Cindy Sheehan: Mother of a Movement? | The Nation


Cindy Sheehan: Mother of a Movement?

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On the side of a hot, dusty road in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, peace activist Cindy Sheehan, 48, sits on the tailgate of an SUV with her sister, Dede Miller, 47. Although it is not yet 10 AM, a relentless sun beats down and the two women pass a tube of sunscreen back and forth, slathering up for the day of protest marching in front of them.

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Karen Houppert
Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist. Her book on indigent defense will be published by the New...

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Dede, who quit her job of twenty-seven years as a human resources manager at a California K-Mart to head Sheehan's fledgling antiwar group, Gold Star Families for Peace, and to help manage her more famous sister's schedule, pushes dark curly hair off her already red and sweaty face. She wordlessly hands Cindy a baseball cap, which her sister promptly puts on.

The women sit in companionable silence, waiting to hook up with a parade of 100 antiwar marchers--and hurricane survivors--traveling from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans. Tired from air travel the day before, they sip from water bottles, squint against the glare as they peer down the road for signs of marchers, check their watches and wait. They are on autopilot; they have been around the block on this one before.

Soon, along with dozens of antiwar activists who will swarm Sheehan with requests for her to autograph their T-shirts, to pose for photos with their arms across her shoulders, to listen to their stories, she will be approached by CNN, a local reporter, the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Nation.

Over the next three hours, she will sign each T-shirt, pose for each photo, listen to each story and agree to every interview.

Cindy Sheehan is, of course, the grief-stricken mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who garnered so much attention when she camped outside George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch for three weeks last August. At the time Sheehan told the world that she wasn't leaving until President Bush had the courtesy to come and explain why her 24-year-old son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, had to die in this unnecessary war.

Bush declined to chat.

The media did not.

Reporters descended in droves to speak with this woman who had the audacity to mourn so publicly on Bush's doorstep. Suddenly, Sheehan's exhausted, sunburned face flashed across TV screens and into nearly every living room in the country--and around the world.

In the months since, Cindy Sheehan has emerged as the symbol of the antiwar movement, drawing crowds of well-wishers, counterprotesters and a slew of media to each of her many appearances across the nation and abroad. She is credited with galvanizing a nation whose approval rating of the President on Iraq was slipping to a dangerous 40 percent and injecting life into a sluggish peace movement. Sheehan's "fifteen minutes of fame" have stretched out to nearly fifteen months. She has rocketed from the obscurity of a low-key suburban California life where she did administrative work for the county--and before that worked for nine years as a youth minister at the local Catholic church--to Diane Sawyer's couch, Chris Matthews's hot seat and just about every national news program in between. Though she says she has always been politically left of center and admits that she opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, she was not an activist and had never spoken publicly against the war until July 4, 2004, three months after her son's death, when she addressed an antiwar crowd at a local church.

Today, she is more famous than anyone in a peace movement that lies poised on the brink of change: Public opinion has swung against the war--thanks in equal parts to antiwar activists and to Bush's own hubris and blunders--but this shift in Americans' thinking has yet to translate into significant changes in policy or leadership. At this critical juncture, all eyes are trained on Sheehan.

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