Cover Story

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Activists say tide has turned with new Congress

 

By Jim Lundstrom

“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answered that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” ~Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 1849

Thoreau talked much of the “machine of government” that he famously dropped out of because of the way that machine conducted its business.

While the issue of slavery was foremost in his objections, he was just as disgusted by the slavishness to a then-young tradition in this country of mouthing high ideals while trailing your soul in the dirt.

Thoreau’s premise was simple: People of conscience should not live under such a morally challenged government.

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.” – “Civil Disobedience”

 Del Schwaller agrees.

“Sometimes you do things because your conscience takes over,” the 82-year-old Appleton man said.

It was that pesky conscience that in November 2005 made him join 36 others who broke from thousands of fellow activists and crossed the protest line outside the gates of the controversial U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. (the school is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation).

That act of conscience-driven civil disobedience earned the World War II veteran a two-month stay last spring at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford, Wis.

Schwaller, the father of seven and a former Appleton alderman (1970-80), said his activistism began in the 1960s with a fair housing movement in Milwaukee, but for more than a decade his focus has been on Central and South America and the havoc wreaked there by graduates of the School of the Americas.

“It’s not always an easy route, but if you want to satisfy your conscience…” he says, his soft voice trailing off as if there were no other choice.

Perhaps you’ve seen Schwaller among the activists of the Fox Valley Peace Coalition who gather the first Saturday of every month on a downtown Appleton street corner to publicly protest the war. He and most of the others have been advocating a peaceful solution since before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003.

Finally, they say, public sentiment appears to be changing from the post-9/11 intolerance for anyone not waving the flag and standing behind the president, to the realization that perhaps this war is costing more than it’s worth.

A recent AP-Ipsos poll found a record 71 percent of the U.S. population disapprove of George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, 60 percent favor withdrawal of U.S. forces this year (immediate withdrawal was not offered as an option) and only 9 percent believe in an American victory.

“When this started, people used to call me a terrorist,” said Ronna Swift of the Fox Valley Peace Coalition and organizer of the monthly peace rallies. “I think we’re starting to mend. I just believe that things are starting to change.”

“People used to drive by with thumbs down and worse,” said Jaunita Makaroff, another member of the peace coalition. “There will always be people against us, but we’re getting more positive responses. There used to be a small group that protested across the street from us. They called us unpatriotic. We don’t see them so much anymore.”

Lessons learned in Vietnam forced Vietnam veteran James Bowman to take a place among the peace activists in downtown Appleotn.

“I learned there that political solutions aren’t solved very well with military action,” he said.

Yet, after his service, Bowman spent two years designing weapons for the Navy.

“I believe in national defense,” he said. “This is different.”

Even in the early days of the war, when the activists gathered weekly and were subjected to taunts and ridicule, Bowman said he went home feeling good for doing his part to raise awareness. He also confirms that recent public response to the monthly anti-war vigils has taken a turn from a majority of people giving the finger to the group to a majority now showing support with honks, waves and words.

And like other peace activists around the country, he sees another pinprick of light in the long-dark tunnel.

“I see a change that happened after the election,” he said. “It was very satisfying.”

But fellow Vietnam vet and activist Clif Morton of New London fears the mandate for change can be ignored.

“I’m very worried that this president is not going to listen to the people,” he said. “I think the people spoke very loud in November and now when I hear of this 20,000 increase (in troops), I remember Nixon during the Vietnam era. My heart breaks when I hear that direction is being considered.”

It is hope in a new Democrat-controlled Congress that has re-energized the peace movement, a fact which prompted the Fox Valley Peace Coalition to negotiate a recent sit-down with Congressman-elect Steve Kagen to deliver a position paper to him and hear his position on the war.

“If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.” – HD Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

 

Thirteen activists showed up for what turned out to be a lively hour-long meeting with Kagen in his campaign office in the basement of Appleton’s City Hall.

After giving each a chance to give a brief statement on their activism – which included everything from WW II vet Stanley Holcomb describing the destruction of Germany from his B-24 Liberator to others who simply felt it was their moral duty, such as Juanita Makaroff, who told Kagen, “America is not the country I was taught to love and respect as a child. In the last six years, so much of what has happened has been un-American.” – Kagen thanked the group for their activism and proceeded to amplify the glimmer of hope they held for him and the new Congress.

