A homegrown war resister emerges
Cindy Sheehan’s visit to Greensboro brought a flurry of excitement over the past weekend, and ambiguously worded threats of disruption by the patriotic veterans group Gathering of Eagles, who vowed to surround war memorials during an anti-war fair hosted by the World Can’t Wait, gave the April 21 event at Governmental Plaza just a hint of danger.
As it turned out, extensive security arrangements by the Greensboro Police Department kept the counter-protesters far apart from both the memorials and Sheehan. Lost amidst the celebrity clamor and heightened security concerns was a dramatic coming-out by Terri Johnson, a young Greensboro woman who disclosed her recent desertion from the US Army to avoid deployment to Iraq.
The 18-year-old Johnson, who is the granddaughter of past Greensboro NAACP President Gladys Shipman, deliberately failed to complete her final fitness test at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and then went AWOL on Sept. 28, 2006, the day before graduation.
“I’m not anti-war one hundred percent because some wars are worth fighting for,” Johnson said in a tearful address at Governmental Plaza. “But this war is not worth fighting for.
“I really don’t look at myself as a hero,” Johnson explained. “I was just doing it for me because [the war] wasn’t for me. There were a lot of my buddies who didn’t want to finish. I wanted to them to drop out like me, but they didn’t have the courage to make the decision I did.”
She called her family in Greensboro for support often during those difficult days.
“I was like, ‘Look, I got to get out of here,'” she said. “A lot of girls and guys wanted to figure out how to get out. People was talking about getting pregnant, getting shot.”
Getting out of the Army during basic training is easier than people might think, Johnson suggested.
“All you got to do is leave,” she said. “Throw the towel in. They cannot stop you. Stay gone for thirty-one days. Get you a two-way ticket to Louisville, Kentucky. The MPs will meet you there and pat you down. You will be there [in detention at Fort Knox] for four days and eat this horrible food. The only thing you cannot do is get a federal job. Okay, I wasn’t that interested in working for the federal government anyway. The other thing you can’t do is re-enlist in another branch of the military.”
Johnson accepted a “people’s commendation” award from the North Carolina chapter of the World Can’t Wait, a broad-based coalition opposed to the war in Iraq and other parts of the Bush agenda that was founded, in part, by supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
Cindy Sheehan, the celebrated and reviled “mother of the anti-war movement” whose son Casey was killed in combat in Iraq, was also feted in Greensboro by hosts ranging from state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird to the Islamic Center of the Triad Youth Committee.
Kinnaird introduced Sheehan at a reception held in her honor at the north Greensboro home of Replacements Limited CEO Bob Page on April 20. The following morning dozens of youth members of the Islamic Center of the Triad gathered at Mahi’s Seafood Restaurant for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, pita bread, pancakes, biscuits and chicken, where they planned to present an award to Sheehan. (They ended up presenting the award later at Governmental Plaza.)
Badi Ali from the mosque announced to the group that Sheehan had been delayed by “health and security issues.”
Terrence Muhammad, a member of the anti-war fair security committee, appeared shortly afterward and apologized for Sheehan’s absence.
“Things have gotten a little bit stickier,” he said. “Earlier it was decided that it was best for her to not come out. Downtown is getting ready to look like a military zone.”
Later Muhammad added that there had been no specific threats against Sheehan but the organizers decided that given general security concerns their first priority was to get the celebrity activist to the rally. A member of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad took advantage of Sheehan’s absence to give his own anti-war message to the young Muslims at Mahi’s.
“I’m a firm believer that this is a war for corporate greed,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that this is a war against Islam. Everything that America is doing now is not in accord with Islam. That’s why they’re afraid of Islam coming in…. Nine-eleven was the best thing that ever happened to Islam because after that you couldn’t find a Koran. Every one of them was checked out of the library.”
By 11 a.m. a bevy of police and emergency response vehicles were arrayed around the block encompassing Governmental Plaza: the hazardous devices team police truck, the critical incident support unit police van, an unmarked white armored police truck, a black unmarked police van, the Guilford County EMS mobile intensive care unit and the police mobile command unit center bus.
Greene Street, which runs along the eastern boundary of Governmental Plaza, was shut down to automotive traffic, and a double barricade manned by police officers kept counter-protesters separated from the anti-war demonstrators at February One Place. While accurate attendance numbers were difficult to ascertain, representatives of the World Can’t Wait and the Gathering of Eagles estimated turnout for each of their respective sides at about 500. Each side easily turned out hundreds of supporters; neither had as much as a thousand.
Prior to the arrival of the anti-war marchers from NC A&T University, counter-protesters mustered in a parking lot at the corner of Washington Street and Federal Place. They held signs reading “Support Our Troops,” as well as placards bearing inflammatory messages such as, “Cho should’ve taken out Cindy + Move On + Democrats. They hate America,” which was held by a demonstrator who identified himself only as “Larr from Kernersville.”
Organizers largely succeeded at persuading anti-war demonstrators to not engage with the counter-protesters. For the most part, they ignored the taunts and chants of the counter-protesters who hollered insults through a pair of megaphones. When marchers arrived at the barricade where the counter-protesters were gathered, parade marshals quickly ushered them onto the plaza.
As the rhythms of the Cakalak Thunder radical drum corps faded, the Gathering of Eagles raised a chant of “traitor.” On the plaza Palestinian flags featuring the image of Al-Aksa Mosque and signs such as “Vet against the war” and “Distress signal: Our country is in peril, demand 9/11 truth” vied for attention with green World Can’t Wait placards.
“We are the majority,” declared World Can’t Wait organizer Scott Trent, prompting ecstatic applause.
Back at the barricades, the most volatile confrontation may have come when counter-protesters began insulting a nun in white habit.
“Who is that, the Virgin Mary?” one of the counter-protesters shouted. “You’re not a virgin.”
When Sister Gretchen Reintjes turned toward the angry group, the counter-protester called out, “Why does the Catholic Church get involved in politics?”
She advanced toward the barricade, waving her fist at them.
“Come on over here,” she said.
“I’m against the war in Vietnam, I’m against World War II,” Sister Reintjes, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph who works with immigrants and refugees in Greensboro, said later. “You can say that I’m senile, demented. I think torture is highly immoral.”
Not all the counter-protesters standing with Gathering of Eagles participated in the verbal skirmishing.
“I went to the Gathering of Eagles in Washington because there was a movement to deface some of the monuments,” said John Trappers, a Raleigh veteran who retired from the Army as a sergeant first class after serving combat duty in Iraq. “The movement here today was to protect monuments, not as much to hurl profanity.”
When Sheehan arrived to give a short speech, she made direct reference to her opponents.
“These people across the street need to know that America is not the center of the universe,” she said. “It is a part of the universe.” She added that President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were “soul stealers.”
“I love an America that does not invade other countries with no reason,” she said. “I love an America that does not torture. I love an America that is not run by and in the pocket of the war machine.”
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