It’s Much Harder to be an Activist Now’: An Interview with Cindy Sheehan

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When Cindy Sheehan sprang into the public consciousness in 2005, it was as an everymom, a former youth minister now the grieving parent of a young soldier killed in Iraq. Sheehan set up camp outside President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford on the first day of his five-week vacation, demanding an audience with Bush to ask for what her son had really died. The media dubbed her “Peace Mom,” she was embraced by the anti-war movement, and hundreds of other activists joined in her vigil. Members of Congress and celebrities visited her at “Camp Casey,” named after her dead son.

Since then, Sheehan has made a life as a full-time activist, speaking regularly at anti-war events and producing a radio show which she airs on her website, cindysheehanssoapbox.com. She’s published three books and self-published two more. She’s in Texas this week promoting the most recent of those, Revolution: A Love Story, about Venezuela.

Tuesday night, she’ll hold a town-hall style meeting and book discussion at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Pecore Hall in Houston at 7:00 p.m. She’ll continue to Austin for events at Book Woman and Brave New Books, then to a Camp Casey reunion.

We spoke on Sunday about her disillusionment with the Democratic Party and her discovery of socialism, her unsuccessful run against for Congress against Nancy Pelosi in 2008 and the unlikely friendships she’s made along the way.

On life as an activist

“My whole operation is a very grassroots, seat-of-the-pants kind of thing. I don’t have health insurance. There’s no way I would be able to afford it. I’ve cut back on everything enormously to be able to do this. I rent a room. I don’t have a car. I just have my clothes, and my computer is my most valuable possession, and I have a cell phone. That’s about it. I try just to live very simply so I can do this full time. So I do a lot of fundraising, I sell my books, people contribute to the cause and everything, and so that’s how I’m able to survive. Do I fear being homeless? No. I’m sure there’s probably about 10,000 people I could crash with if it was between sleeping in a bed and sleeping on the street. But it’s much harder to be an activist now than it was when Bush was president.”

On the military

“In our Constitution—which is something that I have a lot of problems with—it says that we can’t have a standing military. If there is a real threat to the United States, then it’s supposed to be, you know, the militias or a draft to draft people into the military to respond to these situations. I am for self-defense and defending your communities, if that’s necessary, but if you have a standing army or military, they have to be used. They give the war profiteers and the globalists their tools to spread imperialism. I am against the military we have now and I’m against the way that it’s used. I think that if there’s a situation and we do need to defend the United States, then it should be a universal draft: men, women, rich, poor, whatever. It should be 100 percent. No exemptions or anything.

“If there are wars, they have to be first declared by Congress, and then there’s like a hierarchy of people who go to war. The first people who go to war would be the people who profit from war or their children, if they’re within the age range. And the next people would be congresspeople or senators, and the president. And then the lower you are on the economic scale, the lower you are in draftability. That’s the Cindy Sheehan National Defense plan.”

On public office

“[In 2007] my two employees and I decided that we were going to concentrate more on humanitarian work and people who were harmed by the U.S., because it seemed like people here just weren’t getting it. Then, Nancy Pelosi—first she refused to hold George Bush accountable, but then he commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence and I was like, Okay, are you going to do something now, Pelosi? I was ready to just retire or whatever but then I had this ‘brilliant’ idea to run against Pelosi.

“I really learned so much in that campaign about how unrealistic it is… Even then, after all the trouble and hurt and everything I’d been through, I still thought that somebody who really cared and had this brilliant platform would have a chance. That somebody that really had this burning desire to make things better would have a chance, but no. We really don’t.

“I’ve tried to stay more local and do smaller bits of the puzzle. I really believe the answer to the world’s problems is localization. We can be just as active locally and make more [of] a difference, and have more satisfaction and more success, more celebrations. I talk about getting into your city government, your school boards and stuff like that as really it’s better than trying to run for Congress, or run for president or senator or whatever, because that’s where you have the most effect on the things that we really should care about as a community.”

On Obama and the Democrats

“It’s so frustrating to me. Barack Obama has done so many things that, if it was John McCain or George Bush doing the same thing, people would just be flipping out, totally upset about it. And they’re not. Most of them support it and rationalize it. I honestly think it shows an immense lack of integrity, vision, and purpose. We were against the wars when Bush was president but now we’re not so much against them. I think we get so wrapped up in this mythology—one of the myths in [Sheehan’s fourth book] Myth America is that there’s a difference between the Democrats and Republicans on the national level. We have so much invested in it that we lose the ability to be critical thinkers and stay focused on what’s important. If you like Obama, I don’t really care, but if you oppose war and you oppose other oppressions, then you have to be vocal and you have to protest. They’re so afraid that if they do that they’re going to get a Republican in office or something. They need to realize that it’s not the president of the United States who’s in charge of anything anyway.

