combat operations,'" according to information from Under the Hood. The first was a talk in Austin Sunday featuring Wasfi.

Most Americans are lulled to sleep because they think the war is over, Burnam said. He attacked Presidents Bush and Obama, saying the "expansionist" war was an illegal and immoral occupation — something that was fiscally wrong to start seven years ago.

Burnam heavily criticized the Iraq war's financial burden on the country, saying it was wrong for Bush to start two "outrageous" wars while providing tax cuts. Burnam said he was tired of officials using the "financial back of us working folks" to fund conflicts, and quoted a 1953 speech by President Dwight Eisenhower: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

It is time for Obama to end the occupation, end tax cuts for the rich and cure a deficit that will hurt "our children and grandchildren," Burnam went on to say.

Thomas said Under the Hood started a telephone campaign to make sure non-deployable soldiers were not deployed. The organization has previously worked with soldiers and families from the regiment who said they were not fit to deploy.

The administration and command know there aren't enough soldiers to cover two wars, Thomas said, and they continue to ignore family members and soldiers instead of focusing on their well-being.

"This community is not going to be able to survive it much longer," she said.

The 1 percent of the U.S. population in uniform are the ones fighting and paying the most, Thomas said.

If people really wanted to support the troops, they would be fighting for them to come home, she added.

Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at or (254) 501-7547. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary or

For more information

Under the Hood is located at 17 S. College St. It is open daily from 5 to 10 p.m. Visit the café online at

For more information about Texas Labor Against the War, visit or call (512) 470-8485.

To learn more about Wasfi and her work, visit To read her prepared remarks about the war's effect on the Iraqi people, visit
photo from Killeen Daily Herald

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Charlie Clements, Veteran for Peace

This weekend, Veterans for Peace is marking its 25th anniversary during its annual meeting, held this year in Maine, where the first VFP chapter was formed.

It was good to see this article, published today in the Maine Sunday Telegram, featuring VFP member, Charlie Clements. I remember hearing Mr. Clements speak here in Austin at the Friends Meeting House years ago -- sometime in the late 1980's, I believe. He was working at great personal risk as a medical doctor in El Salvador. He wrote about the experience in his book, Witness to War. Hearing Charlie Clements speak was part of my own awakening to the realities of US foreign policy.

Here's today's article:

Activist's personal journey stretches from battlefield to protest march

by Bill Nemitz

How does a soldier become a peace activist? For Charlie Clements, the answer lies somewhere between the lines of a 40-year-old military document that he keeps to this day.

“It says I’m 10 percent mentally disabled,” Clements said with a smile last week. “My protest was quite a silent one in some ways – I went quietly into the night.”

Clements, 64, is executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

He’s also one of 300 or so military veterans who will march through Portland’s Old Port this morning to mark the 25th anniversary of Veterans for Peace, which has grown to more than 6,000 members nationwide since its founding here in Maine back in 1985.

Military service does different things to different people.

Some wear it for a lifetime as a badge of honor, weaving their war stories more deeply into their very identity with each retelling.

Others tuck it away in the closet and rarely, if ever, talk about it again.

Then there are these vets, almost all decades removed from their days in uniform, who spend their gray-haired years marching not to the sound of a military band, but rather to the lyrics of anti-war protest songs.

Each, of course, has his or her own story. For Clements, once an Air Force pilot who flew more than 50 missions in Southeast Asia before deciding one day he couldn’t anymore, it begins as a 17-year-old cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the mid-1960s.

“The dominant thought in my class was, ‘We hope the war doesn’t end before we get there,’ ” Clements recalled as the Veterans for Peace conference got under way Thursday. “Because wars are where young men test themselves, they are where young officers make their mark, they are what we were trained for.”

Upon earning his commission as a second lieutenant, Clements enrolled with the Air Force’s blessing in a graduate astronautics program at UCLA. He could have sat out the Vietnam War with his nose in a book, but he decided eight months into the program that he had a duty to serve in Southeast Asia.

He remembers walking in uniform past protesters at UCLA in the fall of 1967 – back in those early days of the anti-war movement, the protesters would just stand silently with their signs while he and his comrades passed by.

“I remember thinking very clearly that I knew much more about the world than these people did, that this was their right to do this,” he said. “And that I would go to Vietnam and defend their right to do this because I have a better understanding of this threat that faces us.”


He also knew he didn’t want to kill anyone. So, upon graduating from flight school, he chose to pilot a C-130 transport plane rather than an assault aircraft and, with the war at full tilt, departed for Vietnam in August of 1969.

“What (the C-130) afforded me was a vast opportunity to see the war from different perspectives,” Clements said. “And with these experiences, I began to have encounters that gradually lifted the scales off my eyes.”

He once watched then-President Richard Nixon insist on the Armed Forces Network that the United States had no military presence in Laos, when he knew for a fact that C-130s just like the one he flew were ferrying personnel and supplies to secret U.S. bases there.

“Before that, it had never occurred to me before that the president would actually go on television and lie,” Clements said.

He once transported a group of 60 Viet Cong prisoners from one location to another – he was struck not just by the hatred in their eyes whenever they looked at him, but by an intensity, a sense of purpose that he rarely saw among young American GI’s.


He once showed up at a morgue to pick up the body of a soldier killed in action. “You can’t have him today,” a sergeant told him. “The body count’s not right and we have to hang onto him for a few days.”

