Friday, August 26, 2005

Camp Casey, Part 1

I grew up in Louisiana, mostly. Kindergarten in Gueydan, high school in Haughton, college in Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Lots of formative experiences, sex, drugs and rock and roll-wise (not to mention alcohol, Zydeco, plus a generous helping of Harlan Ellison, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson and other subversive literature). But my wife also ended up on the West Coast for seven years, and my political education moved into overdrive.
Portland, Oregon is a teeming hotbed of political subversion, where you can find matronly-looking housewives arguing Black Panther historical minutiae with young anarchists, where Ralph Nader is embraced with the messianic zeal reserved in the South for Dale Earnhardt. While there, in between generous helpings of Kropotkin and Philip K. Dick, I helped found a street newspaper (sold by homeless vendors) and a union local, served on the staff of a collectively-owned bookstore and volunteered in the quixotic 2004 presidential campaign of vegan peacenik Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Portland was like a seven-year boot camp, learning skills and cultivating passions to then be put to use in the harsher, outside world, where openly gay city council members and worker-owned bike shops aren’t the norm. Places such as northwest Louisiana.
When it appeared a few weeks ago that the momentum of political dissent in this country was shifting to Crawford, a small town just south of Waco, Texas, just five hours away from Shreveport, there was no way I was going to miss being a part of it in some direct way. Crawford is, of course, the location of the vacation home of George W. Bush, where he has retired for five weeks(!) this summer. Unfortunately for him, his respite, and no doubt his sleep, have been haunted by the vigil of Cindy Sheehan and her supporters.
Sheehan, from Vacaville, California, is the mother of Casey Sheehan, who was killed in combat in Iraq in April of 2004. Although verbally supportive of Bush at the time, she has emerged as an outspoken opponent of his war and demands a second meeting with him to discuss that opposition. Her vigil has captured the attention of the nation, and thousands have flown, driven and otherwise made their way to the hastily-organized Camp Casey in Crawford to join her.
When I decided to go to Crawford myself, I recruited my good buddy Kevin Sandlin for the trip, knowing he wasn’t working during the weekend set aside, August 20-21. He quickly agreed, although there seemed to be some skepticism up until the morning of our departure. Wanting to make the most of the trip for those spending days and even weeks at Camp Casey, I tried to get the word out that I would be accepting donations of supplies needed at the camp – bottled water, coffee, fruit, batteries. Most of this was done through personal emails, although I also sent press releases to print, radio and television outlets. The Shreveport Times and the local ABC affiliate, KTBS Channel 3, both had some coverage, too late for donations, but important for getting the word out that someone from Shreveport was undertaking this. The t.v. news segment was aired several times the evening before and morning of our departure, and many people, family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, have commented about seeing it. Never have I truly realized the power of television before this experience.
My parents donated the use of their pickup truck and a Shell credit card, no small contribution in this summer of $2.50 plus gas prices. Kevin and I got on the road about 9:15 Saturday morning, with a backpack apiece plus three cases of bottled water, two packages of Community Coffee, bags of oranges and pears, and an assortment of batteries. “Born to Be Wild” was playing on the radio, and we discussed Captain America and Billy the Kid in Easy Rider, as we headed out on our decidedly less glamorous but hopefully more meaningful road trip. We hoped Jack Nicholson wouldn’t mind riding in the back of the truck.
The drive was decidedly no-frills, with gas, food and comfort stops consolidated as much as possible. I told my wife the culinary fare would be “Slim Jims and Ding Dongs” the whole way, and that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. We wanted to maximize our time in the 100-degree Central Texas heat, so there was no lingering over the chicken-fried steak and key lime pie at Cletus’ Truck Stop, although I did share with Kevin my fascination with truck stops, particularly the vast array of merchandise (does a truck driver really need an impulse-buy fake samurai sword, even if it’s endorsed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?)(and did you think you would be reading the name Dale Earnhardt twice in this account?).
After five hours, one chili dog, one custard-filled donut, and one vanilla crème soda, we arrived at the Crawford Peace House. My impression of Crawford is of a tiny crossroads of a town surrounded by sprawling, Texas-style ranches. The main intersection features a handful of restaurants and gas stations, featuring George and Laura souvenirs. A few houses are concentrated here, including the Peace House just across the railroad tracks. In every way, the house is an oasis.
Crawford, and its larger neighbor Waco, are about midway between Dallas and Austin. Too far west for the lush, piney woods landscape of East Texas, too far north for Texas Hill Country and too far east for the stark, lunar beauty of West Texas. We’re basically talking flat and treeless, with very little natural relief from the ever-present, baking August sun, except for a steady, subtle breeze. Unless one had the good fortune to be at the Peace House or at Camp Casey.
The Crawford Peace House was purchased by a visionary Dallas activist named Johnny Wolf a few years ago. Knowing that the Appointed One would be spending quite a bit of time in Crawford, Wolf figured there might be a time when the opposition would need to be taken there. May his name one day be remembered with the same reverence as that given to Paul Revere, Henry David Thoreau, Abbie Hoffman and other great patriots. Because damned if that sonofagun didn’t find the shadiest spot in all of central Texas to make his stand.
The house itself is architecturally nondescript, but was bustling with activity, with tents set up to accommodate media and distribution of t-shirts, bumper stickers and literature. A modest but unused labyrinth was set near the house, its suggested serenity almost mocking our ant-like activity, with shuttles leaving for the camps, supplies being unloaded into the two U-haul trucks rented for the occasion, and people marveling at the places others had traveled from to get to this place at this historical moment.
After some brief mingling and browsing, Kevin and I caught a shuttle to Camp Casey I. For those who haven’t been following this story with the same obsessiveness I have (and why not, I’d like to know?), the original vigil was set up in a ditch at a three-road intersection, about five miles from the Bush ranch. Several tents are still set up in what has to be (did you guess it?) the only extended patch of shade within visual range. The most moving and sobering aspect of Camp Casey I is the display of 1800+ white crosses honoring the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq. This is the display that was run down by an irate local, an action which led directly to the temporary donation of a parcel of land even closer to the Bush ranch for use by the camp. This parcel is known as Camp Casey II, and its owner is either the cousin of the man who ran down the crosses or the cousin of another neighbor who fired his shotgun into the air to intimidate the campers.