“I think it’s really scary. Obama has been able to further the agenda, whatever that agenda is—you know, I’m not an Alex Jones, I don’t think it’s the Illuminati or whatever—but whatever the agenda is and whoever makes the agenda, it’s been able to go much farther during Obama than it was during Bush.

“People told me things [at Camp Casey] that I didn’t believe or listen to, like, ‘Oh, you’re being used by the Democrats.’ ‘But the Democratic Party promised me that they would help end the wars!’ ‘But you don’t know the Democratic Party. They’re going to betray you.’ I wish I had listened to that. Because we worked really hard to get Democrats in power and then they did, and they were just being themselves. I had been warned that was what they were going to do, but I didn’t want to believe it.”

On socialism

“I always get offended when people call Obama a socialist. Like, why are you giving socialism a bad name? Socialism is a good thing!

“After the campaign, I wrote Myth America. I wouldn’t have identified myself as a socialist back then, but I reviewed my platform when I was running against Pelosi, and Myth America is sort of this organic Marxism where we belong to cooperatives and collectives to make things better, where the people have control over the system. I didn’t even really know then that a lot of my ideas were Marxist in nature because by that point I hadn’t read Marx. I did this real class critique and I thought that I had all these brilliant ideas that I was making up myself. So when I went on tour with that book, that’s when I started to realize that yeah, I was a socialist, and what I was proposing wasn’t that different from what they were doing already in countries like Venezuela and Cuba.”

On Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

“I was invited to Caracas to go to the World Social Forum and Chavez had a big rally and invited some people from the Social Forum to sit up on the dais with him. I was one of those people. But then when I was in one of the workshops they came and got me and I went to the presidential palace to meet with him. That’s the first time we really had one-on-one talk. But you know, the only thing I knew about him at the time was he was very vocally opposed to George Bush and the U.S. empire.

“This was 2006. After I got back, I got attacked for meeting with him. Not just by the right-wingers—they attack everything I do—but by so-called people on the left. I thought, wow this is really weird, I wonder what they have against him. So I started doing more research and I researched about the Bolivarian Revolution that he’s been leading, and about Venezuela, about him, about socialism. And just really became more and more and more an admirer of Chavez and what he’s doing in Venezuela. So as part of my radio show, I put through the proper channels to interview him. Six weeks later I found out that my request had been approved and I could go to Venezuela. So I got to spend more time with him on that visit, there was this big event that I was invited as a special guest, and I flew down to Uruguay with him on his presidential plane. He was attending an inauguration of the new president of Uruguay and I got to interview him in Uruguay.

“I think the relationship is one of mutual respect and admiration. He nicknamed me. He used to call George Bush ‘Señor Peligro,’ Mr. Danger. He used to call me, ‘Señora Esperanza,’ Mrs. Hope. He’s an amazing person, really. I‘ve met with all of the main politicians in the United States and get nothing but—here, Sheehan holds her hand out in front of her face]—they have this shield. But he’s not just brilliant thinker, not just courageous, but he’s a real warm human being.”

On what’s next for her

“I’m really seriously considering running for governor of California in 2014. The population of Venezuela and California are very similar. We could lead the way of sustainability and education, of health care, of making corporations pay their fair share, corporations and rich people. We have the potential, we have done it before. It could be a real leader again. Now we lead, we have the biggest deficit. Education is, I don’t even know what number it is in education, but I just heard and I was shocked and appalled that California was so low in education.

“I would like to move California back to the left. But just talking about right and left, what we’re talking about is humanity, human issues. The right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to, if you want to work, to get a livable wage, not a minimum wage, all these things, the right to be able to breathe clean air, drink clean water. They’re human rights. But in the U.S. we consider them privileges. But these countries in Latin America consider them human rights.

“Venezuela has this big movement for housing now, because they have a shortage of housing. So what they’re doing is something that would never happen in the U.S. They’re taking property owned by banks that hasn’t be used for, you know, so many years, appropriating it, and building housing on it. And they’re giving it to the people for either like no interest rate, no down payment, so it’s based on what you can afford.

“Here in the U.S., we have about 2-3 million homeless people and about 18 million vacant housing units. How is that? If every homeless person got their own house, which a lot of those are families and children, there’d still be 15 million vacant housing units in the U.S. It’s appalling! Hello! It’s really simple.

“Governor Cindy says that corporations will be taxed more and if they threaten to leave then that’s fine, we’ll just take their assets and their means of production and give it to the people of California because it really belongs to the people of California anyway, right? So, if people hear that and they say, ‘Hmmm,’ and they start thinking about things like that, then that’s a successful campaign.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.