Known for his sharp intellect, Clements once was asked by his higher-ups to write a history of the Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System by which C-130s delivered ordnance and supplies without actually touching down. The so-called LAPES procedure didn’t work well. That didn’t matter.

“I soon realized they were going to record this the way the Air Force wanted it recorded,” he said. “Not necessarily the way the pilots perceived it was happening,”

Then there was Cambodia.

In the spring of 1970, Clements flew a top-secret delegation of State Department officials to Phnom Penh – he was told at the time it was for an off-the-record meeting about securing a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through that country.

Only later would Clements learn the meeting was actually to plan the overthrow of Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk – a precursor to the invasion of Cambodia launched that May. As he flew troops into Cambodia the day before the invasion began, he found himself consumed with anger.

“I’d had this rationale that I wasn’t killing anybody, that I was an innocent of sorts,” he said. “But throughout that day I began to understand that I was very much a part of the machinery of war, that I was greasing the skids of war. And I decided what I was being asked to do was immoral.”

He asked for and received an emergency medical leave home. And when he told his stateside commanding officer that he could no longer fly missions in Southeast Asia, he was sent to an Army medical facility for what he thought was a routine psychiatric examination.

Upon his arrival, a hospital nurse handed Clements a set of pajamas.

“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “I’m staying over at the officers quarters.”

“No, you’re staying here,” replied the nurse. “This is a closed psychiatric ward and you’re not leaving.”

There he remained, without visitors or telephone privileges, for weeks. And six months later, after refusing an offer to have his record sanitized if he’d just go back to Saigon and resume flying, the Air Force quietly declared him 10 percent mentally disabled and gave him an honorable discharge.


Clements would go on to become a physician and combine his medical skills with human rights work in Central America, where he spent the early 1980s treating victims of the civil war in El Salvador (many wounded by the same U.S. military aircraft in which he once trained). It was there, in 1985, that he met and joined the founders of Veterans for Peace.

He also later served as president of Physicians for Human Rights, traveling to Sweden in 1997 to accept the organization’s Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to ban land mines.

And now here he is in Maine, one of a small battalion of gray-haired veterans who emerged from war convinced that there has to be a better way.

Clements knows that some perceive Veterans for Peace as a ragtag group of radicals bent on tearing down the same country they once took an oath to protect. He also knows that perception could not be further from the truth.

Even now, he said, he has nothing but “empathy and respect” for those currently serving in the military – not to mention the families who have endured two, three, four or more deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I think our military is, more than ever in my lifetime, separated from the rest of society,” Clements said. “There’s a gulf between the ordinary civilians in our country and the military. We’re fighting two wars, but nobody (outside the military and their families) feels like they’re making any sacrifices.”

Time will tell whether the aging Vietnam veterans who now dominate Veterans for Peace will be replenished in the coming years with soldiers equally disillusioned by their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Clements’ experience tells him the transition from the battlefield to the protest march often takes years, not weeks or months.

He’s also come to expect that as he and his comrades parade through downtown Portland this morning, some on the sidelines inevitably will call them a disgrace to the uniform they once wore.

But that piece of paper – the one that all these years later still labels him 10 percent out of step with the powers that once were – leaves him no choice.

“You don’t do this because of what people will think,” Clements said with another anything-but-angry smile. “You do this because of something inside you that compels you to speak your truth.”

photo by Derek Davis, published in the Maine Sunday Telegram

Monday, August 16, 2010

Life Stories

This past week, I traveled to Michigan for a family get-together. There were 15 of us, ranging in age from 9 to 85, and we are a family that likes to play games of various kinds. Some years ago, a friend gave me the board game, "Life Stories," which she had ordered from the Fellowship of Reconciliation bookstore. I have used this game in a number of social settings, and I've always learned something.

As my brother says, "Life Stories" is not so much a game as an 'encounter group.' Players move tokens around a board and draw cards that ask players to talk briefly about their own life experiences. On several occasions, I have brought this game along when I've done child care, just to see if children would be interested in it, and in every case, they have been -- even kids as young as 5 or 6 years old. It's a non-competitive oral history exercise that draws people together. In my experience, it even works well with just two people playing.

Here are some sample "Life Stories" cards:

Tell about one of the proudest moments in your life.

What is an activity that makes you feel ALIVE?

Tell about something you really like about where you live.

Describe one of the best decisions you made in your life.

What is a habit you picked up from a relative?

Tell about an aroma you recall from childhood.
I think the questions on the cards are phrased very well, and, as expected, they can lead to tangential discussions where others share their memories about the subject at hand.

When my family played the game this week, not all the adults wanted to play, but the children did, so even the adults who weren't "playing" stayed close by and sometimes chimed in. Even when we think we know our own family members pretty well, the game can teach us things about each other.

When my mom drew the card about an aroma from childhood, she recalled that when she was young and their family drove to Maine (from New Jersey) for vacation, they would sniff the air as they crossed into Maine and smell the sweet-fern, which, she said, always seemed to occur right at the border. She said she and her brothers would call out, "sweet-fern!" Vacation had begun.

I was thinking about the song, "From a Distance," which suggests that, as people in conflict around the world, we could learn to respect and cherish each other better if we took the long view. "From a distance, you look like my friend." For me, it begins from the other direction -- moving in, not out. The more closely I look at a person's life, the more I can understand where they are coming from. That's the premise of the "Life Stories" game, and it works for me!