To be continued...

Monday, August 22, 2005


Hello, friends. My big news right now is that I just returned from Crawford, Texas, where I my buddy Kevin Sandlin and I spent a day and night in Camp Casey, just outside of the Bush vacation ranch. I took voluminous notes, and will collect my thoughts in just a couple of days, but rest assured that the Crawford is Ground Zero for the movement to end this war. And this war will end, whether President Cheney, Co-president Rove and their administration and most of the politicians and the media want it to or not. The citizens are demanding it, the soldiers are demanding it, and those who think they are in control will find out very differently.
But for now, let me clear out some writings that haven't found a home yet. I'm beginning to think my first book will be called "Not Quite Ready for the Shreveport Times," given all the opinion pieces they pass on. This one refers to an article from two weeks ago, in those halcyon days when gas was $2.25 a gallon and we still cautiously told each other, "Kind of a mild summer, huh?"

The Sunday Times roundtable discussion “of Unity, Theology and Outreach,” featuring six local ministers, was simply baffling much of the time, both in structure and content. It is very difficult to believe that anything resembling the spiritual diversity of Shreveport-Bossier was even attempted, despite the claim that, “The Times invited pastors from across denominational, racial and geographic lines….”
First, there was no crossing of gender lines. All six ministers were men, although I can think of three area female ministers I’ve met, even though I am not a regular churchgoer.
Second, there was denominational diversity only within the confines of Christianity. There was no rabbi, no Muslim minister, no representative of any spiritual belief from India or the Far East.
Finally, in a community that is close to equally divided racially, the ratio of white to black ministers was 83% to 17%.
Now that the structural analysis is complete, let’s look at some of the content of the discussion. Most of the ministers state opinions about our society that simply border on the delusional. The presidency, Congress and the courts are increasingly dominated by fundamentalist Christians like Bush, Delay, Ashcroft, Frist, Santorum and Scalia. A non-believer would face a tremendous uphill battle running for city- or statewide office here. Yet many of these ministers would have us believe that the Red River separates Sodom and Gomorrah, not Shreveport and Bossier.
Some of the sweeping generalizations are simply mind-boggling. In the very first paragraph, Broadmoor Baptist Rev. Chuck Pourciau says, “…society is at its healthiest when religious influence is at its greatest.” Given that statement, which is not taken out of context, I would assume that that Rev. Pourciau’s ideal societies today would be Iran, Saudi Arabia, most of Afghanistan. Utopias of the past would include Spain under the Inquisition and Salem at the time of the Witch Trials, no doubt.
Let us not forget Iraq, either. As a new Iraqi constitution is being written, there is a good chance that women will face severe restrictions because of concessions to fundamentalist Islamic factions. Let’s consider that for a moment. Because of greater religious influence, Iraqi women could be facing a situation where they are legally less free than they were under the secular dictator Saddam Hussein. Incredible.
Under the topic heading “On combating secularism,” Our Savior Lutheran Rev. Craig Boehlke asserts, “We’re living in a post-Christian era. It’s post-modern. Nobody believes in truth anymore,” (italics mine). I would assure Rev. Boehlke that there is at least one Shreveport who believes in truth, which is why I spend so much of my time combating the political expression of fundamentalist religious hypocricy, whether it be the misogyny and indiscriminate murder of Osama Bin Laden or the lies, willful ignorance, election theft and imperialistic cryptofascism of George W. Bush.