Washington, he said, is “giddy” about the new Congress.

“The incoming freshman are a tremendous group of people,” he said. “We were all elected because of change and new direction. I think this group of freshman are going to hang together. They’re very outspoken.”

All of which means trouble for the Bush Administration and its policies.

“There are two kinds of law,” Kagen said. “There’s written law and jungle law. Which form of government do you want to live by? The president today doesn’t believe in the written law. He disobeys the Constitution and writes his own laws. You know where I stand on that.”

“Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” – “Civil Disobedience”

 

And about the war?

“Our government is broke,” Kagen said. “We’re borrowing money from China and spending it in the sands of Iraq, a fundamental mistake. …We have a debt of $47 trillion. The big crunch is going to come in our lifetime. It’s poor judgment that got us into Vietnam. It’s poor judgment that got us into Iraq.”

The first big match between Congress and the Bush administration comes in February when Congress will be asked to vote on supplemental funding for the war.

The Defense Department says it is spending about $4.5 billion a month on the conflict in Iraq, or about $100,000 per minute.

“I’m going to be asked in several weeks to vote for a continuing resolution, looks like anywhere from 70 to 130 billion dollars, to continue to support the troops,” Kagen said. “I’m only going to ask a couple questions. What are we getting for our money?... If the administration wants money, I’m from Wisconsin. What are we going to get for our money?

“I think solving this problem means sharing the grief with other nations,” he said. “We clearly don’t belong there. I don’t know how I can vote to spend money, a) we don’t have, and, b) where they won’t show me what we’re buying.”

When Swift asked Kagen how the group could be supportive of him, he asked them to be good salespeople.

“You have to first be a good listener, and listen to the objections of your friends and neighbors,” he said.

“They aren’t much anymore, quite frankly,” Swift said.

“Then you have to go somewhere where you don’t know somebody,” Kagen said. “Don’t convert friends. Go to a coffee shop you’ve never been in, sit down. Hey, you see this, what do you think of that.”

Kagen’s performance, which included a hilarious story of a visit to the White House (see sidebar), was applauded by all in attendance.

“It was easy to see Steve is not waffling on the issue of war,” Clif Morton said.

“I’m personally very impressed by the man,” Swift said. “Will this energize our group? Ohmigod, yes.”

 










Kagen introduces a little levity to the White House

While meeting last month with a group of area peace activists, then Congressman-elect Steve Kagen told a story of his first visit to the White House that shows a feisty and humorous side to our new man in Congress.

He told the group one of the first lessons he learned in Washington is to never pass up a rest room because you don’t know when you’ll see one again.

He’d already had a long day of freshman orientation when he and his wife, Gail, were expected at the White House. Upon arrival, he asks a Marine where he can find a rest room, and is sent down a long flight of stairs, to another Marine, who directs him to a rest room.

“It’s a small room ­– two spots on the wall, one stall one sink. I see in the mirror the door opens, and who walks in, Karl Rove (Bush’s deputy chief of staff who was charged with orchestrating strategies for the 2006 general election).”

After Rove washed his hands (“At least he’s a hand washer,” Kagen said), he attempted to leave, but Kagen prevented his departure by holding the door closed and said, “You’re in the White House and you think your safe, huh? You recognize me? My name’s Dr. Multimillionaire and I kicked your ass.”

Kagen expected to make Rove squirm, but said acted like it was a tennis match and simply said, ‘Oh, congratulations.’

“We’re walking up these long steps, I stopped him and said, ‘Look, the race is over. We’re here to do the people’s business. I want you to join me on something, but you can’t steal it, I’ve got the trademark, ‘No patient left behind.’ He goes, ‘I like the sound of that.’ We get to the top of the steps and there’s Vice President Cheney with a glass of white wine and a hand in his pocket. So I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. Gail wasn’t there to hold me back. ‘Mr. Vice President, thank you for your service to the nation, and thank you so much for coming to Green Bay and campaigning against me. I couldn’t have won without your help.’