The game can be ordered at this site. Check it out!

photo of sweet-fern by Dennis Curtin

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Peace through play

This weekend, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War organized and held their first independent convention since their founding in 2004, and they chose Austin as their host city. Lucky for us! Our CodePink group provided the childcare for the convention, and I enjoyed the opportunity to be part of the convention in this way.

I spent most of my time at the convention with the children. We did free play, with a sort of "Adventure Playground" approach, where the children had basic materials with which to build and create things of their choosing. The convention was held at Huston-Tillotson University, and we had a standard classroom as the childcare room -- bare linoleum floor covered with about 20 heavy student chair/desks. Provided with sheets, blankets, paper, yarn, tape, clothespins, markers, paper blocks, books and a few other basic materials, the kids made use of the desks to create an inviting "fort" area that expanded throughout the weekend and led to various other projects they dreamed up. As always, with some basic adult guidance and support, kids will weave a world of marvelous invention.

Perhaps this is the underlying philosophy that leads me to reject militarism, occupation and war. If people have their basic needs met -- adequate and healthy food, water, health care, creative outlets -- then, generally, they (we) will thrive. Most people know what is best for themselves and will grow in healthy ways if given half a chance. Human powers of creation and invention are great. Why channel any of our inventive resources into such hugely destructive things as predator drones, cluster bombs, landmines, IEDs, automatic rifles?

In addition to the time with the children, the weekend was filled, for me, with meaningful, if brief, encounters with several of the veterans and invited guests to the convention, all of whom seemed to reinforce this essential message. As longtime friend, nonviolent activist, author and teacher, Kathy Kelly, said during her panel presentation, "If you want to counter terror, build justice." Justice begins with the building blocks of simple, elemental conditions that children need to grow and prosper.

Photos: IVAW member, Joe Wheeler and his daughters, Lily and Ivy (with one of the paper outfits she designed)

Friday, July 9, 2010

IVAW Convention covered in Killeen Daily Herald

Good to read this front page story in today's Killeen Daily Herald:

Activists Protest War Outside Post

by Amanda Kim Stairrett

In conjunction with the sixth annual Iraq Veterans Against the War convention in Austin, Killeen's Under the Hood Café is hosting a concert and barbecue Saturday.

Under the Hood, at 17 S. College St., is a "place for soldiers to gather, relax and speak freely about the wars and the military," according to Organizers also provide support services for soldiers and their families, including counseling and legal advice.

Set to perform are Travis Bishop, who was arrested in August at Fort Hood after refusing to deploy to Afghanistan, Ryan Harvey and R.A.S. Admission is free for those with military identification and a suggested donation of $5 each for those without.

This is the first large-scale event Under the Hood has hosted, said Manager Cynthia Thomas. The goal of Saturday's event is to let veterans and the military community know Under the Hood is there and willing to support them, Thomas added.

The Iraq Veterans Against the War convention began Thursday at Austin's Huston-Tillotson University and ends Sunday. Activities include Fort Hood outreach, panels and workshops.

Iraq Veterans Against the War is a nationwide organization made of past and present soldiers who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, according to information from the organization. It was founded six years ago during a Veterans for Peace convention in Boston "to give a voice to the large number of active-duty service people and veterans who are against this war, but are under various pressures to remain silent," according to its website,

It is also "dedicated to fighting for adequate physical and mental health care, full benefits and other support for returning veterans," read

Goals of the convention are to discuss important issues in the veterans' movement and "serve as a significant opportunity for support in a recovering community," Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, said in a statement released by the organization.

Austin was chosen as the convention site because it is an hour from Fort Hood.

"This community, especially due to past traumatic events, deserves our outreach and everyone's attention," he said. "It is part of (Iraq Veterans Against the War's) mission to reach out to those service members and veterans who have been fighting since Sept. 11. If they are questioning the illegal wars and occupations and choose to resist, we support them."

Local protest

Conference attendees and local activists protested at Fort Hood's East Gate Thursday, chanting and displaying signs that said they support troops when they disobey their officers; calling for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and return of American troops; repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and Arizona's immigration enforcement law; getting Israel out of Gaza; and supporting no war but the class war.

The protesters, many of whom were Iraq veterans, marched along Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Fort Hood Street, chanting and carrying signs.

Chants included "Resistance is justified when people are occupied," "They're our brothers, they're our sisters, we support war resistors," "Money for jobs and education, not for Afghan occupation" and "Occupation is a crime from Iraq to Palestine."

Matt Southworth served as an intelligence analyst from 2002 to 2004, serving a tour to Iraq. He now works as a campaigns program assistant for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group that operates in Washington, D.C.

Southworth said he and others support the troops, but are against the war, and one of his prime focuses is ensuring veterans get the health care they need.

Support is key, said Chris Capps-Schubert, a former signal soldier who served for three years before being discharged for desertion. The convention and protest aim to show veterans at Fort Hood that Iraq Veterans Against the War has a presence. It's a place to turn to, he said, adding that veterans can get in contact with those who can support them.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From Hummer to handlebars

It's been good riding my bike longer distances this week. Longer daylight, longer miles and longer looks at the scenery. In this spirit, I like this piece by Medea Benjamin about the burial/transformation of the Hummer during the US Social Forum in Detroit.

The Hummer Is Dead. And We Buried It

by Medea Benjamin

On the eve of a gathering of over 25,000 social justice activists in Detroit called the U.S. Social Forum, environmentalists and peacemakers led by the group CODEPINK converged to bury the symbol of the American hubris: the Hummer. One month after the last Hummer rolled off the production line, the activists gave the hulk of steel a proper burial.