Finally, Praise Temple Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral Bishop Larry Brandon says, “I was shocked two weeks ago when I was walking out of Books A Million and right in the front window they were displaying a book on witchcraft. Once upon a time in this area that would not have been so visible.” I have two issues with this statement. One, why is a criticism of witchcraft contained under “On combating secularism”? A serious practitioner of witchcraft is acting on spiritual, not secular, beliefs. There is nothing in the full statement that relates to secularism, only to what Bishop Brandon obviously would classify as a competing belief. Also, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that Bishop Brandon is referring to the new Harry Potter book. If I am wrong, I apologize in advance. But my experience of Books A Million is of a bookstore catering to very conventional tastes, with a large selection of “inspirational” Christian titles. I don’t think the local covens, much less the serious secular intellectuals, are finding much of interest there, any more than they’ll find much of interest in the Times’ treatment of religious diversity.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Kids Do the Damndest Fucking Things

It’s really fascinating how life with a five-year-old can be an intellectual and cultural, as well as emotional, roller coaster. On the one hand, there’s the responsibility I feel to do what I can to make the world she will inherit a better, more just place, a responsibility that informs my passionate political beliefs and actions. These actions are, of course, largely beyond her comprehension, but she’s been pretty game as she’s been dragged from Ralph Nader rally to Dennis Kucinich rally to Justice for Janitors rally to May Day parade, not to mention numerous crayon-dulling meetings.
On the other hand, there are the countless hours spent brushing the manes and tails of plastic ponies, and playing doctor to a constant parade of sick stuffed animals, all of whom have been running a fever of 109 degrees for the past several days. As I am once again registering shock at the severity of the fever, cautioning against dehydration and asking about other symptoms, my mind is inevitably wandering to concepts like impeachment, participatory democracy, dialectical materialism and Karl Rove the Demon Toad. But it seems to make a little girl very happy, and I’ll probably be doing it all over again tomorrow.
Fortunately, there are also times when our passions converge, and there have been a couple of cinematic experiences lately that I don’t think I would have experienced, or enjoyed so unabashedly, without Zora’s presence. Both are documentaries about water-based creatures, and both convey a sense of perspective I occasionally need to recharge my emotional batteries for the ongoing political battles.
The first is March of the Penguins, currently in wide release. The second is Dolphins, playing at Sci-Port’s Imax theater. Both feature animals who are fairly comfortable around humans, so a pretty intimate look at both individual and social lives is gleaned. The title of the former refers to the grueling trek undertaken by emperor penguins, who travel dozens of miles, at least, to breeding grounds partially sheltered from the excruciating Arctic winters. Mating, egg laying and care (much of it done by the male), birth and nurturing of the young, are all accomplished while the parents teeter on the brink of starvation.
The dolphins, at least, seem to have the good sense to make their homes along the coasts of places like the Bahamas, Argentina and New Zealand, all rather conducive to those sweeping, breathtaking shots running the length of the dome-shaped Imax screen. I tell you, if there is even one mating pair of dolphins left after we manage to consume and vote Republican ourselves into extinction, I think dolphins (and probably whales, too) will be able to build a pretty advanced civilization down there. I remember dolphin researcher and massive hallucinogenic drug taker John Lilly concluding from his research that dolphins are at least as smart as humans, and this makes a god, brief and visually overwhelming case for their use of complex language, their adaptation to new situations, and even an ability to (here's my Dave Barry moment) program a vcr. Thank you, thank you, I'd like to thank the academy and all the little people.
All told, it seems really vital to spend a few fleeting moments cinematically exploring the stark moonscape of the Arctic and the clear emerald seas of the Bahamas with some of our animal friends. It's also fun to imagine my little one swimming with the dolphins or bundled up at an Arctic research station, in addition to the usual fantasies of her going Woodward and Bernstein on corrupt politicians or arguing a case before the Supreme Court or scoring the winning goal at the Olympics and then giving the peace sign during the playing of the national anthem. Ah, so many memories.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Nights of fun, Days of Dissent

