The New Camp Casey: Protest Without the A-List

Cindy Sheehan, left, and Tiffany Burns tour the property Sheehan bought near Crawford, Tex., for Camp Casey.
Cindy Sheehan, left, and Tiffany Burns tour the property Sheehan bought near Crawford, Tex., for Camp Casey. (By Ron Heflin -- Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006

CRAWFORD, Tex., Aug. 10 -- James Fain stood guard Thursday under the broiling sun at Camp Casey, the five-acre tract that antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan recently bought on the edge of town as a base for her protests.

Mostly, it was a lonely job. Fain, 21, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, came out from under his tent whenever a car turned in from the two-lane highway that runs past the encampment -- which was not often.

"The protests were originally supposed to start next week," Fain explained. "But the president's vacation is shorter this year. The protesters, these aren't people who have no jobs." So not everyone could make it, he said.

Not that they would see much here at Camp Casey: just a newly laid gravel road, some tents, an American flag, a few volunteers and row after row of small, white crosses representing the U.S. troops who have died in Iraq.

Last weekend, Sheehan, 49, led a small group of protesters here on a march along the narrow, winding road leading to President Bush's 1,600-acre ranch, about seven miles from Camp Casey. And Tuesday, she joined a small group of protesters just outside the Secret Service checkpoint.

But, so far, the demonstrations have been modest, and the news coverage and the reaction have been muted -- which is far different from the reaction Sheehan engendered last year during her 26-day peace vigil here. Then, she promised to follow Bush until he agreed to meet with her (they had met once, not long after her soldier son, Casey, was killed in Baghdad in 2004) -- a stance that seemed to galvanize the antiwar movement and catapult the former Catholic youth minister to international fame.

The story of a grieving mother who stood up to the president drew thousands of protesters, including a smattering of celebrities, to central Texas. Since then, she has followed Bush to Washington, where she has protested outside the White House and the Iraqi Embassy, and has become a figure whose name is known by leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. She has written or inspired no fewer than five books, and a play about her exploits has opened in London.

Despite the stir created by Sheehan's protests last year and the unabated casualties in Iraq, there have been no celebrity sightings so far this year -- unless one was to count Sheehan herself.

Sheehan's demanding schedule had her in Seattle on Thursday, where she was scheduled to address the Veterans for Peace Convention on Thursday night. A week earlier, she was in Amman, Jordan. "She met with five members of the Iraqi Parliament," said Dede Miller, Sheehan's sister, who often travels with her.

Before that, there was the speaking tour across Italy. Miller said Sheehan is expected to be back in Crawford by this weekend, when she will lead more protests against Bush.

Sheehan's growing celebrity has caused her critics to charge that she is profiting from the tragedy of her son's death, making her more professional protester than grieving mother.

For the past week and a half, James Vergauwen, 60, a Vietnam War veteran, has manned a one-man counter-protest to Sheehan from a seat under a tent at the intersection that commands Crawford's only traffic signal. He spends much of the day listening to Fox's Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly and other radio talk show hosts, and he has several placards surrounding his site, including one that reads: "Cindy, making money on the back of a hero."

"That's my opinion," Vergauwen said, when asked about the sign. "If her son hadn't have been a hero and gotten killed, we would never know about Cindy Sheehan."

Some local residents also snicker that the reported $52,000 Sheehan put out for Camp Casey was too much to pay for the parcel, which they say has a tendency to flood during heavy rains.

But if Sheehan has been changed by the events of last year, so too has Bush. His planned 10-day vacation here is much shorter than the four weeks he spent here in 2005. Meanwhile, opposition to the Iraq war has become mainstream: Nearly six in 10 respondents to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll said the war was not worth fighting.

"It is clear that a majority of the population is now against the war," said Fain, who joined Sheehan's vigil last year and returned this year to "give President Bush a little taste of American sentiment."

Others are similarly committed. Jesse Dyen, 36, said he was inspired by Sheehan to protest the war by eschewing solid food for nearly a month, which he survived by drinking vitamin-fortified water. The event organizer and musician says he has "pretty much built my life around protesting the war" over the past year.

He wore a strip of purple duct tape on his T-shirt, marked with the number 2,591 -- for the number of American troops who have died in the war.

Asked whether he thought antiwar feelings were growing, he said, "They have to be, because more people are waking up to it every day."

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