The resting place chosen for the Hummer was the Heidelberg Project, an artistic community in downtown Detroit where dolls and plastic toys and shoes and shopping carts are transformed into street art. People come from far and wide to view the wild and wacky creations by artist Tyree Gupton. Heidelberg Street's message to Detroit and global visitors is one of renewal and hope in a city devastated by hard times and unemployment. The activists used the Hummer's demise to mark the end of a Rambo-like era, culture, lifestyle, and political philosophy. A converted military tank first sold to civilians in 1992 thanks to the promotion of action hero/Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hummers represented an increasing militarization of our society and the glorification of war. They were also an energy sinkhole that helped fuel wars for oil and global warming. The Hummer's dreadful gas mileage of 8-10 miles per gallon was less than half the mileage of the Model T Ford 100 years ago! Hummers emitted over 3 times more carbon dioxide than average cars and they give off more smog-producing pollutants and dangerous particulates. But because they had been categorized as light trucks, they were exempt from meeting emission or fuel-efficiency standards.

While the $50,000-$150,000 Hummer models were advertised as the coolest, fiercest car on the road and a patriotic way to "support the troops", activists tried to label the Hummer an unpatriotic car that fueled war and warming. For years, CODEPINK women would do guerrilla theater at auto shows, climbing atop the vehicles and draping them with messages such as: "Real soldiers are dying in their Hummers so you can play soldier in yours." They held anti-Hummer actions at auto dealers, surrounding the monstrosities with bicycles and Priuses. They handed out traffic violation tickets, signed by Mother Earth.

Campaigns like that of CODEPINK raised awareness and shamed many a consumer from driving a Hummer. The Hummer also took a blow when the resistance movements in Iraq started blowing up Humvees with primitive IEDs. The burned shells on the side of the Baghdad roads tarnished the image of the "invincible King of the Road".

But the real blow came with the rise in oil prices. Sales plummeted when people had to cough up over $100 to fill the gas tank. The generalized economic crisis in the past two years put the nail in the coffin. And with the news that the Hummer was officially off the assembly line, CODEPINK made plans for the burial.

The H-3 Hummer that was buried in Motor City was bought from a parts yard for $500. The spanking new vehicle had been leased from a dealership but when the leasee discovered he owed more money then he had, he had the bright idea of torching the $100,000 tank and claiming it was an accident. The story didn't go down well with the dealer or the police. The macho man is now spending time in prison for arson and fraud, while the burned-out hulk of the vehicle became the centerpiece of CODEPINK's art installation.

With the help of a backhoe and a car carrier, the activists dug out the final resting place and slowly lowered the shell into the ground. They painted it bright pink with vines and flowers. John George, founder of Motor City Blight Busters brought four brightly painted butterflies to add to the emerging greenery. They filled the insides of the Hummer with dirt, and then festooned it with live plants, a rainbow of flowers and a pear tree bursting through the sunroof. The macho machine was suddenly transformed into a giant flower pot.

Just ahead of the buried Hummer, rising out from the ground, was a pink bicycle with an arrow pointing "To the Future." And off to the side, a car hood became the Hummer's memorial tombstone, lettered to read:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
We bury a Hummer here to rust
And from these ashes, we recreate
A world of peace, an end to hate.

At the close of a long work day, the group held a solemn ceremony where they individually pledged to do more to help heal our planet. Then they sang, danced and rode bicycles on the Hummer's grave.

"I always wanted to dance on the Hummer's grave," said CODEPINK activist Tighe Barry, who directed the project and grew up in Detroit. As he bid the Hummer a formal farewell dressed in a pink Marine uniform decorated with peace symbols, he said, "For us, burying the Hummer is letting go of the macho ways of driving and dominating our streets, our economy and our foreign policy. It's time for a new trend of green jobs and renewable energy for all. We see the demise of the Hummer as a positive sign of the clean, green, peaceful planet we're determined to build."

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Speaking out, spoking out

I'm thinking about Diane Wilson today. She stood up to BP CEO, Tony Hayward as he began his address during a Congressional hearing in DC this morning. Smeared with artificial oil, she called out that Hayward should be prosecuted for his company's crimes against nature. She was handcuffed, taken out of the hearing room and jailed. Mr. Hayward proceeded to speak as a free man.

I have met Diane and have read her remarkable writings. She knows the waters and the sealife of the Gulf of Mexico intimately. She has made a living as a solo shrimper. She knows what she is talking about.

Here is an article that Diane wrote recently about the gulf and what she knows about the contamination it suffers at the hands of corporate polluters. The article begins this way:

I'm a fourth-generation fisherwoman from the Texas Gulf Coast, on a boat since I was eight. Over the last two decades, I've become a self-appointed watchdog of the chemical, oil, and gas corporations that are decimating the Gulf.

I hate to say it, but what I'm seeing now in the Gulf ain't nothing new. The toxic releases, the lies, the cover-ups, the skimping on safety, the nonexistent documents, the "swinging door" with regulators, the deaths. Same ole same ole.

What is new is the massive nature of the oil gusher and the fact that it can't be covered up because it's ongoing and being videoed. This elephant can't be swept under the carpet, but I'm sure if BP could, BP would.