Well, it's past 10:00 on Friday night, and the Red's head is pretty much recovered from the punishment inflicted on it last night in the name of good, clean fun. The night started with a too-brief stop at the opening of the Northwest Louisana Art Gallery's annual exhibit at coolspace, downtown on 710 Texas St. While I will try to provide some impressions of the exhibit itself soon, the opening was a rollicking success. Sushi was provided as the main course, in addition to the usual art opening h'ors deuvres, and soy sauce and wine and beer were flowing freely. Kudos to Noma and Chris Fowler-Sandlin, as well as the rest of the artspace staff, for the work in putting in together. They really know how to put the art in party. Thank you, thank you, that was a clever turn of phrase, I know, it comes from my years of serious mind training, like Vulcan shit, you know what I'm saying?
Unfortunately, our party couldn't stay long, as we were off the Rabb's Steakhouse in Ruston to see Dwight Yoakam perform. It was my first time to see him, and my first time to enjoy the ambience of Rabb's, and both were utterly fantastic.
Yoakam has been recording for over twenty years now, having cut his teeth and paid his dues in the Southern California scene that produced Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, as well as roots/cowpunk luminaries like John Doe and Dave Alvin and their bands X and the Blasters. Yoakam, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett jump-started country music almost simultaneously in the mid-1980's, bringing very different sensiblities but very similar levels of integrity and respect for the history of the genre, as well as an aversion to the slick Nashville sound that still dominates the undemanding corporate pallette.
Rabb's provides an outdoor venue, basically a field about evenly divided between grass and concrete, packed full of cowboys and cowgirls, Louisiana Tech students, and anyone else ready for the concert event of the season for our area. The evening was surprisingly pleasant, particularly as what breeze there was roamed unhindered about my legs. Despite the misgivings of some, yours truly, the Red River Red, fearless in fashion as well as the struggle for justice, wore his utilikilt to a country music concert in Ruston. Not only were there no unpleasant confrontations, verbal or otherwise, but compliments abounded, and many of the women couldn't take their eyes off of me, particularly by the eighth or ninth can of Budweiser and the grandiosity thereby supplied.
Yoakam came out in his trademark cowboy hat perched just above his eyes, denim shirt with lengthy white fringe, and jeans that hugged him skintight all the way from his tiny hiney through his skinny legs. He ran through original material from the full span of his career, with the crowd favorites appearing to be the older stuff, particularly "Honky Tonk Man" and "Guitars, Cadillacs." Anyone familiar with Yoakam also knows he has a particular talent for covers of both country and rock favorites, and this night's offerings included Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and Waylon Jennings' "Stop the World," as well as an encore that included "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."
Close to full-service bars were set up at numerous convenient spots on the grounds, meaning very short lines for the Budweisers I obliviously kept pounding into a body that is probably about 15 years past being able to assimilate them without ill effects. But it did make for some pretty uninhibited dancing on the Red's part, utilikilt flapping joyously.
Ah, summer in north Louisiana. Cutting-edge art and timeless country music in one night, 50 miles or so away from each other. I am home, my friends, I am home.