<\body> Stories in America: May 2005

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Memorial Day Matters

On Memorial Day, we spent a good chunk of our driving time listening to conservative talk show hosts on AM radio. They did a great job of criticizing those who oppose the war by calling them unpatriotic. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that they never criticized the Bush administration for cutting funding for vets' health care, prescription drugs and nursing homes. Why didn't they mention the bill that would have qualified the National Guard and Reserve for TRICARE, the main military health plan? It was defeated by 218-211. What about the bill that would have increased spending by $53 million for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, including $8 million for treating combat trauma, $9 million for prosthetic research and $6 million for telemedicine to remotely serve National Guard and Reserve veterans. It was defeated by 214-213. If you look at voting records, you'll find that almost every Democratic House member voted in favor of those bills, while every Republican voted against them. I didn't hear any mention of that on the radio; instead Rush Limbaugh asked his listeners to call in with gift ideas for the one-year anniversary of Abu Ghraib.

That evening, we went to a Memorial Day celebration at the White Rock Lake Park in Dallas. In addition to an endless array of "Support Our Troops" ribbons on cars, flags could be found on everything from earrings and hats to lounge chairs and blankets.

Before going in, I got into a conversation with a female police officer on duty.

How do you feel about the war?

I'm not really sure what we're fighting for. I know what I've been told, but those theories have been proven wrong time and time again.

How do you feel about providing healthcare benefits to the troops? A few bills that would have increased coverage were killed in the House.

Why are they killing bills to support the troops? As far as I'm concerned, if you serve this country, you should receive healthcare for life.

What's your opinion of Bush?

I'm too much of a lady to answer that question.

Here are excerpts from a few interviews with people who attended the event.

Kay McGuire, 79, member of the Republican Women's Association of Dallas, TX

What does Memorial Day mean to you?

We think about all our friends and relatives that we have lost, not just in the war that's going on now, but in other wars. It's a sad day, it really is. They said we were getting away from it, but unfortunately since war came, now we're back to square one again.

What about freedom? What does that mean to you?

For me personally, it means that I can go to any church that I please and nobody questions me. We can vote. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't vote, but we have that choice. We can work where we want, educate ourselves if we want, and that's a good feeling. Anybody in the United States can make something of their lives. All they need is the right attitude.

Do you think that's what Bush means when he uses the word freedom?

Yes. He portrays that to the people and I think that's why he's popular even though they say he's losing his popularity. I don't believe that, but of course I might be biased. I happen to like him.

What do you like about him?

His honesty with the people when he talks to them on the radio or on TV. Even though he came from a wealthy family, he's down to earth.

How do you think the war is going?

Not very good because of the insurgency, but I was for it. A lot of people were not, but I was because I thought we were doing it to try to free people who were persecuted. Of course, we're having a hard time from a lot of people and that's not helping matters. And naturally, some of the American people are becoming disgruntled. I am not disgruntled, but I am worried for our men that are in the uncomfortable position of being in somebody else's country. They would love to come home, but they can't until they get the police straightened out. What's hard is you can't trust things you always read in the paper. You have to find out for yourself. If you hear a story, you have to read it from different angles.

Where do you get most of your news?

Fox News. I rarely listen to the other big names because I hear a lot of stuff from them that isn't true.

Like what?

Things are going so badly in Iraq. I talk to friends that have sons over there and they say everything is going well. I also always hear that we're not doing anything over there. Of course we are, but it's not being reported. We're building schools and building water systems. We have helped these people tremendously, but I don't know if they even appreciate it because they don't know whether to trust us or not. You try to place yourself in their position, you really do, and it's not easy.

Zoltan Zsohar, 58, author of "Surviving Through Faith"

I'm from an immigrant family. We moved here in 1950. You have no idea what this country has meant to my family. My parents escaped Hungary during World War II. They lived five years as refugees and had the wonderful opportunity to come to this country in 1950. If you go where we're sitting, we have American flags everywhere. We're so patriotic. We just love this country.

What does the word patriotic mean to you?

It means freedom. We've traveled overseas and we've seen the restrictions and the fear people have about their government. In this country, you trust the government to an extent. The poverty and distrust for anybody in uniform in other countries is incredible. We don't have that in this country.

What do you think of the current climate in this country? Are you a Bush fan?

I'm a Bush fan, but I don't support the war. I've got real problems with what's going on, but I support Bush and his overall efforts. I think he means well, but there is a lot of stuff about the war that really bothers me.

Like what?

The original purpose for the war didn't pan out and everybody knows that. It's a mess over there. We should have learned from Vietnam. You better be right before you go in and start a war and we weren't.

So you know all about the Duelfer report and the Downing Street memo?

Oh, yeah. I know about those. I am concerned about what's happening, but I have to support our government. I was brought up to support the government.

Did you vote for Bush the second time around knowing all that you do?

Yeah, because the alternative wasn't that good.

Were you open to voting for a Democrat?

Yes, absolutely. I wasn't sure up until late into the campaign. I'm not a diehard Republican and I'm not a diehard Bush supporter, but I thank god we voted for Bush in the first election because I don't think Gore would have handled 9/11 well.

Barbara Spruill, 61, works for a Christian ministry

What does Memorial Day mean to you?

It's a time to remember the price for freedom and the men and women who've given their lives and paid the ultimate price. I can choose to have a career. I can choose to marry or be single. I can choose what church to go to or not. It's the freedom to choose.

What do you think Bush means when he says freedom?

I assume that he means people deserve the same freedom I have in America. The freedom to vote. The freedom to travel. The freedom to worship as I choose. The freedom to have a career and live my life the way I want to live it. Our nation is founded on the principle that people have rights and one of those rights is the freedom to pursue liberty and happiness. I think that's what he means when he says freedom. I hope that's what he means.

Are you a fan of Bush?

Well, I voted for him. I certainly don't agree with all of his decisions, but I'm sure he wouldn't agree with all of my decisions. I voted for him because I agree with him morally. He's a man of conviction and he says what he means.

What do you mean when you say you agree with him morally?

I'm a Christian. When I say that, I mean that Jesus Christ was the son of God. I believe the Bible is a word to us from God and shows us how he wanted us to live our lives. When I say moral values, I think he holds dear those same values that the Bible addresses and that God holds. I think he has those values.

How do you feel about the war?

I hate war. It should be the last option, but I think there are some people who give you no choice. I think there are times when war is necessary. I don't know if the war in Iraq was necessary. I don't know that any of us know that. You have to have a lot more information than I have to know that. I have to weigh the information I get and then make a decision as to whether it was necessary.

Where do you get your information?

I prefer Fox, but I watch the others because I like to know what other people are thinking. It's important to do that.

In terms of information, the Duelfer report says weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. Have you heard about the Downing Street memo?


It's not getting much press. It's a British memo with notes from a meeting with Tony Blair. It said Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, but the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. So basically, it was war first, weapons second, not the other way around.

I know that the weapons of mass destruction was the main reason. Whether there was deception there, I don't know. The result of the war will turn out to be good because I think the majority of the Iraqis hated their lives and hated the way they had to live. Did we go to war over weapons of mass destruction or did we go to remove a ruthless, evil man? We can beat that horse to death. Regardless, we are where we are and I think we're in a good place. I don't think we'll dethrone all dictators. There are dictators everywhere that don't threaten America, but I think he threatened America.


We know at one time he did have weapons. Whether he got rid of them or whether we haven't found them, we don't know.

How do you feel about the fact that we supported Saddam at that time and sold him the weapons?

Again, I don't have all the information.

What about domestic issues?

I'm not sure about education and social security. The jury is out on those two issues. With 9/11, so much of the focus has had to be on other things. Domestic issues have moved to the back burner, but I think they're getting more attention, so we'll see.

Do you always vote Republican?

No, I vote for the person. My father was a staunch Democrat and he always voted for Democrats. I was raised in a Democratic family, but in my 30s I decided that I was going to vote for people that I could align myself with. I happen to agree more with the Republican platform right now because they're more aligned with my values.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The White House Press Corps

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." (Applause.)
-President Bush speaking at a social security forum in New York on May 24,2005.

When activists opened the Crawford Peace House, they became a major resource for the White House Press corps. On many occasions, reporters from major outlets, including Reuters and the Associated Press, asked members of the Peace House to respond to Bush's press conferences. Peace House residents like to say, "For $800 a month, we'd get to answer the most powerful man in the world."

Kay Lucas, an activist who maintains the house, says the press doesn't come around as much as it used to. "The press corps has gotten more and more intimidated. I can't believe they're as ignorant as they pretend to be. They can't be," she says. "A while ago, a woman interviewed me and asked if I was afraid of Saddam. I said no. She said, you're not? No, I don't think he has weapons. If he had them, he would have done something by now because his whole country is going to pieces. She couldn't believe it. I'm thinking to myself, how can you be a journalist of your caliber and act like I should be afraid when you of all people oughta know that he has no weapons. It was unbelievable, but this is what we're dealing with."