There are politicians out there -- we've all heard them -- who say this oil spill is just one accident and one accident does not a case make. Heck, one plane crashes and you don't stop flying, do ya? Well, this isn't just one accident. This is the biggest flame among the thousands of fires set by Corporate America on its Sherman-like march across the Gulf.

and it concludes this way:

The bottom line is that the Gulf of Mexico dies a little every day from the tens of thousands of chemical plants, oil refineries, and oil and gas rigs that pockmark the Gulf and its coastlines. It's a death of ten thousand cuts, and many of these offenses don't get reported at all. We, the public, really have no way of knowing. The companies and the agencies certainly aren't going to tell us. They've proved that time and time again. The truth of the matter only becomes clear when something monstrous like the BP oil spill comes along and wakes us up to the nightmare.

It's hard to take in the immensity of the harm inflicted on our planet. Being aware of the barrels flowing every moment into our beloved Gulf of Mexico is like being ever conscious of the monetary and human costs of war accruing every moment. How can we stop the bleeding?

I admire Diane's courage in going right to the source. She can back up her nonviolent, dramatic protest with expert knowledge of the situation at hand.

My response to the catastrophe is less dramatic, but I feel in solidarity with Diane. For the past month, I've been walking or riding my bike more often than using the bus, which is one small way for me to accept some share of responsibility for living in an oil-dependent society, and to "be the change" I want to see in the world.

I haven't owned or driven a car since 1990, partly because of that oil war, so most in-town travel since then has been by bus -- which I love because of its community-building aspects. But now, I'm trying the further step of transporting myself more frequently by human power. Yesterday, for example, I biked for the first time to and from the job I have that is the furthest distance from my house. I biked about 15 miles total, which is not a lot compared to many bicycle commuters, but, for me, it felt like a good stretch in 95 degrees. What I enjoyed, as well as the scenery and the exercise, was being out there on my decorated "love your mother (earth)" bike. Passersby seemed to appreciate the sentiment.

The bicycle revolution that has been sparking the world in recent years is a big part of the solution to our energy crisis, I believe. This gives me encouragement and a way to act in the face of our planet's dire circumstances.

AP photo of Diane being taken out of the hearing room today after speaking out on behalf of the Gulf of Mexico she knows so well

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Austin Pride

Some of us CP-ers went out to the Pride Parade in Austin last night. We stood at Congress and 3rd St. and it was great to see all the people there, both in the parade and along the route. The Public Library entry was especially cool. Lots of positive response to our signs, too, from paraders, including everyone from the police chief to the roller derby girls.

photos above by John Pesina, posted at Austin 360

Photojournalist, Alan Pogue, joins Austin Arts Hall of Fame

It's great to see local photojournalist extraordinaire, Alan Pogue, honored with one of this year's four Austin Arts Hall of Fame awards. Here is the column about Alan written by Michael Barnes from today's story in the Austin American-Statesman:

Austinites think of Alan Pogue as someone who records reality. Yet he also transforms that visual record into art. And, in an unfaltering way, into social justice.

Working in black and white, Pogue is best known for covering social and political movements, culture and conflict, around the world: migrant workers, prison conditions and victims of violence in Texas, Cuba, Pakistan, Haiti and Iraq, among other places.

The Corpus Christi native and Vietnam War veteran was the main photographer for the Rag newspaper from 1969 to 1977. His images appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and Kyodo News Japan. He has served as staff photographer for the Texas Observer for 38 years.

He has won several international awards and worked with groups such as Veterans for Peace, Global Peace Campaign and Voices in the Wilderness.

Pogue captured the essence of such Texas personalities as John Henry Faulk, Sissy Farenthold, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, Ann Richards and Jim Hightower.

"The art of photography is part intellectual and part instinctual," Pogue says. "I select what I choose to photograph for its social significance, but in the act of photographing, intellectual considerations subside, my sense of hearing is muted and I move in an emotional/visual environment, not thinking in words."

— Michael Barnes

Austin Critics' Table Awards

When: 7 p.m. Monday, June 7

Where: Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research Blvd.

Cost: Free

photo of Alan, c. 1967, when he was a medic in Vietnam
photo from his site

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

on Memorial Day
Commandos storm a humanitarian convoy
while friends prepare a memorial service
for a young woman split by war
divided from herself
prescribed into illness

I met her once. Her gaze was sure.
Tattooed on the outside
About the inside, I learned more today
although I will never know enough

She loved children and animals, they said
She was also angry, "my sister enraged through the end,"
read her poet friend
"She was the single most bad-ass person I knew,"
said another.
In pain, she cared more about the pain of others.

I was told that she was with Tomas Young when he was injured
giving him cigarettes until help could arrive
later, she was shot
and discharged
hurt inside and out
she sent care packages to those still in

We leave Killeen after the Memorial Service
on "Phantom Warriors Highway"
worried about our friend on the boat
who also has traveled this road

A ghost accompanies us, an electric charge
which, as Hart says, never dies and runs through everyone
She is part of us now
powering us on

photo of Lisa Morris and Ann Wright from Under The Hood's flickr site

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Earth call

I like this photo, taken by Jay Janner of the Austin American-Statesman at today's rally for immigrant rights at the TX capitol.

It was good to be there. The Aztec dancers blowing the conch horns made me think about our oceans and the enormous variety of life they contain. My Dutch ancestors were fisherpersons on the North Sea. They came to the US as immigrants and became farmers.

The sea, the land and we immigrants on the planet are interdependent. No Arizona law can deny that, and the Gulf oil catastrophe only confirms it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

What happens to the oily mess and those who have to mess with it?

