Story by patspen/photos by mikasi
“War is an ugly thing,” said Mike Miles of Luck, Wisconsin, “and many people get displaced as a result. We've displaced ourselves to be part of this effort.”
Miles, a nonviolence activist, was speaking of Witness Against War, a protest that involves a march from Chicago, Illinois to St. Paul, Minnesota. Marchers left Chicago on July 12 and expect to reach St. Paul, Minnesota - the site of the Republican National Convention - on August 30. They will remain for the duration of the convention in hopes of raising awareness of sentiment against the Iraq War and an effort to keep the Wisconsin National Guard group, the Red Arrow, home rather than being deployed to Iraq again in 2009.
The marchers were an eclectic group involving teachers, writers, ministers, activists, musicians, students, an Iraq War veteran and a pediatric physical therapist. Ages range from the early 20's to mid 50's. The group is making the trek largely on foot wherever possible, staying overnight in volunteer's homes along the way and camping out where necessary. Some members, like Heléne Hedberg of Sweden, won't be able to complete the entire march (Hedberg must return to school in Sweden before the march ends). Others will be part of march from beginning to end.
According to marcher Kathy Kelly, “One of the ways to stop a 'next' war is to continue telling the truth about this war.” Kelly has spent years doing just that. Author, organizer and activist, she has spent time in Iraq, during the early days of the war and three times subsequent to that. She and her organization have provided medical and humanitarian relief in Iraq as well as in Amman, Jordan; Beirut; and southern Lebanon. Co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, Kelly is also co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the group in charge of Witness Against War.
When the march reached Racine, Wisconsin, it's members hosted a rally at the Siena Center on July 18, where Kelly was a featured speaker. Urging the audience as well as the marchers to “keep going, stay strong!”, Kelly related several stories, including one about an Iraqi mother who managed to get almost all of her family out of Amman, but who was unable to get her teenage son out as well. Teenagers are highly suspected of being terrorists and her son had to be left behind with relatives. Nearly a year later, Kelly reported, his mother had a call from him, begging her to get him out as well, insisting, “but I am your son! I am your son!”
She said that the boy's relatives had pointed out that he could make $300 a month, a good sum by local standards, by signing up with the US military, but the boy had refused. This, said Kelly, left him open to being rounded up at random as a terrorist. However, the news wouldn't be all bad. At least in jail, he could be assured of getting three square meals a day. “There have been 828 youngsters rounded up as security risks,” Kelly told the group of 80, assembled to hear her speak. “But conditions are better inside jail, with school and soccer.” She told them of a commander at the jail who said that his aim was to make everyone happier to pick up a book, rather than a gun. “That would be a nice goal,” she added with a smile, “for every ROTC in Wisconsin.”
Miles brought the group's efforts closer to home in his presentation. “We've thrown ourselves at this war in all sorts of ways,” he told the crowd. “You can go to Baghdad, but meeting your community over the water cooler, that's most likely what's going to turn this thing around.”
He also pointed out, in his talk, that “There was no Gulf War One and Gulf War Two. It was all one war. We haven't just had a five year anniversary, but a 17-year anniversary. The economic sanctions that went on after the first war were just a form of the oldest kind of warfare, siege warfare.”
Miles, whose family has its own recording studio, entertained the group by playing them a few songs. “Cryin's over, cryin's done,” he sang. “Cryin's over and we're all one.” His second song was equally well-received, “I Oughtta Know More Than I know”.
Miles also told the crowd about the bus that follows the group throughout the march, in case of emergency. “Angels hover around it all the time,” he said. “We parked in Chicago (at the beginning of the march) and the walkers took off, and then the transmission went out. We looked around and we found a heavy duty truck bone yard that hadn't existed six months beforehand. It was run by a guy who was out of work doing home construction, but we called him and he said 'bring it in'. And two days later, it was OK.!”
He also mentioned meeting the cousin of Hans and Sophie Schell, two members of the White Rose, an German anti-Hitler group from WWII. “I asked her how she would compare these two governments, Hitler's and ours, then and now. She said, it's the same.”
Paul Melling, an Iraq War veteran who joined Iraq Veterans Against the war while he was still serving in Iraq, also spoke, asking the crowd, “Who's telling you that if we leave it will all fall into chaos? It's the same people who told you we would be greeted with flowers!” He also posed another question: “What do you think would happen if some other country came into the US and had armed convoys running through our streets? We'd get our own arms and roadside bombs, wouldn't we?”
In an interview, Melling said he'd joined the army originally to “help the human situation, to help the community and protect the system that advertises on TV. But when I was deployed, I learned that the war has nothing to do with serving people.” He found and signed up with Iraq Veterans Against the War while still serving in Iraq. After leaving Iraq, Melling earned an associates degree in network administration.
“My family is fairly happy about what I do now,” he said. “They were not happy when I went into the army. They didn't encourage it, but they didn't object.” He is encouraged by “the people I've met here. So many good people, awesome, all kinds of the same kinds of common experiences, going together.”
Another student, Hedberg, comes from a far different background. A Human Rights major at her college in Sweden, Hedberg works at an internship in a southern ghetto of Stockholm called Vårberg. She was charged with started an after-school child care program. “I didn't know there were that many Iraq refugees in our area, but it was highly populated. My main group is Iraqi youth. We see up to 50 every week.”
Her group basically started as an after-school program, but expanded to include weekends as well. “We offer sports, games and just hanging out among friends.” She met Kelly at a Human Rights symposium. “We e-mailed afterward about what I did in Stockholm and I asked if I could come to Chicago and observe, so she invited me.” Once in the Chicago area, in addition to being the “animator of a blogging community”, she joined the march.
“I was most impressed with the grassroots organization,” she said, “seeing how local folks join us in the mission of creating awareness.” She mentioned being impressed with one woman she met, “Patty,”, who she calls “quite amazing.”
“She just pitched right in, asking, can I help tomorrow, and then showing up with the most awesome lunch the next day. She's a teacher who brings peace and justice learning to her class. But she stopped everything and did an evening meal for us, and then breakfast and she camped with us. I was very impressed by that.”
When she returns home, Hedberg said that one of the lessons she wants to take with her for her friends will be “the enthusiasms; the hope and fire in that hope, and connecting with other people in that way.”
“I feel that I'm doing this very much for the kids I'm working with (in Sweden),” she said. “Their feeling of displacement, the ongoing violence, this can't be resolved in Iraq. The war needs to end so children can stop carrying the stain of violence and hate.”
During her speech, Kelly made reference to an Irish trial which took place before 2003 involving a group of activists that had deliberately inflicted over $2,000 in damage to a warplane. Their defense centered on the fact that they believed that the greatest pacifist was Jesus. The defense, a Mr. Nix, read the jury the Sermon on the Mount and then talked about walking one day and seeing children chasing ducks and ducks chasing children and realizing that, while this was going on, children were being bombed at a canal in Lebanon. A group of local Lebanese children were swimming at a canal when it was bombed. Kelly told the group, “Parents were screaming, 'There are only children here!' He (Nix) asked the jury then, 'Would you not try, if you could, to stop a missile from hitting a child?' And in doing this, Mr. Nix put us all on trial.”
“I remember Nix asking, what will rise us?” she said, and then answered the question herself.
“I think it is love. And in our rising, we can say we believe in the law of love, and in those who taught us in our youngest days.”
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