Paul McDaniel, a Vietnam Vet and member of Waco's Friends of Peace group, has had similar experiences with the White House press corps at the Peace House. I met up with Paul at a cafe in Waco to discuss his experiences over the past few years. Here are excerpts from that interview:

You've had many conversations with the White House press corps since you opened the Peace House in March of 2003.

Oh yes, we've tried to woo the international press and the White House press, although the White House press is an exclusive bunch. We've invited them over to the Peace House, but they're schmoozed so much by the president, our dishes of stir fry and lentils don't sound too appealing when they're being offered lobster and caviar. So we said to a few of the major networks that were willing to talk to us, don't you feel a little bit bought? And they said, well, it's our corporation, it's not us. When we ask them what they really think about something personally, they're all afraid to say, we're in favor of this or we don't agree with that. We've had a few be very candid with us. One high-profiled female journalist said, I can't write this. I wish I could, but this will not fly. I know what my editors will accept and I can't push the envelope this far. When we express our opinions or talk about the facts about WMDs or other issues relating to the war, they say, we've heard that. Other people must also feel that way. Our response was, well, are you going to write about it? No, I think we already ran a story about that on the back page. So basically, if it doesn't fit with their editorial goals, they're not going to chase it down. It's hard to find investigate reporters anymore.

When you set up shop, the AP and Reuters often asked you to counter Bush's remarks.

We do get that from time to time because they were looking for anything to balance out the article. We would get the last few paragraphs in the story, so yeah, we felt thrilled that we got our views in there. Some of the media sources, like the AP and Reuters, often said, we can't run with this if it's completely one-sided. We gotta see if there's an Iraqi person or someone else who is willing to say something. It's pleasing to know that they feel that way, but we also felt that some of these White House reporters were bought hook, line and sinker. They're pleasant people who would stop by and say, we're bored. There's nothing to do. We hate being here in the summer. But we're sure not going to do a story about you guys because it would never fly.

Did you ever ask those reporters why they don't ask Bush better questions or push a little harder during his press conferences?

I said very candidly to a few reporters, why don't you ask about this issue or that issue. And they always said, that's already been asked one time three press conferences ago so why keep asking? What they're telling me is, we're not allowed to pursue that stuff.

Did any reporters open up to you and express frustration about the way the White House runs its press conferences. If you ask tough questions, you're either put in the last row or you won't be called on again.

Yes, one gal was very candid. She said, it drives me crazy to hear some of the stuff that is coming out of the Bush administration. She said she knew she was hearing flat out lies, but she's been in the business for 20 or 30 years. She has kids back in Washington. She's not gonna risk losing her job.

How has press coverage changed since Bush started his second term?

They used to hang around and come a day or two before and after to look for other angles. Now they're in and out. They second he leaves, they're gone.

Do they still come by the Peace House?

Not as often as they used to. We get more international press from places like Sweden, Germany and Tokyo. Most of them are independent. They're not allowed in with the White House press corps.

What's your experience like when working with American journalists versus the international journalists?
What are the differences?

The White House press corps don't ask questions. We had a couple guys here from Germany and they asked the most probing questions. Why isn't the American media asking the same questions? Some of the national big names, CNN, NBC, CBS -- I don't want to say they're so much controlled as they conform to a certain guideline or standard. They're about the quick story and they really don't want to do in-depth articles.

What about local media?

They're much better. They camp out with us for weeks or even months and say, I want to get to know Crawford. They talk to the mayor and walk around to different houses and get to know the people. They've done many good in-depth stories.

Has your perception of the media and the way you use media changed since becoming involved with the Peace House?

I've learned some things. It's easy to build a relationship with a reporter, but they have so little control. That's the excuse they use anyway. I've talked to some of the editors and they mention another level of power. It's the classic way of negotiating. You always have another party to refer to in case you need an out. That's frustrating, but you have to play the game in order to get coverage.

Has your level of trust in the media changed at all?

There are two issues there. One is, you know the game and know what works and what doesn't. You just have to play it. The other one is distortion. I've been upset about edits and being taken out of context. That bothers me more than anything else, but other than, it's a game.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Crawford's House of Peace

The large number of Bush signs and photos in Crawford, Texas might lead one to think all the locals are Republicans, but Democrat Chet Edwards, who represents the state's 17th Congressional District, ran a highly contested race and was reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November, making him George Bush's congressman. Still, it's not easy being a Democrat or progressive in Crawford. Last February, five peace activists were arrested and convicted of violating the city's protest ordinance. The AP reported that during the trial, Crawford Police Chief Donnie Tidmore testified that a person wearing political buttons without a permit could violate the city ordinance that requires prior notice before a protest or parade.

That's the climate the Crawford Peace House faces on a daily basis. In March, 2003, activist John Wolf made national headlines when he announced plans to buy the house and convert it into a resource center and meeting place for those opposed to the Bush administration's policies. After passing a sign on the highway that welcomes people to Crawford and reminds them that its the "Home of President George W. Bush," the Peace House is the first structure you see. "We the People Say No to the Bush Agenda" and "Veterans for Peace" banners hang in the window, while information about everything from the war and military spending to Israeli/Palestinian issues and social justice can be found inside.

Kay Lucas, an activist who drives 25 miles to maintain and care for the Crawford Peace House, says the few locals who've expressed support for the Peace House are brave. Expressing any form of dissent against Bush is frowned upon in Crawford. During our interview, two men stopped by to say hello and see the house. One of the men agreed to answer a few questions, but didn't want to give me his name for fear his neighbors would find out he voted for John Kerry, but preferred Ralph Nader. I asked him if he thought the Peace House has any impact on the locals. "I know it does," he says. "It gets some people to look deeper, but not very many. This is Bush country after all. He has the right formula. I'm a pro-lifer myself, but I'm against the death penalty, too. There's a difference." When I told Lucas about that exchange, she said when locals stop by, they don't want passersby to even see their cars in the driveway. Here are excerpts of my interview with Kay Lucas:

You've experienced a lot over the past two years.

This has been a gratifying experience. If it weren't for us, there would be no alternative voice. I hope we've made some sort of a difference. It's made a difference in my life, some positive, some not so positive. My son resents me for doing this work. He's a hardcore conservative. But we can't create change by fighting. We can only do it by education and people wanting to change their consciousness. And it will happen. There will be a shift soon. We need to get our community back. That's one of the main problems with this country. We've lost our sense of community. We moved so quickly towards a mobile society and lost our connectedness as a result.

You're not working in the most welcoming environment here in Crawford. When it comes to activism, what works and what doesn't?

Education and bringing up the issues. Whether they get it or not, it's getting into their consciousness. It's issues that most people don't even want to be aware of; they just want someone else to deal with them. They have their own little world and can drive their SUVs and live in their own home and have their green grass and never bother to look up over the fence and see that they're in a cage. We're all in boxes and we want it that way because it's easy. There are times when I think there's no hope. This society is complacent to that; they would rather have their freedoms taken away than be responsible enough to stay informed on the issues. That's where I believe we've had some effect. We're trying to put information out there and maybe, just maybe, people will be interested enough to do research on their own. One day we tabled at a festival and we got into a good conversation with people; even my husband got involved. My husband is an ex-Republican. He didn't vote for Bush this time around. He didn't vote in 2000. He's been a conservative Republican all of his life because that's what his family was, but he's not anymore.

Since meeting you?

Well, he's now educated. Before, he listened to the corporate media and Rush Limbaugh and that's what he heard. But he's had to become educated because if he was going to live with me, he was going to hear the truth. I made a point to print stuff out and leave it on the table for him to read because it affects him, it affects me and it affects our lives. There are so many things that so many people don't want to know about, but it affects them personally. Someday soon, it's going to come home and affect them personally. That's when the change happens. That's a shame. We should be concerned when it affects our neighbors, whether the neighbor is next door or across the sea.

Where do you get your news?

I like Buzzflash, CommonDreams, TrueMajority and TomPaine. I watch local news for the weather mostly. I do still watch CBS at 5:30.

Before the election, the term "liberal ideologue" was always being thrown around by politicians and pundits. What does the word "liberal" mean to you?

That's a good one. I become defensive when this comes up because we've let other people define it for us. To me, liberal means the truth. We're willing to see another side, walk in someone else's shoes and allow other people their beliefs. It's a noble term. A liberal person respects other people's rights.

What about Conservative?

Conservative to me is someone who is close-minded; someone who is not willing to search out the truth and wants things to stay the same whether they work or not. A Conservative is a fearful person. They're not willing to search out the truth. I don't think conservatives are always wrong and liberals are always right, but both sides can go too far. I think there is a balance and we need to find it instead of labeling each other.

What message would you send to the Democratic Party?

To get some backbone. Stand up for what you believe and don't back down. Don't name call, but be firm and get some integrity. Stop with all the crooked politics. Maybe we should vote them all out and start from scratch. Even people with no knowledge couldn't do any worse.

Do you feel like you're part of the dialog the left is having about where to go from here?

I guess so. The first thing we need to start doing is listening to each other. We could protest all we want, but does that make a difference? It does make noise and the squeaky wheel gets greased sooner or later. We're involved with the Veterans for Peace and Austin is a very progressive town. It's these little pockets that give you hope and know that in the midst of this blindness, there are pockets of people that care enough to want to know what's going on.

How do you feel about the national Democrats ignoring states like Texas?

That goes back to the electoral system. If politicians can ignore numerous states because they know they don't have a chance, then those people are not part of the dialog, so in that respect we're not part of the dialog. That's one of the reasons I respected Ralph Nader. He actually came here and people listened to him. There's talk about this guy Karl Schwarz from Arkansas who is anti-Bush, anti-war and is running as a Republican candidate for president in 2008. He contacted us and said he wanted to announce his candidacy here. That's the whole point of the Peace House. We're here for anybody that wants to talk. If you are part of the machine, you get to talk. You have to be part of the Democratic and Republican elite in order to be heard. We also have to try new things. Some people are saying we have to quit being so nice. (laughs) I don't know that I go along with that because that's how Bush got elected.

Do you think Texas could vote for a Democratic presidential candidate again?

Yes, I do. It's a strange state. Texas has the Texas pride, like the USA has the USA pride. Texas was at one time a country so that's makes a difference. Texans are proud of being Texans. Before you get out of junior high, you have to take Texas history. It's just like taking US history. That's why most Texas kids know more about Texas history than they do about US history. Texas could become Democratic again, but it'll take some time.

What message would you send to progressives in large Democratic cities?

Go to smaller cities and get involved in the middle of it all. Take the message to conservative towns nearby. If you're in Northern California, go to Bakersfield and Sacramento. Have an action or a protest. Actually, I think we need to quit calling it protest. At first, we had to get permits to protest and march. We had a big event planned last summer and the chief of police said each separate group involved, whether it was Austin's Code Pink, North Texas Peace and Justice or the Dallas Peace Center, had to get a separate permit for the protest. I asked him, when you have local parades, does the fire department have to get a permit? Do the Girl Scouts have to get a permit? He said, no, they don't have to get separate permits. So I said, we're having a parade. It's changing the dialog. We're not protesting. We're having a teach-in. We're having a parade. We are celebrating our version of patriotism. We need to start looking at the negative terms that are being used against the progressive community and change the words. We've had several parades since then.

How do the locals treat you?

They're real cool. You know where they stand. The sign at the Yellow Rose gift shop used to say: You're Either With Us, Or Against Us. Now it says: We Shall Not Tire, We Shall Not Falter. These people in this town had an inauguration ball at the community center in February. I don't go to the local businesses because I don't want to support them. They feel like we're intruding on their territory. People used to drive by the Peace House and scream, "Go back to California, you hippie assholes!" The truth is, I'm a fifth or sixth generation Texan. I'm a community member. I live 20 miles down the road. The locals think we're all foreigners, but most of the people involved with the house are Texans.

Have many locals expressed support for the Peace House?

A man drove up one day and said, I'm sure glad to see you here; I thought I was the only one. I don't know if he would say that out loud and I sure wouldn't want the locals to know he said it because it could cause him some problems. That is a real shame. At that local festival, a couple people approached us and said thanks, but I could tell they didn't want people to see them at our booth. I had a display board about the corporate media and Fox near the table and a few people looked at it.

Has Bush ever passed by the house?

No, he comes in on helicopter. His people see us. They come in with 20 SUVs. Then a few minutes later, another 10 SUVs drive through. Bush sees us when he goes to the cafe and shops and the dignitaries always see us. I suspect they have us bugged. Look at the wires across the street in that old abandoned house. I don't care. If I can't say what I want to say, where I want to say it, then take me away. I'm not gonna back down. It's too important. That said, I've got two peace flags and am still debating whether I should put them up at home. I keep debating because, I'll say it, there's a little fear there. This part of the country used to be heavy Klan. I used to have an American flag up, but it came down right after 9/11. My husband wants to put it up on the 4th of July and Memorial Day, but I always say no. It makes a statement. I don't separate myself and put myself above the rest of the world and that's what the flag signifies these days.

What are your plans over the next four years?

We've talked about moving. I even considered going to Costa Rica after the election, but I'm tired of moving. I'm trying to convert my piece of property back into its natural state. First it was a cotton field, then it was a hay field. I don't know if I've got the stamina to continue with the Peace House. It's a lot of work. I hope someone at the local level will get more enthused about it. The gardening is even tough to keep up with, but it's not easy finding dedicated people with time. Also, everybody got real depressed after the election. I was there. I'm still there to some extent, but I still think it's important. This place has a purpose for being here. If nothing else, there is a consciousness of peace in this town. At the time it was established, that's what I felt was the most important thing to do. I guess this is my purpose and I'll give in to that. I'll do what I can do, but I won't overdo it anymore.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Buying & Selling W in Crawford

We couldn't drive all the way to Texas without stopping in Crawford, Bush's adopted hometown, population 705. Crawford is also home to one stop light, one cafe and a few gift shops full of Bush t-shirts, talking dolls, Beanie Babies, life-sized cutouts and large wall hangings. The town's economy clearly grew exponentially after Bush bought his 1,600-acre ranch in 1999. Today the town's Web site proudly calls Bush its "favorite son." Joe Cuff, owner of Main Street Place Crawford, proudly told me he and his wife were in charge of making the 2005 Presidential Inauguration Cachets for the "Western White House."

How has life in Crawford changed for you since Bush bought the ranch?

My store wasn't here before. We're seeing people from just about every continent. It's fun meeting different people and hearing different stories.

Do many Democrats stop by?

Yeah, some will come in here and make comments. Then they'll buy things for their friends.

What happens when Bush comes to town?

We have protesters for and against just about everything. Dignitaries come in here to shop. It gets real busy.

What will happen to Crawford in 2008?

I don't think it'll change if the Bush library goes to Baylor. Regardless, we'll always have tourists and we'll always be here.

How has the town changed politically since Bush bought the ranch?

Well, there were a lot of Democrats here. A lot of them have switched over to being a Republican. We only have 705 people here so it's usually pretty quiet.

What do you do for fun?

We have a park, football and baseball games, festivals, parades, BBQ cookoffs and stuff like that.

Are you a fan of Bush?

Oh, yeah.

Has your admiration for him increased over the years?


What do you like about him?

Well, he tells it like it is. When he says something, that's what he'll get done. A lot of people would run not knowing how to handle all the problems he had after 9/11. He's done a good job there.

What other policies do you like other than the ones related to 9/11 and terrorism?

He's trying to do something with social security. He's working real hard.

You're in favor of his social security plan?

I'm in favor of it. He'll get it done.

Do you think social security is in trouble?

No, I don't so. It'll be a long drawn out thing.

What do you want him to work on over the next four years?

Gas. We need some kind of regulation on it. It's way too high.

We later stopped in the Coffee Station for dinner and were surrounded by Bush posters, photos and life-sized cutouts. Jeiro and Amira Ferreira, tourists from New Orleans, sat next to us and took several photos of a Bush photo collage. They are from Columbia and have lived in the states for 32 years.

What brings you to Crawford?

AF: Well, actually, just to see his ranch. We spent a few bucks at the souvenir shop.

What did you buy?

AF: A few t-shirts. They all say George Bush, of course.

And you were taking pictures of his pictures in the restaurant?

JF: That's right, because I want to have all the mementos of a very simple person mingling with other simple guys. I think that's a true person coming out. I don't think he's doing that for politics. He's doing that with local people that live around his place.

Is that why you like him? Because he's a simple guy?

JF: I like him because he's a simple guy who's becoming a great human being. He's very decisive. He supports his beliefs and he basically has a mission that he believes in. His mission is to protect the United States of America. He's protecting me, my family and everything that comes after that.

What about you?

AF: I have a son-in-law in the military. Even though he has been in Afghanistan putting his life on the line, we still support President Bush. He just came back from Afghanistan.

How long was he there?

AF: Three months.

You've been in the states for 32 years...and you've always voted Republican?

AF: Actually, yes.

What does that mean to you?

AF: The country has adopted us. This is the place where we feel secure and safe.

JF: Republican means to me: values. Values do not change. Values remain the same forever. The Republicans have that type of value. I'll give you a very controversial example. Bush is giving opportunities to people that represent minorities, like the blacks and Hispanics. He's not talking about it. He's doing it.

Can you give me an example?

JF: He's bringing to his cabinet people that are representing the people of the United States. For many years, the former Secretary of State couldn't use the same bathroom as you and me. Last year, he was using the same bathroom as President Bush.

Can't you say the same thing about Democrats? They've brought minorities into their cabinets.

JF: But they talk about it and Republicans don't. They just do it. There is a difference in politics. The Democrats do it because it's good politics. Bush does it because he believes it it. There's a difference.

Do you always vote Republican? Would you consider voting for a Democrat?

JF: I don't think you vote for the person, you vote for a platform. If the Democrats come up with a good platform, I will support them.

Where do you get your news?

JF: Newspapers and Internet. I don't believe in the traditional channels. They've lost credibility. After Walter Cronkite, I don't think there are any anchors that are practicing true journalism. I question everything I read and hear because I don't think journalists present the facts. They give you the conclusion instead of giving you the news.

Are you in favor of the war?

JF: Yeah.

Now that we know there were no weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the reasons for going to war were justified?

JF: Oh yeah, the weapons haven't been found because they were moved someplace else.

Have you heard about the Duelfer report? It found there were no weapons.

JF: Oh, yeah, but I haven't read it in its totality. The fact that there is a report is one thing. The fact that they didn't find the weapons is something else. I still believe those weapons were there. Those weapons were used against the people of Iraq. Saddam killed many of them.

And we were supporting him when that happened.

JF: Yeah, but it doesn't make any difference.

Why not?

JF: It doesn't make any difference regarding the weapons of mass destruction. He had them and he used them.

Do you feel safer because of the war?

JF: Completely.

What are you hoping Bush accomplishes over the next four years?

JF: To win peace through what he is doing. History tells you to make peace you have to fight wars.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Welcome to Crawford

I'm writing from a coffee house in Waco, which is about 20 miles from Crawford, Bush's adopted hometown. Crawford locals make it very clear: if you're not a Bush supporter, you're not welcome. Shop and restaurant windows are plastered with W stickers and even print "Home of President George W. Bush" on receipts. Life-sized cutouts of Bush and his family stared at me as I ate french fries at the only cafe in town. Or were they freedom fries?

I also bought a few postcards at the local gift shop, owned by an ardent Bush supporter. "I like him 'cause he does what he says he's gonna do." He had custom Bush beanie babies made after the last election and proudly told me they sold out in one day.

Coming soon: interviews with local Bush supporters and an activist from the Crawford Peace House.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Progressive Religion in Bush Country

A week after visiting the Shoreline Christian Center, we decided to go to a smaller church to compare and contrast the services and worshippers. We chose St. Andrew's Presbyterian in Austin, a church of approximately 300 worshippers, after reading about an event sponsored there by Third Coast Activist. I immediately knew I was in for a different experience after seeing the word "progressive" on the church's program.

Minister Jim Rigby spoke about the importance of humor and laughter to get through the bad times. "After the bombing in Iraq began, I went home and watched the Daily Show and somehow it saved my life," he said. Rigby went on to say that the idea the media is liberal is "so funny." He referenced a 2002 Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) study of the three major networks' nightly news broadcasts. Of partisan sources on CNN, 75 percent were Republican and only 24 percent Democrats; CBS had the most Republicans (76 percent) while ABC had the fewest (73 percent). I couldn't believe I was hearing references to the Daily Show and FAIR in church. I assumed this was a church full of Democrats, but I was wrong.

Bob Bartlett has been attending St. Andrew's for 10 years. "It's such a friendly church," he says. "We don't care what nationality, race or creed you are. We don't care how you dress or undress. We have open hearts, open minds and want everybody to feel welcome." Bartlett says he "regretfully" voted for Bush and is still on the fence about the war. He doesn't agree with the plan to privatize social security and believes the economy is worse than it was under Clinton. "I think Bush turned out to be greedy, but I think we're better off than if we had Kerry."

After interviewing a few more Bush supporters who said they attend this church because they like the people and enjoy the sermons, I caught up with Minister Jim Rigby. Here are excerpts from that interview:

Tell me about this area.

We're right above Austin city limits. In a typical election, there will be three signs in row: the first says, I'm a Republican; the second says, I'm more Republican; and the third says, you're wusses, I'm even more Republican. There's not even a vestige of Democrats up here.

Do you live around here?

Yes, it's kind of a paradox. When I first got out of the seminary, I was a liberal, but I wasn't integral. My religion and my liberal stuff were two separate worlds. As I became more of an activist, we moved up here for demographic reasons, but it's been pretty ironic because most of the stuff we've done now that's progressive is seen as evil.

Can you give me an example?

Gay and lesbian advocacy. That's not very popular in this neck of the woods. We've gotten several members from the Shoreline Christian Center just because they put us down in the worship service. They would say things about the liberal church over there and out of curiosity, people would come over.

And they keep coming back?

Yes, but we've had bomb threats. It depends on what's happening. If there are abortion laws at stake and I get in the newspaper, then there will be bad phone calls and letters.

Who attends this church and are they mostly from this area or outside of the area?

They're pretty scattered around. Liberals are pretty lonely. Austin is a great place to live, but still, there's a separation of the spirit and the politics. People treat those as separate and have sort of given religion over to the conservatives, so the people that come here tend to like world religions and see Christianity as one of those. They also want an activist church that gets involved in the issues. To me, politics is about how we treat each other. People that say they separate politics and religion usually mean they're disguising how they're controlling other people.

The pastor at the Shoreline Christian Center says he keeps politics out of his service, yet encourages people to get involved in politics.

I think what it is -- not speaking about a particular church -- it's all politics. When you think you're the chosen people, when you think that you have this mandate to control everything, what's more political than that? When you have somebody like Jesus who said, take the lowest place, surrender power and don't control other people, you reverse that story. I thought it was fascinating when some years ago, the religious right did their contract with the family and it was the Republican platform. Conservatives have usurped religion that has nothing to do with Jesus; it's all Republican. There's nothing Christian about it. Simply look at the verses that are quoted. They don't come from Jesus.

After hearing your sermon, I assumed everyone here is a Democrat.

We have some conservatives. They have a conservatives anonymous group. Usually though, people leave; they feel like they're being attacked. We lose a lot of rich, white males thinking they're being attacked by being put on the same plane as everybody else.

How do you deal with mixing politics with religion?

It's justice. It's saying that all people have a right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, to be fed, clothed, to have self-determination; that's the core Jewish, Christian and much of the Islamic message of human rights. That's what it's about. The problem is being partisan and thinking one group should have power over somebody else. That's wrong, but being political means your religion is engaged in the real world. And it always is, but when you're powerful enough, you can act like you're not doing it. When I was working on a hate crimes bill, what I discovered is white people, when you're talking about racial issues, they think you're talking about blacks and hispanics. They don't think they have a race. When you talk about gender issues, men think you're talking about women. They don't think they have a gender. When you talk about sexual orientation, heterosexuals think you're talking about gays and lesbians. They don't think they have an orientation. Very few people even know the meaning of universal human rights.

Democrats are really struggling with the issue of religion. Almost every Bush supporter I've met say they like him because he believes in God and is a good Christian man. I don't remember anyone saying, I like Clinton because he's a good Baptist.

To stop shadowboxing would be a good start. To stop being a little less bad than the Republicans would be a good start. But when you don't come from your own principles; when you try to be a corrective to somebody else's, people aren't going to follow you. Liberal is not an evil thing. Liberal means you look at things from different viewpoints; you believe in freedom; you believe in sharing. Those are not evil things, but we've become ashamed of the world of the virtues. Most liberals I know are not really liberal. I don't think of myself as a liberal. That's a term the conservatives have put on me. I like to learn about other cultures. I like to think they're as good as I am. I think the whole world should be fed and clothed. That's not really liberal, that's just being a human being. Caring about the environment. That's not liberal, that's just being responsible. To me, we've let ourselves be defined and we're kind of lost in the shadows.

Tell me about the pro-choice actions you've had. The Democrats are also struggling with that issue.

Again, it's about principles. If you believe a woman is a person, then she has the same rights over her body that a male has over his firearms, so you kind of look at it with that second amendment zeal. I'm not sure if that's been established in the constitution, that a woman is a person. When we struggle with fetal issues, does it have will, does it have integrity, well does a woman? I was sitting in when they (Texas politicians) were doing a lot of the debates and there wasn't a woman on the panels talking about a woman's most personal issues and there wasn't a woman there. How do you call that a democracy? If women aren't even in control of their own persons, it's not a democracy. If workers are wage slaves, then it's democracy in name only. The corporations choose the two puppets we vote for. The Democrats, on some of the most important issues, have sold us out a little less badly than the Republicans. Somebody who can't beat George Bush in a debate maybe shouldn't be able to go to Washington. They're not different enough.

How do you deal with frustrations and everyday political challenges?

The work just seems so important to me. It seems like the harder it is, or the fewer people that are doing it, the more important it is. The people who are attracted to prophetic issues need to realize that you're going to lose most of the time. When you start winning, the struggle is over. If you're really trying to build a habitual future, you're going to lose more then you're going to win, but that's so much more important. I'd much rather be in the company of the Martin Luther Kings and the Gandhis and lose, then be with the politicians and win. If people don't have hope, if nobody is saying the truth, then the future doesn't look very bright. Politically we have to compromise on what's doable, but I don't think you should ever compromise your principles and values.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

We spent the past week sweating in Austin. I grew up in Northern California and am not used to this weather, which I'm told is still mild compared to how it feels when summer actually starts. We initially planned to stay for only a few days, but we keep finding reasons to extend our stay.

Austin is considered by most of Texas to be the most liberal city in the state. The central party of the city is full of bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and an endless array of live music. The outlying areas are considered to be more conservative. Austin is in Travis County, where John Kerry won 56 percent of the vote. Despite its liberal leanings, Republicans have a great deal of influence in this town.

While in Austin, I met with members of the Texas Right to Life, Austin Republican Women, interviewed a Presbyterian minister who referenced The Daily Show in his sermon and had my first mega-church experience at the Shoreline Christian Center, a 47-acre facility with the capacity to seat 5,000 worshippers.

After finding a parking spot in Shoreline's packed lot, I immediately notice Shoreline bumper stickers on most of the cars. I walk into a packed auditorium with a 13-piece band and 32-person chorus on stage. I feel like I'm at a bad rock concert; the difference is, almost everyone in the audience raises their hands high in the air and has a Bible at their side. The people to my right jump up and down while screaming: "Jesus wants us to get to the summit!" After about 20 minutes of singing and dancing, Shoreline Pastor Rob Koke takes the stage and immediately begins preaching about the importance of valuing peace. "I want you to be a peacemaker. The world needs peacemakers," he says. Koke speaks about conflict at the global and local level, but never specifically mentions the Iraq war. During the second half of the service, I feel like I'm at a retreat for people who are working to improve their relationships and communication skills. After the service, I interview Pastor Rob Koke at a new worshiper reception in the church foyer complete with a Starbucks and a huge gift shop full of crosses and Christian books and CDs. Here are excerpts from that interview:

How did this church get started?

The church started in our home in 1987 and has progressed over the last 18 years to be this church. We have a 5,000-seat sanctuary here in town and somewhere between the neighborhood of 7-10,000 people call this church their home.

Tell me about the philosophy behind the church's teachings. How do you decide which topics to address?

I choose messages that will hopefully impact people's lives on Monday morning, and so it's not just about theology or pie in the sky type of information; it's practical because the Bible is a very practical book and helps people to live the Christian life productively and positively on Monday morning.

The word 'peace' came up many, many times, which is rare these days. Has your church taken a stand on the war?

We try to be as sensitive as we can on that issue. We're not a political organization, we're a spiritual focused organization. We have people from every walk of life that attend our church. If you look around, it's an incredibly diverse multicultural congregation, which is very unique. Whites are worshiping with African Americans and Hispanics. There are Republicans and Democrats and all different types of folks that worship together in this environment, so we don't strive to make a strong political statement; we strive to make a strong spiritual statement. Wherever that lands us on the political spectrum is not really important to us; what is important is that we're living with God in an intimate, beautiful way and loving our neighbors.

Have you been following the controversy over the churches that are getting involved in politics? Have you heard of the church in North Carolina that said if you don't support Bush, you're not welcome here?

We have many people that are very active in the political process, which we also encourage as a church. We want people to be active citizens and to say that we're not political doesn't mean to indicate that we don't encourage our congregation to be very, very active politically. We just draw the line. When people come to church, they're thinking about their marriages, their kids and how they can live a Christian life. That's where we want to apply the majority of our emphasis, but in the political season and spectrum of life, we want our church to be very, very active, so we encourage our congregation, which I would tend to think would be overwhelmingly Republican, to be active. I would never say, from our pulpit, anything related to that. I would be extremely uncomfortable doing that.

Why are so many Christian churches predominantly Republican? When I heard you today, you sounded like a liberal talking about peace and the poor.

What we preached here this morning is being reproduced in churches like ours all over the country, but that's not the story that's being told. The churches that are flourishing and growing are meeting the needs of people. Period. So the idea that there's some vast white, right wing conspiracy type mentality in the church world is just not right. We do stand for things. We are strongly pro-life on a spiritual basis, not a political basis. Of course, there's political ramifications to that, but in terms of what we believe theologically, we believe in the Bible, we believe that it's an inspired word of God and that has very real practical implications in terms of how we live our lives.

What denomination is this church?

It's an interdenominational church; it's not affiliated with any denomination.

Are you Republican?


How do you feel about the Iraq war?

You're going to talk to me personally versus pastorally. When you talk about war, there is a just defense. What I mean by that is if someone came into my home and wanted to rob my home, I'm going to put up a defense for my wife and children and that is biblically supported. You'd have to understand the motivation behind Iraq and Afghanistan. If you believe that the motivation was a lie and that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that it was all manipulated because of oil, then I think the net end result of that would be you would feel that it was wrong. But if you really sincerely believe that this is a defense of our nation and our values of nation, that we'll be safer as a nation after this process is over and we extend to the nations of the world a commitment to peace through strength and security, that's where that element comes in from our perspective. We think it's justified. We have a montage of military personnel that we pray for every single week. When people come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, they are treated as heroes in our congregation.

So you didn't support the war because of the weapons of mass destruction?

I think that's correct. The reality of it, personally for me, is do I believe that our world will be safer with Saddam gone. I say yes, wholeheartedly, and I think our congregation would agree with that.

Questions are often raised about the pro-life statement you made. Why doesn't war fall under the pro-life platform?

I'm pro-life, but if somebody wants to kill me, that's where it stops.

A memo recently came out that found intelligence was being fixed to support the war.

I haven't heard about that memo.

So basically, you're in favor of the war because Saddam was a dictator and we have to get rid of him.

Well, yeah.

Should we get rid of every dictator in the world?

When the dictator affects our national security.

Do you feel safer?

Yeah, absolutely.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Halliburton Shareholder Protest

After doing interviews about the most effective ways to organize in conservative areas with the ACLU of Texas, a minister at a Presbyterian Church in Austin and a member of Code Pink in a fishing community, we decided to drive back to Houston Tuesday night to attend a Wednesday morning protest in front of the Four Seasons Hotel, where Halliburton was having its annual shareholder meeting. About 200 activists from groups including Code Pink, North Texas for Justice and Peace, Ronald Reagan Home for the Criminally Insane and Houston Global Awareness participated. Sixteen people were arrested. Unlike the cops in the Bay Area, it was clear that Houston's police officers on horse don't deal with protesters on a regular basis, and when they do, their response is intimidating to say the least.

Halliburton, the world's largest private military contractor, has more than 50,000 people working in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), Halliburton's engineering and construction subsidiary, is the largest U.S. contractor in Iraq, doing everything from washing troops' clothing and serving meals to building bases and collecting garbage. The company's revenue grew by 20 percent in 2004 to over $20 billion; over a third of that revenue was from the contracts in Iraq. The US Army recently awarded KBR with a $72.2 million bonus for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vice President Dick Cheney ran Halliburton from 1995-2000; he still owns 433,000 Halliburton stock options worth more than $10 million, according to CorpWatch.

In a new report, called "Houston: We Still Have a Problem," CorpWatch and Global Exchange detail a number of current investigations involving the company, including an allegation by an Army official claiming that the Army Corps of Engineers illegally excluded Halliburton's competitors from bidding on Iraq contracts and a subpoena to a former KBR employee to determine whether the company over-charged for fuels imported into Iraq.

Outside of the meeting, protesters rallied with a giant "Cash Cow," calling on Halliburton to withdraw from Iraq. I asked a few passersby how they felt about the protest:

"Any kind of heat that can be drawn from this kind of activity is positive because if you don't, politicians who are in power won't respect the people. They'll just do what they want to do."

-Dave Curry, truck driver from Dallas

Dave Curry was the only passerby I interviewed who expressed support for the protesters and opposition to the war. The conversations I'm having with people who support the war are becoming laughable because they almost always contradict themselves and rarely, if ever, come up with a thoughtful, intelligent argument for "staying the course." The anti-war movement, on the other hand, often defines itself by being armed with facts and making strong, intellectual cases for opposing the war. An endless array of activists, academics and authors have written books and lengthy articles about the lies we were told, the marketing and spin involved, the profits being made and possible exit strategies. Those who support the war aren't working under the same framework. All they have to do is cheer for the team, put ribbons on their cars and sit back without worrying about the outcome. The following conversation with designer Jeff Vance is typical of what I'm finding here in Texas.

What do you think of this protest?

Everybody's got a right to protest. It's free speech.

Do you think this kind of action makes an impact?

I think they should have it somewhere else, not in the middle of downtown. There's a lot of tax payer money out here with all the police.

Do you agree with what they're saying?

Maybe 50 percent. Halliburton probably didn't do the right thing on a lot of issues, but I don't know the whole story.

What about the war?

I think the war is good.


You can't have other countries trying to rule the whole world, so I believe in the war. I do. I really do.

Do you keep up with it?

Somewhat, yes. You have to because it's part of the economy.

What about the reasons for going to war?

Well, you gotta knock people out of power that don't go with the rules and regulations. Yeah, I believe in war. I really do.

Do you think we should knock off every bad guy?

