War, Peace, and Texas

Photographer Caroling Lee and Observer intern Jessica Chapman have spent much of the past few months talking to people around the state about the war in Iraq. The photographs and interviews that appear in this photo essay are part of a larger project documenting Texas peace activists from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley. Lee and Chapman met veteran activists, like 91-year-old Thaddeus “Spike,” Zywicki in McAllen, who was influenced by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. But they were particularly interested in the stories of people we don’t expect to be part of a “movement.” During their travels they sought out the stories of first-time activists like 13-year-old Anya Reyes, who helped found an antiwar group in an Austin junior high school, and Texas A&M students Kristin Wilbourn and Jonathan Steed, who have been defying tradition, trying to organize protests in College Station. This essay is based on work conducted from March 23 through April 26. —Editors

Caption A: At 13, Anya Reyes is one of the founders of United Students Against War at Austin’s Kealing Junior High School. “We had about 10 people in the group–now we have 40. And that happened since the war started,” she says. “People started piling into that classroom. Actually the meeting started out just being four people–it was me, Katie, and Ava and Leah would come in sometimes and then we started telling other friends.” Anya recalled a recent conversation she had with her father: “He told me, ‘You’re 13 years old–no one cares.’ You know, it cracked me in half.” Anya plans to continue organizing around issues of war and peace.

Caption B: Mary McGinley and Roger Gibeault, both 70, are unusual for Rio Grande Valley snowbirds: They’re staunch opponents of the war, in contrast to many of their friends and neighbors. “We have discussions and we don’t see eye to eye,” says Mary. “Yesterday at a party I sat next to a former Marine and … sometimes I just don’t want to get into it.” This is the fifth year that the couple from Burlington, Vermont, have spent the winter in South Texas. After attending several antiwar protests in McAllen, McGinley organized the first protest in Brownsville. “With the nuclear capability that we have in the U.S. and other countries, there’s no room in the world anymore for war,” she says. Roger describes the Iraqi war as “putting your hand in a beehive. There’s going to be a lot of people that are against the U.S. after this.”

Caption C: “Our freedoms and rights are being assaulted. Where is the outrage?” asks Father Armand Mathew, OMI (Oblate of Mary Immaculate). “If we were really in this to protect our nation that’s one thing. This is a war of choice.” Father Armand, 80, grew up in rural Indiana and has spent the better part of the last three decades in Brownsville. Many Valley families have sons and daughters in the military; he assumes that many favored the war. We photographed him at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where he served for 17 years. He now works with UT-Brownsville’s Center for Civic Engagement. “I’m very sad and distressed over the way we got into this war,” he says. “There’s an incredible amount of deception and even lying and forged documents. When are we going to come to terms with that?”

Caption D: “Peace is too important for us to be easily discouraged,” says Akwasi Evans, founder and editor of the progressive Austin weekly NOKOA (“Observer” in Swahili). Evans says that he is trying to “stir people up, to stimulate them,” and describes the war in Iraq as an event that “portends Armageddon.” Evans grew up in Paris, Kentucky, came to Houston for graduate school, and later moved to Austin and founded NOKOA in 1987. He believes that antiwar sentiment is greater among the lower than the middle class and that the biggest problem is class, not race. “They keep us fighting each other,” he told us.

Caption E: According to Jonathan Steed, President of the Aggie Democrats and a Delta Tau fraternity member, there hasn’t been an antiwar protest at Texas A&M since 1967. But students like Steed, 21, and Kristin Wilbourn, 22, an Aggie Democrat and member of the Delta Gamma sorority, managed to break the silence. “In the past, a lot of people have been afraid to speak out because it is a conservative school. I think we made a monumental step,” says Steed. “I would say that my fraternity probably is just like most of America: Most people supported the war, some of them didn’t. I’m not in the frat because I agree with them politically. I can put aside our political differences.” What he can’t put aside are his feelings about the war in Iraq: “War orphans make great terrorists. We’ve given Al Qaeda the best recruiting tool they could possibly have.” Says Wilbourn: “I’m frustrated with this war. I don’t see why we’re the ones who can say who can and who can’t have chemical weapons and how they should treat their people. I don’t see why Iraq first. To me it just seems like it’s a personal vendetta.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST