Monday, August 22, 2005

They Are Stardust, And in Texas
They Are Stardust, And in Texas
At the Crawford Protest Camp, Growing Echoes of Woodstock

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, Tex., Aug. 21 -- Camp Casey, which started with one mom and a grievance, mushroomed over the weekend into a massive settlement with a party tent for 2,000, a shuttle-bus service and an elaborate catering operation that deposited a 26-foot-long refrigerator truck, generators, and restaurant-quality ranges and warming ovens in a field next to President Bush's ranch.

The hippie crowd that originally was drawn to Cindy Sheehan's protest is still in town -- activists from Food Not Bombs are sleeping in an old school bus that has been painted sky blue and can be started only with jumper cables. But now they have been joined by liberals from throughout the West who are double-parking their hybrid-fueled cars to take part in a peace protest with a budget that is $120,000 and rising.

The grassy field is so close to the president's property that he and his entourage were photographed from there as he bicycled last week before the hordes arrived. Parking attendants wear reflectorized orange vests.

"It's kind of like if Woodstock was really organized," said Chris Voigt, 51, an architect from Fort Worth who was volunteering in the spacious kitchen tent, scraping a frittata pan. "The war's over. Somebody needs to tell Bush."

Voigt was surrounded by pallets of Ozarka bottled water, cases of Sterno gel chafing warmers, 52-ounce tubs of Folgers coffee and six-pound cans of Bush's Best pinto beans. Green-pepper trimmings were composting nearby, and recycling boxes were overflowing with discarded plastic.

The camp includes nine Port-a-Potties but no shower. About 150 protesters have been sleeping in tents or their cars. The rest come for the day, or stay at motels half an hour away in Waco.

"Sorry to Interrupt, Mr. President," says one of the many posters tacked up at the encampment. "But Our Soldiers Are Dying!"

"82 Troops Killed While Bush Goes Fishing," jeers a sign on the side of a U-Haul truck parked by the camp's organizers near Crawford's main crossroads.

None of the visitors to Camp Casey appeared to be local. Yard after yard along the roads leading to the camp is staked with signs such as "Freedom Isn't Free" and "We Support Our Commander in Chief," and scattered Bush supporters set up a counter-rally that they called "Camp Reality."

Canaan Baptist, a weathered wooden country church where the president has attended Easter sunrise services, sits across a narrow road from the peace camp. A parishioner from the neighborhood, Dave Cunningham, closed out this morning's service by praying for the president and his family, for the troops -- and for patience with the onslaught of demonstrators.

Sheehan is still in California tending to her mother, who suffered a stroke Thursday. But Sheehan's supporters said they expect her to return this week, and organizers are making plans to keep the Camp Casey sleep-outs and eat-ins going until Bush returns to Washington shortly before Labor Day.

Sheehan set up camp after Bush declined her impromptu demand for a second meeting to discuss the death of her 24-year-old son, Casey, in Iraq last year. Some in the White House viewed Sheehan as a partisan who could be dismissed: She had appeared on Capitol Hill at the behest of Democrats to discuss the "Downing Street memos" and has charged that Bush "killed" her son. Bush did not agree to a second meeting in part because he had met with her last year during a visit to a military base. He said in remarks last week that he sympathizes with her. He has been mostly out of sight since then, although he rode his mountain bike for 70 minutes in 101-degree heat Sunday.

The sprawling Camp Casey makes it clear that, at least for the moment, Sheehan has produced something larger than herself. Aided by professional publicists and event planners, she has become a logo for opposition to Bush and to the country's attack on Iraq, with minivans marked "Cindy shuttle" ferrying out-of-towners along dirt farm roads that adjoin what Bush has called his "little slice of heaven."

"The whole nation was waiting for a catalyst," said Linda Loden, 57, of Dallas, the line cook in the kitchen. "The best part is that this whole thing is matriarchal: Men are coming up to the women and saying, 'What can I do to help?' "

Folk singer Joan Baez gave a free concert Sunday night for a crowd of 500. The whistle-blower Coleen Rowley -- who retired from the FBI in December after alleging the Bureau had mishandled intelligence before the 9/11 attacks -- was giving interviews amid the camp's rows of 264 white wooden crosses. Each cross has a pair of rubber bands holding a slip of paper bearing the name of a member of the military who has died in Iraq.

Ann Spicer, 46, an event designer from Dallas who is in charge of the kitchen, said she can tell this is not the usual "nuts and berries" crowd that is more typical at peace events because "hardly anyone asked if we had vegan dishes last night."

The menu then was a Tex-Mex casserole called King Ranch chicken, along with manicotti and lasagna. About 700 people were served, organizers said. Breakfast was hash browns, bacon and scrambled eggs. Spicer said a nearby rancher has offered to donate buffalo meat, enabling her to plan chili for the climactic weekend.

The chaos has transformed Crawford (population 705) to the point that at the edge of town, visitors are now greeted by a blinking highway department sign that says, "Heavy traffic ahead. Drive slow."

The protesters are split into three locations. The Crawford Peace House, next to the railroad tracks downtown, is organizing the protest and is decorated with such slogans as "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" The small encampment where Sheehan's followers started, about five miles from Bush's ranch, remains. The main camp -- featuring the white tent, which is so big it has eight peaks and is known to the White House press corps as the "Cirque du Soleil" -- is just outside a Secret Service checkpoint at the back of Bush's ranch.

John L. Wolf, who owns a stage-scenery business in Dallas and runs the Peace House, said about 5,000 donations have come in through the PayPal service used by the group's Web site, and about 1,000 more people have written checks on the spot. He said the average donation was $20 and the biggest was $2,000. He said no corporations or nonprofit groups have made major contributions. He said about $60,000 has been spent so far, most of it this weekend.

"People are putting things on their own credit cards," Wolf said. "When people fly in, we tell them: Don't rent a car. Rent a van, and drive a shuttle!"

An Austin television producer is making a movie about it all, titled "Bushstock 2005."

For a crowd of peace activists, many seemed angry. Andrew J. Weaver, 58, a Methodist minister from Brooklyn, N.Y., who led a brief outdoor service in a clerical collar and a colorful stole from Guatemala, said he wanted to move into the shade before giving an interview. "It's like a near-death experience, here in this sun," the minister said. "Think this is a taste of eternity for George?"

The huge and hungry press corps that covers Bush is gathered eight miles away from his ranch in the gymnasium at Crawford Middle School, and perhaps the real surprise is that no group had figured out how to capitalize on that to the degree that Sheehan's followers have. Wolf said he has not thought that far ahead, but the scale and success of Camp Casey suggest that the Peace House or other groups might try similar extravaganzas during future Bush trips here, such as when he plays host to world leaders on his 1,600-acre property.

The first wave of campers has name tags that mark the number of days they have been in Crawford. One of them is Ann Wright, 59, of Honolulu, whose tag sported 15 hash marks, like an inmate counting down his sentence. She plans to stay until the end of Bush's vacation. "If the president doesn't come out by then," she said, "that ends his opportunity."