As long as we go at it with certain tactics, as long as you don't go and start bombing other countries, no, I don't believe in that.

But that's what we're doing...

Well, somewhat we are, yes, but we give them chances. We work with them and give them chances.

-Jeff Vance, designer from Houston

Inside the meeting, Halliburton CEO David Lesar heard from shareholders Medea Benjamin and Andrea Buffa of Global Exchange. I caught up with Medea Benjamin shortly after the meeting ended. She owns 100 shares of Halliburton, the minimum amount needed to attend.

What happened in the meeting?

We asked lots of questions. We could tell that Halliburton is not happy with its reputation in this country about its work in Iraq. They are very anxious to sell off or spin off Kellogg, Brown and Root. Even though they get over a third of their entire revenue from the work they do in Iraq, in terms of profits it's very low for them. They say it's one penny on the dollar and if they get some of the bonuses, they can get up to two pennies on the dollar, whereas in their other services, because of the huge profits being made on oil these days, they get 19 cents on the dollar. They also have to deal with the terrible liability of these families who are suing them because of the conditions in Iraq and so they are very anxious to spin off Kellogg, Brown and Root and get rid of this particular headache. I did ask how much money Dick Cheney is receiving every year and doesn't that seem like a terrible conflict of interest to the rest of the world and they said that he did receive about $195,000 and whether it was a terrible conflict of interest -- that's for the rest of the world to decide.

Did anything new come out of today's meeting?

To me what was new is I feel that there is a real sense of urgency to get out of Iraq for Halliburton. They have so many other opportunities they say to make more money with less headaches. The accountants who were there from the industry were also saying they have been criticized for the tremendous amount of their revenue that is now coming from government sources. It is not good for the business and they would be much better off if they were purely an energy company. Energy is where the money is now; you don't make enough money feeding lunches to the troops or doing their laundry.

What's the demographic of the shareholders?

It is at least 90 percent elderly white men. It was almost a caricature being in that room. The fact that the entire shareholder meeting lasted for 20 minutes. I have been to shareholder meetings of lots of companies from Nike to Coca-Cola to the Gap and hundreds and hundreds of people come to those and they go on for hours. They're doing it because legally they have to do it. So it's over in twenty minutes. The elderly white guys get up to leave; they don't even bother to have the breakfast that's outside for them.

How did they respond to you and your questions?

Three attorneys and two security guards followed me. Even the security woman followed me into the bathroom. They are terribly afraid of us and the attorneys said, please don't make us regret that we allowed you to come in, after giving us an incredible run around for 40 minutes. They knew we were totally, legally within our right to come in and tried to find any little loophole to keep us from there. Once we came in, we were surrounded. They were so afraid of us. It was kind of funny because we just kept laughing, saying, hey we're just going to ask questions. We had a list of 15 questions that we had written up and were allowed to give to the shareholders at the end. David Lesar came up and shook my hand afterwards and said, thank you for coming. I think they were very relieved that we didn't pour blood on the shareholders or something like that.

You're involved in so many actions across the country. How do the actions in San Francisco compare to actions in Houston?

My hat goes off to the people in Houston who do this kind of work because the police are not on our side. They are aggressive with the way they do their arrests. They are so cavalier about using their horses and the attitude is one of tremendous hostility from the very beginning, whereas in the Bay Area sometimes things have gone badly, but in general we feel that we can talk to the police and get some communication going with them. It's much more hostile here. It's very important to be supportive of groups doing these types of protests in the real belly of the beast which is in Texas. Thank goodness for these very brave Texas souls and you see real diversity here in terms of age. We have a number of people in Code Pink that are both young and elderly and I'm really delighted that the elderly people are willing to come out here and aren't scared away by the horses and the arrests.

A lot of activists here told me they feel isolated because people living near the coasts write off the red states.

I feel like we have to work much more in communities that feel isolated. Code Pink just put out a book, "Stop the Next War Now," and we're going on a 100-city tour and a lot of the cities we're going to are places like Houston, and towns in the midwest. We're trying to get off of the coasts and into the heartland of this country. You find when you go there, while the groups might be small, they are really committed, determined and incredibly well informed. We need to not only be inclusive of them, but really listen to them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

ACLU of TX Finds Common Ground with GOP

As civil liberties activists continue to struggle at the federal level, the ACLU of Texas has had several victories at the state level. In fact, it's one of the only public interest groups nationwide with consistent victories under a Republican-dominated legislature. The organization has developed coalitions comprised of people from all political stripes and played a key role in passing legislation that would have died without Republican support. I recently met with Scott Henson, director of the police accountability project for the ACLU of Texas. Henson has worked on 68 political campaigns in Texas over the past 12 years. He grew up in East TX, the most Conservative part of the state, and spent his childhood attending the First Baptist Church.

How did you end up at the ACLU?

I grew up a small government Republican and it turns out Republicans aren't really very small government. I thought it might be possible to be a small government Democrat, but there aren't many of those either. I've mostly worked in the Democratic party as a consultant.

You spend a lot of time working with, rather than fighting, Republicans?

I have to think about their values and how can I argue for policies based on where our values overlap. Since the ACLU primarily is about defending the Bill of Rights, the truth is, you look at Republican rhetoric and a lot of it is based on the Bill of Rights; it's just that they're worried about the second and tenth, and we're worried about the first, the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth... so it's just a difference of emphasis. We showed up this session and supported a bill to allow anyone who's not a felon to carry a legal handgun in their vehicle. We showed up at a hearing and I testified and actually suggested the language in the bill that wound up being adopted and the National Rifle Association obviously was there strongly supporting it, but oddly enough it was the ACLU that suggested this language that wound up getting in the bill. It basically says, if you're not a crook, you can carry a gun in your car. One of the arguments that I made at the hearing was this is very similar to the situation to consent searches by policy. Police officers search your car looking for guns and drugs. If a gun is legal, the police shouldn't be harassing law abiding citizens over it. A legal gun shouldn't be contraband when it's in the possession
of a law abiding citizen. The act of supporting that bill for those reasons meant that the next week when the consent search bill was up, low and behold the NRA shows up and they're in support of the consent search bill. Why? Because they learned the previous week that the two reasons they're searched are for drugs and guns. That gave that bill legs that it would not have had if ACLU and NAACP were the only endorsing organizations.

Givin' a little love gets you some love. The truth is, the right wing doesn't hate ACLU. The right wing is disappointed in ACLU. The right wing thinks ACLU should be better than we are. They think if we really supported rights, we'd support gun owners' rights. Almost every right winger who's a thoughtful person at all will say, we need the ACLU, but we need them to be better than they are. There's some, the Phyllis Schlafly's of the world that just hate the group, or Bill O'Reilly or whatever, but that's its own extremist breed. The more thoughtful conservatives are really just disappointed in ACLU.

It sounds like you tend to go after issues that are in line with Republican beliefs, rather than go after issues like gay marriage or abortion.

We work on those issues too, but we lose more often. There's really not any way to have a dialog on abortion because of the historical framing and the way it is wrapped in the electoral process. Personally, I'm in favor of Hillary Clinton's efforts to think about what a political compromise would be because we're going to have to have one. Very few on the left, even here, are looking for those strategic wedges. Instead, it's been about rallying the base and electing more Democrats. The truth
is, most of the ideologues on the left and right are fools. We have to figure out how to make all this work and it's not gonna happen if we're just screaming at each other. Usually, if you sit in a room long enough, you figure out where your common ground is. You can do that even with the right wing.

How do you feel about national politics and the Democrats who ignore the so-called Red States?

People in the South are just going to have to suck up and do things themselves. Maybe when some liberal asshole decides what we're doing is worthwhile, they'll come down and kick some money in, but we're sure not gonna wait on 'em.

Progressive communities across the country are having heated debates about where the left needs to go from here. What message would you send them?

I would say as Jon Stewart said on Crossfire: You're hurting America. Please stop hurting America. Saul Alinsky said, "Radicals owe it to their principals to be effective." How many days can you spend waving a sign on the side of the road and go home at night and live with yourself thinking that you've accomplished anything worthwhile? I gave that up a long time ago and don't understand why the left doesn't see it. Protests are a tactic among an array of tactics and it's not the only thing. In
fact, it's not the best thing. It's rarely effective. Same thing with direction action. I've been in politics, more or less professionally for 13 years, and I have been involved in one situation where direct action actually achieved a policy goal. That was where Earth First stopped road construction in time for attorneys to get the court to issue an injunction. They stopped Ross Perot in the early 90's from building a loop around Austin. It's the only direct action in my entire adult life that I have personally witnessed or been around that accomplished a tangible policy goal. I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, that were nothing but group masturbation sessions.

There are a lot of people doing just that in places like San Francisco.

Do something real. Don't just whine and complain. It's not about you. It's not about showing how radical you are. Who cares? The best way to accomplish anything in politics is to give away credit and on the left, people are just concerned about claiming credit for things they had nothing to do with.

Do you feel part of the debate about where to go from here?