This is the last paragraph of an AP story about President Obama's visit to the Louisiana Coast today:

Early in the morning in advance of the president's arrival, hundreds of workers clad in white jumpsuits and rubber gloves hit the beaches to dig oily debris from the sand and haul it off. Workers refused to say who hired them, telling a reporter they were told to keep quiet or lose their jobs.

Can this be investigated further? What kinds of protections do these workers have other than jumpsuits and rubber gloves? Who is doing the work? Why are they being threatened? And where does the oily debris get hauled off to?

More on the BP protest

Really good article by Medea Benjamin posted on The Rag Blog and Common Dreams about Monday's BP protest in Houston.

Following on concerns expressed in my previous post, there was an article in the Austin American-Statesman online yesterday about 7 oil cleanup workers being hospitalized due to exposure to oil and chemicals, but I didn't see the article in today's print version. I think it's an important part of the whole picture to be aware of what cleanup actually entails and the effects on the people who do it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In the oil "clean-up," who does the dirty work?

When BP CEO, Tony Hayward says, "We will clean every last drop" of the beyond-disatrous oil contamination of the water and shores of the Gulf Coast, I wonder who he means by "we". The front-page story in the Austin American-Statesman that features this quote, along with a photo of a "devastated" Hayward also features a photo of "a worker" using a hand-held mop to sop up an oil-soaked section of sand on Port Fourchon Beach. The worker is not named and he is not a white man.

Who is doing the dangerous, back-breaking work of "clean-up"? How much are they getting paid? What if they get sick in the process of handling oil sludge? Are they US citizens with health insurance?

I would like to see the clean-up work being done by the executives of BP, beginning at the top. Also, stockholders, as owners of the business, share responsibility for the accident. They took known risks by drilling so deep into the ocean floor. Do they feel it's fair to transfer the messiest consequences of those risks onto the backs of others?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Exposing the Naked Truth about Drill, Baby, Drill

Congratulations to the CodePinkers who followed Diane Wilson's lead in organizing the "Exposing the Naked Truth About Drill, Baby, Drill" demonstration in front of BP headquarters in downtown Houston today. Several CodePink Austin and Dallas activists joined the protest.

Check out this interview with Diane on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan Show.

The Houston Chronicle also has a good story and video here.

Diane, as a fourth-generation shrimper, knows her beloved Gulf Coast better than most, and she has engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience in defense of the ecosystem there. As Medea Benjamin says, this horrendous spill may be the planet's last straw. We humans must, in every way we can, support alternatives to an oil-based energy system.

All photos posted above are from the CodePink flickr page, except for the top photo (of our own Heidi Turpin and her remarkable fish costume), taken by AP photographer, Pat Sullivan, as posted on the site of today's Houston Chronicle.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Biking for Life

[A piece honed from this post is published on The Rag Blog, and on Common Dreams, May 22,2010]

May is National Bike Month, highlighted by National Bike to Work week, which begins today and culminates on Friday, May 21, National Bike to Work Day. According to the League of American Bicyclists, the first Bike to Work Day took place in 1956!

Reading more about the history of this event on the League's website, I learned that this bicycle advocacy group was founded in 1880 and was originally called, "League of American Wheelmen." The reason for organizing around bicycling was because then, as now, bicyclists were often marginalized by other road users -- even pedestrians. And, in 1880, roads were rutted and difficult for bicyclists to navigate, so the group pressed for the paving of roadways. According to the organizational history described on its website, "The success of the League in its first advocacy efforts ultimately led to our national highway system."

Whoa. Didn't the dominance of our highway system ultimately lead back to the marginalization of alternative transportation systems, including bicycling? And yet, it's true: most cyclists rely on smooth, paved roads if they are regular commuters.

Figuring out how to share our paths of transportation will likely always vex us. Austin's new communter rail crosses many roadways, slowing traffic, including buses trying to move other public transportation users to their destinations on time. Concerns about the rail line and its long delay in start date centered around safety issues at all its road intersections. Despite the intensive focus on safety, accidents are still possible. And, when cars and bicyles must share space, accidents are inevitable.

When my father was a boy growing up as a work hand on his parents' dairy farm, his first real accident happened off the farm on a dirt road nearby as he was riding his bike to school. A driver of a Model-A Ford accidentally clipped him and knocked him and his bike to the ground. Fortunately, he was not badly hurt, but both he and the driver were shaken. Had the road been paved, would that have prevented or worsened the accident? Without a bike lane, the driver likely would have been traveling at a greater speed, and the possibility of a more serious injury would have increased.

Keeping bicyclists and drivers separated by bike lanes became a key goal of bicycle advocates, but I wonder whether bike lanes were discussed back in 1880. If, beginning then, bike lanes had been consistently included in every road project as roads were paved and widened, how different things would be now. The US might look a lot more like Holland, with a large biking population riding on dedicated pathways. Surely, the US would have been far less reliant on oil and gas. Offshore rigs might have been completely unheard of.

Speaking of my dad, he has a bike history that is quite rare, I think. Despite his early bike accident, he became a regular rider as an adult soon after he began his teaching career at a small college in Wisconsin in 1958. My dad bought a used Schwinn 3-speed from a student, and he has ridden that bicycle to and from the college and around town to do errands ever since. He is now 82 and continues to use the bike for his local business whenever weather allows.