He then asked Cheney to enunciate his vision for Iraq.

“ ‘Well, Id like to see a stable government that could take care of itself and its people.’ I said, ‘at what price?’ He said, ‘I don’t understand your point.’ I walked away. Then we had an opportunity to take a picture with the president and his wife. I was feeling real good at this point.

“I said to my wife, ‘Honey, just follow my lead.’ She said, ‘Steven, it’s the president.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but he’s not any taller than I am.’ So the cameraman’s here. We’re introduced by a Marine. I said, ‘Mr. President , thank you for coming to Green Bay. My name is Dr. Multimillionaire.That was before the race. Now they call me Doctor Thousandaire. I couldn’t have won without you coming.’”

He said Bush gave one of his smiles and said, ‘I’ve lost a lot of money in my life, too.’ Then I go to his wife, ‘Hi Barbara, how are ya?’ I did that because I learned on the campaign that the meanest thing you can say to another gentlemen is, ‘he’s a fine fellow,’ and you then refer to his spouse by a different name.”

Expect this side of Kagen to show up when he appears on the “Colbert Report” in February.

National rally puts focus on Congress

 

National peace movement organizers were planning a rally in Washington the weekend of March 19-20 to mark the 4th anniversary of the war in Iraq, but something happened to move the date up.

“Our national steering committee met a few days after the election and we realized that something quite remarkable had actually happened in the election, and that was that the voters in this country used the election as an opportunity to voice their opposition to the war,” said Leslie Cagan, co-chair of United Peace and Justice and national coordinator for the UFJP’s Jan. 27 peace rally in Washington, D.C.

“We really believe coming out of that, and the fact that there were some significant changes in Congress, that there was a new kind of energy in the country in terms of the opposition to the war and the sense of urgency that this ‘stay the course’ option of the president – even though he denies it – is just not working, and that we have to step up and make our voices heard and make that demand that the war end even stronger and louder,” Cagan said. “In this new context, we felt it was very important to go to Washington sooner rather than later, and that was to do this as early in the new session of Congress as early as we could. That’s how we got to Jan. 27. Nothing special about that date. It’s not an anniversary or a particular holiday or anything like. It’s just the earliest we could on a practical level figure out how to organize a demonstration on a large scale.”

Cagan said the theme of the event is that the people have spoken and now it’s time for Congress to act.

“And Congress does have a role to play here,” she said. “It could end the war. It’s the money, the purse strings.”

While Congress will soon be voting on supplemental funding for the war effort to the tune of anywhere from $70 billion to $130 billion in a war that is costing the American taxpayer $4.5 billion a month, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already gone on record by saying Democrats will not cut off funding for troops, but not before adding, “we will have oversight over that funding.”

Still, Cagan said there is value in this rally, mainly because past efforts have focused on the Bush Administration, while this one is aimed at a Congress full of fresh faces.

“We don’t know yet how many people we can get to Washington, but we believe we can bring large numbers of people from around the country to really bring a focused message to the new Congress, you are the Congress because the people of this country want this war to end. So now, do it. Take whatever steps you need to make that happen.”

Those who attend the Saturday rally will be asked to stay for a training session on Sunday, followed by a lobbying day on Monday, when peace delegates will meet with members of Congress and/or their staff.

“None of us expects that if we march on Saturday then on Monday Congress is going to vote to cut off the funds and end the war,” Cagan said. “What we do know, though, is it puts pressure on them and it energizes people to go back home and continue to do the work. That’s a very, very important part of a national mobilization like this. We do think there will be a major turnout and we will prove this is not a regional phenomenon. It is a nationwide anti-war sentiment. Because of the numbers, but also because of the clarity of our message, it will be a very powerful day.”

You can learn more about the national rally and Congressional lobbying day on the UFPJ website at www.unitedforpeace.org.

Several buses are heading from Wisconsin to Washington. If you’d like to learn more about them check with Peace Action in Milwaukee (www.peaceactionwi.org), Peace North in Hayward (www.peacenorth.org) and the Campus AntiWar Network in Madison (www.revoltingstudents.com).


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