We're just going. We've mapped out a strategy for how to work in a red state and have been pursuing it aggressively for five years. We're not waiting for y'all to figure it out and tell us. When the ACLU first showed up, we were laughed out of a lot of offices and not allowed a place at the table. It took some victories and after you've killed a few bills in certain committees, people realize they have to start taking you seriously. Slowly you start to get a place at the table. Now, on most of our main criminal justice issues, we do have a place at the table, but it took time.

How much power do the Democrats have in Texas?

It's about 60/40 in the legislature and actually, that's part of the reason we're able to be effective. If we can retain 80 percent of the Democrat base and then get 30-40 percent of Republicans to support us on an issue, we can pass bills.

What are some of your recent successes?

Our legislative session is once every two years. We are right at a moment where everything is up in the air. There's two weeks left. Everything can pass. Everything can fail. The biggest bill is probation reform that would actually keep Texas from building about 30,000 new prison beds over the next five years and cut the length of probation in half and allow mechanisms for probationers to earn their way off of probation through good behavior.

And you worked with the Republicans on that bill?

Yes. We don't have to pitch our idea in the most radical way and people don't have to vote for them for the reasons that we support them and that's valid. This my main beef about San Francisco liberals. I've never heard more whining about diversity from California liberals and I have never met anyone who was less tolerant of actual diversity of opinion
than from people in San Francisco. It's just as bad in New York. The truth is, they can't handle diversity. Most of us grew up in a racially diverse environment and that isn't that radical anymore. People still say, oh, I have a black friend. Really? Have a conservative friend and then I'll be impressed.

Many progressives in blue states are disenchanted and irritated. How do you deal with your frustrations?

Years ago, when all of my friends went to New York, San Francisco and DC, I made a decision that I was going to stay here in Texas and work on Texas. I'm from here and I'm not going to let my politics run me out. I like state politics 'cause you can go lay your hands on those sons of bitches; you don't have to just send an action alert or an email and hope someone will read it.

Do you enjoy the challenge?

I enjoy success. I don't want to leave you with the impression that my opinions or positions on this are typical of the left in Texas. I think a lot of the left in Texas is wrapped up in the same kind of foolishness that I was criticizing about San Francisco and a lot of them are folks who either went out there to live for a while and came back or came from there and moved here. At ACLU, we're actually trying something that's fairly radical and different and looking for ways to encourage
Republicans when we have common ground and finding ways to work with them.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Camping with Democrats

What a treat it was to find the only vegetarian restaurant in Kerrville after being in Crystal City for a few days, where the beans are cooked in bacon. The Italian and German owners of the new restaurant said the locals have yet to embrace the healthy lifestyle and believe their family is a "bit whacky." A few people walked by, looked at the menu and moved on.

On the drive back from the restaurant, we spotted yet another 24-Hour Wal-Mart Supercenter and an endless array of Churches. I saw 14 Churches, all within a three mile radius, including First Baptist, Zion Lutheran, St. Paul's United Methodist, Impact Christian Fellowship and Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. I then looked in the phone book to find 72 Churches in town, all of which are packed on Sundays, according to the owner of a local BBQ restaurant that's been around for 23 years. It's a typical old fashioned BBQ joint, complete with deer heads, guns and old newspaper articles on the walls, and Wonder Bread on every table. When I walked in, Fox News was blaring, so I assumed the owners were Republicans. I was wrong. They're lifelong Democrats who say they never talk politics with their Republican customers. It seems every Democrat I meet here is in the closet.

After returning to KOA, I decided to knock on few RV doors. The man with the "W '04" sticker on his truck sternly said he wasn't interested in being interviewed, but the man with the "God Bless Our Troops" ribbon on his truck was more than happy to talk. I enjoy approaching people here, because unlike the Bay Area, I never know what I'm going to find. John Waters, 74, didn't waste any time revealing his politics. John has been a full-time RVer since 1991.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

A woman and her dad came here one day looking for a restroom. I pointed one out for them and she spoke of this being Kerryville. I was tempted to say, Damn, I wish it was.

What's it like being a Democrat in this area?

Well, I don't broadcast it too much. It absolutely amazes me because I'm really more independent now, although recently I've typically voted more Democrat than Republican. For the first roughly 2/3 of my voting, I typically voted Republican. That was the family tradition.

Why'd you switch over from Republican to Democrat?

I've become more interested and more aware and sought more information and considered things more carefully than I did before. There are some differences in the party, but the way I see it, the parties have flip-flopped quite a bit in the past couple of decades.

Did you like Kerry or was your vote a vote against Bush?

I greatly dislike Bush. I'm so greatly disappointed with our election process that I think I shall not vote again until such a time when the elections are totally government funded.

When did you make that pledge?

Just recently, after the last election. I see more and more warts. The parties have polarized people and I think that polarization comes about more from the Republicans than the Democrats, but neither one of them really are as good as they should be.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Camping with Republicans

We spent the past few days in Kerville, a retired, predominantly Republican community. In Kerr County, Bush got 16,538 votes; Kerry got 4,557. Kerrville is part of the Texas Hill Country, and is said to be the nicest place to retire in Texas and one of the top 10 in the country. The drive through the Hill Country's rolling terrain was beautiful. It was nice to escape the strip malls and be surrounded by trees, rivers and free-roaming animals on huge ranches. We were clearly entering a prosperous area.

We camped at the KOA in Kerrville and were surrounded by large RVs, American flags and "Support Our Troops" ribbons. Again, everyone was incredibly friendly, asking us where we're from and where we're going next.

After telling KOA Manager John Rogers about my project, he revealed that he's a liberal Democrat, but is registered as a Republican because there are never any Democrats on the ballot in local elections. "I wouldn't be able to vote as a registered Democrat," he said. John doesn't talk politics and would never wear a shirt or put a bumper sticker on his car that reveals his politics because it "wouldn't be to my advantage." John also told me that most of our neighbors are full-time "RVers," meaning they live in their RVs year round.

Bill and Jane Blalack have lived in their nicely decorated RV, complete with a bird chirping clock, for 13 years. They live in Kerrville for seven months out of the year and Northern Arizona for five. They invited me into their RV after I told them about my project and expressed an interest in asking them a few questions. Bll, 75, and Jane, 73, have been married for 55 years.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

How do you keep up with current events and the news?

Jane: We have two TVs. We have one in the bedroom and one in here. We're out and about in the community. We're very active in our Church. We have a Church group in Arizona and one here.

Do you also take time to vote wherever you are?

Jane: We vote right here in the rec room on the campground. We register to vote here, we register our car here and we have our mailing address here.

Bill: We have our telephone here and we're online with the computer so we keep up with everything.

Jane: We're at home wherever we are.

Why do you think this area is so Republican?

Bill: Kerrville is a unique town. Many people that live in this area are retired.

What is it about retired people that draws them to the Republican party?

Jane: There are a lot of well to do people here. I think this county is one of the richest counties in Texas per capita. The first time we went to Church, we would ask people, how long have you lived here? Oh, two years, four years, six years. We had a long time before we found any natives that had grown up here.

What issues are most important to you?

Jane: Medicare is most important to us and the medicare prescription is important to us because we're in that age group and we have to buy the medicine. We don't know how it's going to turn out.

Do you think the Bush administration is doing a good job on that issue?

Jane: Oh, I don't know. I'm not seeing much progress. It seems to me there is never any unity in our government. I would not want to be President. I think his hands are tied.

Are you a fan of the President?

Jane: Yes, I like him.

What do you like about him?

Jane: He's just a friendly, outgoing person and I like the fact that he does admit that he has a faith in God and that he seeks his will and I think that's what we need for our country. We have turned from what our country was founded on and we have gone to the other extreme as a country.

Which is what?

Jane: To just whatever anybody wants to do. There are no guidelines; there are no rules. We have a friend in Arizona who was appointed a federal judge several years ago and the only thing that they could find wrong with him was that he was an active Christian and I think that's wrong. I think we should be allowed and not be criticized for our faith. I think Bush is criticized for it.

Did you hear about the Church in North Carolina where the pastor basically said if you don't support Bush, you're not welcome here?

Bill: I think that's terrible and that's not Christianity at all. It doesn't matter whether we're Catholic, Baptist, it doesn't matter.

Jane: That's wrong. He's doing it under the name of the Church and that's not what the Lord would have us do. Everyone should be welcome and their beliefs should be welcome.

Do you think politic s should be brought into the Church?

Jane: No, and religion should not be brought into politics.

Have you ever voted Democrat or do you always vote Republican?

Jane: We voted Democrat when we were young. As a matter of fact, our parents would probably have just been horrified if they ever knew we changed and voted Republican. The part of Texas we were in, mostly everybody was Democrat.

Why did you change and when did you change?

Jane: Forty years ago at least.

Bill: We had what we called "yellow dog" Democrats. If a yellow dog was running, they would vote for him.

Jane: We tried to vote for the person and what they stood for and that's really when we switched more to the Republican.