When I visited my parents last month, I asked my dad more about the bike, as we figured it was about the 50th year of their rather remarkable long-term relationship! He said he'd replaced the tires a few times, the brake pads maybe once and the pedals once. But, the simple gear system was original -- he'd just kept it oiled. Yes, the frame is rusty, but that probably has helped keep the bike from looking attractive to a thief. My Dad has never used a bike lock. Even parked along a busy road near his office almost every work day during his 35 years of teaching, the bike remained untethered and unstolen.

When I read about Schwinn on wikipedia, I learned that my dad's black and white cruiser was probably manufactured at the company's original plant in Chicago sometime in the 1950's. According to its wikipedia history, Schwinn was founded in Chicago in 1895 and reached its peak of production around 1900, when 30 factories in the city were busy producing bikes for eager commuters. Just 5 years later, however, production had dropped by 25% as the auto industry gained momentum.

Schwinn held on to its brand, but the company had its ups and downs and finally was bought by larger businesses. Manufacturing was moved to Mississippi and later outsourced to China and Taiwan. Schwinn is now owned by a Canadian company.

I suppose that, if every bike customer rode the same bicycle for 50 years, the bicycle company would not long survive. On the other hand -- think of the great environmental savings if many people could transport themselves with one zero-emission product for a lifetime...

I'm proud of my dad for his consistent and distinguished bicycling history! I am sure that pedaling up and down hills on his trusty steed is partly what has preserved his good health. And, he has helped preserve the planet at the same time. Ride on, dad, and Happy Bike Half-century!

Photo: my dad, Glenn Van Haitsma, on his Schwinn, April 2010

Friday, May 14, 2010

Victory Over Sin

Speaking of art cars with a message -- see this interview from yesterday's Victoria Advocate about art car artist, David Best's winning entry in this year's Houston show. Titled "Victory Over Sin," his car is a tribute to immigrants and a rejection of the racist legislation just passed in Arizona. "Victory Over Sin" won both the Best of Show and the Peoples' Choice awards in Saturday's parade. What an excellent art car and message.

(above) art car detail, photo by Ed Schipul, Orange Show

(below) from the Victoria Advocate by Bill Clough

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Loving our Mother via the Houston Art Car Parade

There's a social mixer exercise where people in a group tell each other, in turn, something they think others are unlikely to know about them. For me, the idea is not just to learn more about each other, but to be reminded that we are all deeper and broader than we will ever know. One aspect of empathy is the happy surprise.

Sometimes, I do a version of this exercise in my head when I am with some people I know and others I don't -- thinking, that is, about the remarkable qualities and circumstances I know about folks, and wondering whether, if others knew those things, would it change the ways they think?

I was doing this last Saturday in Houston as I rode along with our CodePink Austin Peacemobile entry in the fabulous Houston Art Car Parade. Our theme was "Love Your Mother," -- since the parade is held the day before Mother's Day -- with "Mother" meaning our common planet as well as all moms everywhere. We also meant: peace is green, and war is not.

Four of our group rode in the Peacemobile, and six of us rode our bicycles alongside the car as part of our entry. This year, because we had held a fundraiser in Houston the night before for the GI Coffee House, Under The Hood, our group included the UTH director, her two daughters, and two young US Army veterans from Killeen.

The parade, the largest of its kind in the world, is lined with thousands of spectators. I thought about my friends in the Peacemobile. Would the crowd guess that in the passenger seat was a soldier who is going through the process of filing as a Conscientious Objector? Would they know that in the back seat was a woman who worked for years at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and also felt so strongly about the wrongness of US policies in Central America that she spent 6 months in prison for an act of civil disobedience on a US Army base? Would they guess that the child sitting next to her was the daughter of a Ft. Hood soldier who did three tours of duty in Iraq, even after a serious head injury during his second?

I think the people exchanging peace signs with us would have been surprised to learn that one of us on the bikes was just recently released from the military brig in Ft. Lewis, WA after serving a term for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan. They might have seen his t-shirt with peace sign and just assumed he was a "peace-nik" since day one. Would they guess that he hails from Kentucky, plays and sings 90's country, and is a devoted Christian?

As I thought about my companions, I was full of wonder. What were the chances that each of us would find our way to this moment, sharing this parade?

As we rode along, I also watched the crowd. Making eye contact with as many people as I could, I called out, "Happy Mother's Day!" Lots called out in response, "You, too!" or "Love Your Mother!" as they read the messages on the car and my bike. When I looked into their faces, I could catch only a glimpse of the mysteries they contained.

To me, that's the essence of why war must end. Every person is a universe of experience and potential. How could we destroy such a deep well, a vessel of possibility? How could we kill someone who we might find, one day, tooling along beside us in a parade?

When President Obama campaigned on the "Change" theme, I thought most about how individuals can change, rather than how things change. We evolve over the course of our lives. If lives are cut short, denying us the opportunity to change, then evolutionary progress on a larger scale suffers, too.

The Houston Art Car parade is all about creation and transformation. We're outlandish, unique and beautiful, rolling forward together. Happy Mother's Day, everyone!

from top, moi on my peace bike, from bubbaofthebubbles' flickr site (Bubba is my neighbor, Robert, he of yard art fame)
the Peacemobile, with globe engineer, Heidi
the Peacemobile on parade, from Boptimist's flickr site
my favorite other biker, from Barry D's flickr site

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Si, se puede

The Austin-American-Statesman estimates 10,000 people at the Immigrant Rights rally and march today. It felt good to be part of such a large, friendly and spirited crowd that included lots of families with children. There were many signs and banners carried in response to the backwards legislation in Arizona. Thanks to Sylvia Thompson for taking great photos, including those above.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Growing Power

April has been a full, rewarding month, with our gorgeous Spring figuring into almost everything.
Earlier in the month, I traveled to Wisconsin to help celebrate my mother, Ruth's 85th birthday. My mom is a remarkable woman, and every visit we have together is a lucky one for me! As part of our family gathering for her birthday, my mom was keen on us visiting an urban farm in Milwaukee called Growing Power. She and my dad had heard the farm's founder, Will Allen (above), speak about Growing Power at Carroll University (my alma mater, where my dad is professor emeritus), and they were impressed with his project and his enthusiasm. His mantra is, "It's all about the soil!" My folks both have green thumbs and my dad grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan, so the concept of soil as where it all begins is something he knows firsthand. My Mom also wanted to reinvigorate their compost pile with some of the fabulous red wiggler worms that Growing Power cultivates.

So, one afternoon, off we went, to take Growing Power's daily public tour.
It was fascinating, in a very grassroots kind of way. They have experimented with not only producing excellent potting soil by intensive composting of food waste from local businesses (like brewery hops and restaurant leavings), but raising fish in homemade tanks filled with water that circulates through gravel beds of watercress plants that cleanse the water and provide extra salad greens for harvesting. The farm is comprised of a number of hoop houses (again, homemade by bending pipe and stretching plastic over them), which are insulated on the outside by mounds of compost. Even through the coldest times of winter, the composting action heats the greenhouses enough to keep the many trays of salad greens inside at a good growing temperature. In the mounds of compost live the worms, which create the nutritious soil and are also harvested and sold in buckets of earth to gardeners like my folks!
Will Allen's expertise has been sought worldwide, and on the wall of the farm stand, we saw a photo of Allen recently taken with Michelle Obama. Allen won a MacArthur Foundation Genious Grant in 2008 and hopes to transform the Milwaukee farm into a several-story verticle greenhouse.
I liked the ingeniousness of the farm's use of found materials and the ways it recycles at the most basic levels. There seemed to be little waste and much production, as well as good earning power. They also are very focused on education, especially among local youth, whom we saw working at every aspect of the farm.
Here is a very good feature story about Growing Power in last month's Milwaukee Magazine. (The photo above by Carl Corey accompanies the story. Check it out!)
We left the farm happy, with my mom's birthday present in tow: a bucket of red wigglers that now reside happily in her backyard compost pile. Spring!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gene Stoltzfus, man of Spring

I've been thinking so much this week about Gene Stoltzfus, remembering some of the things he said during his several visits to Austin in recent years. I've been re-reading his blog posts and the moving testimonials written about him since his sudden death on March 10. I remember liking very much the way Gene often used terms like "enliven" or "awaken" in his talks, referring to the positive growth that peacemaking can engender. He had a way of being able to talk about very difficult things with a gentle and discerning approach, so that one could listen, empathize, and then discover the energy to act.

The first time I met Gene was in the Spring of 2005 when he drove through Texas on a Christian Peacemaker Teams speaking tour. While he was in Austin, he spoke to a peace studies class at the University of Texas, a meeting of Veterans for Peace, a group at the Mennonite Church, with an editor at the Austin American-Statesman and at a bakery with a writer friend, Greg Moses, and me for a story we co-wrote about Gene and CPT (published on Counterpunch).

I liked Gene right from the start. His demeanor made a person feel comfortable and welcome. It was partly the Santa Claus beard and figure, but it was more than that. You got the feeling that peacemaking was something he knew very, very well.

The final time I saw Gene was last October, when he was a guest speaker at the second annual Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience, organized chiefly by members of the Austin Mennonite Church. I took notes. Gene's first words to the assembly were, "Hello, everyone. Thank you for what you are doing!" That was very typical of Gene -- to thank others, even though he was the one to be appreciated for coming so far to be with us.
I also recall Gene talking on that occasion about something I hadn't heard him discuss before. He related his own experience with PTSD, finding much in common with GIs who also spoke at the assembly. Gene's PTSD had developed as a result of what he saw and experienced in Vietnam when he was doing alternative service as a conscientious objector in the 1960's. He said that when he returned to the US, he could sleep only about 20 minutes a night for about the first 6 months back. He had dreams about the dead he had seen in Vietnam. He also had a recurring dream about LBJ and Ho Chi Minh -- that he was trying to get them together, and just when he was about to succeed, they'd slip away. In another recurring dream, he was in a speeding car racing down a hill about to crash. Gene said he'd kept a dream diary for the past 40 years, which he credited as part of his healing.
Acting from conscience has risks. It also, as he said, opens new relationships and closes others. "Fundamental to every conscious decision is saying yes to some things and no to others." Often, the trajectory of our careers changes.
"Conscience gives our imagination a new lease on life," he said. "We think of creative ways to act. Conscience is not captured by the right, the left or the middle, or even by religious people. It's available to all of us."

I've been thinking especially about Gene today, as I've been home, listening to music wafting in all my open windows from SXSW venues in the neighborhood. In the front windows come strains from a stage set up about two blocks down. In the back porch windows come voices, guitar licks and drumbeats from a backyard set-up nearby. I can see people in chairs, listening carefully and applauding generously. I think Gene would like this, too. It's all about creation. Spring is emerging. As long as the earth and we earthlings spinning on it remember our purpose, our creative centers, our lives will be re-leased.

Thank you, Gene. Your courage, compassion, wisdom, creativity and vitality endure.