What was it about the Republican party that made you switch?

Bill: Conservatism.

What does that mean? And what does the term "liberal ideologue" mean to you? Those terms are always being thrown around.

Bill: Liberals believe that everybody oughta be equal. There's nothing wrong with that. They're more, I think, communist. In other words, they think the government oughta divide everything up. They believe in a strong central government, whereas the conservative is less government and I think that's what we need. We need to be able to take care of ourselves.

What do you think about the amount of money being spent overseas versus the money spent here at home? The Bush administration is constantly seeking billions to spend in Iraq and it's not running a small government.

Jane: Well, that's true. Our government needs to be a little more conservative about money. When we see the conventions, we see the money they're spending that they could be putting to better use and especially the money they spend on these campaigns and yet they say we need more money for this and that and they aren't willing to cut their lifestyle. The government is too well paid. They could take that money and spread it around and help more people.

You sound like a liberal...

Jane: The Republicans can spread it around too, now...(laughs)

Would you be open to voting for Democrats in the future?

Jane: It's possible it could change and Democrats could be more conservative. We would consider the issues and the person. We're not tied to the (Republican) party.

Before I left, Bill and Jane grabbed my hands and asked if they could say a prayer for the rest of my journey. "God, thank you for bringing Rose into our home. Please watch over and protect her as she continues her journey. Amen."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Another Wal-Mart...in Uvalde, TX

I'm finding that the best places to interview people are at gas stations, campgrounds, hotels, the parking lots of grocery stores and Wal-Mart. Before leaving Uvalde yesterday, I spent two hot hours in the Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot interviewing a number of people -- all Bush supporters this time around. A few days ago, I found mostly Democrats.

Here are excerpts from a few of those interviews:

Rodrigo Domingo, 53
Overnight stocker at Wal-Mart
Voted for Bush

How long have you worked for Wal-Mart?

Seven years. I used to unload trucks. You can say I got a promotion.

Did you get a raise with that promotion?


How does the company treat its employees? Do they give you enough time off? Do they pay for your health insurance?

I doubt that any company pays for your health insurance. We get to buy insurance. Wal-Mart pays for half. They give us the time off we need. They have all sorts of benefits, like the discount card. To be able to raise your hourly wage, you have to work harder than your neighbor.

Have you read about the sex discrimination suit against Wal-Mart?

I've read about it, but I don't believe it. There are a lot of management people here that started in maintenance or unloading trucks. There's opportunity for promotion or to change to a different area.

People also say that when Wal-Mart comes to town, the smaller shops are pushed out because they can't compete.

Not necessarily. That's one of the reasons why Wal-Mart moved out of the city, so they wouldn't be competing with the smaller stores in town. We're way out here. The smaller stores are in town. If the customer drives all the way here, they want a better bargain.

So it's capitalism at work.

It's America. That's what it is.

People are writing books and articles about Wal-Mart, saying Wal-Mart's owners are always on the "richest people in the world" lists, making millions of dollars, and it's not fair to pay the employees so little. What message would you send to those people who are writing the books and doing the research?

They wouldn't understand because those people are up there in skyscrapers. They themselves are making high salaries. If they were to come to South Texas in the hot weather and without a college degree, they would take this job. It would be better than working out in the fields. What would they know? I challenge them to come down here and do some work and find out what's going on. Up there, you can dictate, but you don't know what's going on behind the table. I'm very happy with this company.

Jean Ward, 79
Retired Teacher in Uvalde
Voted for Bush

What do you do for fun here?

I go to the show. I eat out. I visit my daughters. I'm a retired school teacher after 34 years and have gone back substituting off and on in the lower grades.

How's the education system here?

I think it's ok.

How do people tend to vote in this town?

The school board is half and half. I'd say the teachers are half and half.

Do you vote?

Oh, you bet I do. That's our right. People fought for that right and I certainly believe in that.

Are you a fan of President Bush?

Oh yes, he's from Texas.

What do you like about him?

I like his personality. He's just outspoken and does what he thinks he's supposed to do.

Do you always vote Republican?

I've voted both, but I really wanted him because he was Governor. I mean there's lots of complaints about him, but there's complaints about everybody.

Do you think he's done a good job over the past four years?

Well, he did what he thought was right.

Has your life improved over the past four years?

It wasn't much better before he became President, so I can't complain. I think school teachers needs more money.

Are you open to voting for a Democrat?

Oh yeah. If I like 'em, I vote for 'em. I'm not just a cut and dry Republican. I imagine we'll have a Democrat next time. And maybe even a woman.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Blue Texas

We spent the weekend in Crystal City, the most Democratic area in Texas. And one of the poorest. The population here is just over 8000. It's 98 percent Hispanic and Kerry got 75 percent of the vote. On Saturday, we stopped at a flea market and interviewed a number of women who believe Democrats have always been for the underdog and the party of the poor. One woman works 64 hours a week at three jobs and makes under $6/hour.

We then passed a huge Viva La Bush sign and decided to stop. I knocked on the front door and said I'm a journalist from California who is traveling the country talking to people about politics and current events. The family welcomed me with open arms and offered me pastries from a local bakery. I stayed for a few hours and interviewed them about why they switched over from Democrat to Republican: 9/11. "You cannot change a President during war." They all voted for Clinton, but believe he ignored Osama bin Laden because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They also believe Democrats allow too many people to rely on welfare, especially in this town where the unemployment rate is 14 percent. They call themselves poor Republicans.

The next day, we went to the Church of the Almighty (we're planning to go to church every Sunday to get a feel for the area and interview pastors about whether they mix politics and religion) and were surrounded by children. Every woman in church had at least two kids. Yesterday's service was dedicated to Mother's Day. The pastor recognized the mom with the youngest child and the oldest mom in the room. He then recognized the mom with the most children: five. And...the youngest mom in the room! I interviewed the pastor after the service and asked him if it's a good idea to celebrate the youngest mom in the room considering this town clearly has a teen pregnancy problem. He said he realized it was a mistake after he did it, but had an extra gift and has known the youngest mom since she was 12. This particularly pastor refuses to bring politics into his church.

So far, everyone has been incredibly hospitable. At least a dozen people greeted us with handshakes and hugs at church.

As far as the town goes, Crystal City is basically two long roads. This town clearly had a larger past than present. The movie theater in town shows one film a few times a day: The House of Wax for $4. The shops nearby are empty and dilapidated. Pizza Hut and the Dairy Queen are the only chains in town, but are localized. We drove by a pinata party at Pizza Hut and saw a sign for a Rancheros Plate at the Dairy Queen.

Del Monte is the largest employer in town, but only pays $5.35 an hour, according to the locals. They used to employ 700 people; today, they employ 200.

I'm shocked at the high cost of everything, including groceries, restaurants and hotels. It's really no different from the Bay Area. We recently found our first gas station with a $1.98/gallon sign. It's been just over $2 thus far. Considering jobs are scarce and most of the people I've met make minimum wage, I don't know how they make ends meet.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Polluted Rio Grande

We decided to head to the Southern tip of Texas to find out why people in the area chose Kerry over Bush. In passing conversations, most people say Kerry won because the area is populated by poor Latinos.

First stop: Laredo, the fastest growing city on the Rio Grande. More than 90 percent of Laredo's population is Latino, and most residents are bilingual. Laredo and Mexico are separated by the heavily polluted Rio Grande. According to Lonely Planet, Immigration and Naturalization Service officers a re forbidden to pursue people into the water because it's so contaminated.

Driving near the Mexican border, we thought we finally escaped Chain Store USA. The streets are narrow and full of taco carts and stores selling cheap trinkets from both Mexico and China. We also spotted several Gun & Ammo shops. Then we entered the "new" area of town and were greeted by the usual suspects: Best Buy, Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Radio Shack and Old Navy. There is no escaping chain stores. The development is no different from one town to the next.

We then stopped in a local restaurant to find more than 25 deer heads, five boar heads, snakes and a variety of other creatures. After asking our waiter where we could find wireless Internet access, he excitedly said there's a Starbucks up the road and two Wal-Marts in town!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Bursting the Liberal Bubble...

You never realize what a small bubble you live in until you leave it. I still can't get used to seeing "Bush/Cheney '04" and "Thinking Women Vote Republican" bumper stickers. Those stickers are nowhere to be found in San Francisco. Sure, 54,355 people voted for Bush in San Francisco, but the majority don't publicize their politics on their cars.

Then there's the radio. All conservative men, all the time. With the exception of a few callers, I have yet to hear any females. Billboards across Texas advertise conservative hosts like Michael Savage and Michael Medved. Since we're spending so much time on the road, we're spending a lot of time listening to the radio. NPR is available in the big cities, but once we hit rural areas, the signal dies. Lucky for the locals, most AM signals are incredibly strong. Why is Sean Hannity still talking about the Runaway Bride? And why are his callers so obsessed over why she ran away and whether she should reimburse officials for the time and money they spent searching for her? Imagine if they spent that time talking about a real issue.