Joshua Martin, Bridgitte Lee, and Mandy Skinner could have returned home from South Bend last Thursday frustrated and angry. They had driven four hours to gather with others on the banks of the St. Joseph River to tell George W. Bush what they think about his policies on our environment and our world. But all they got to see was the faintest glimpse of his motorcade and his jumbo jet silhouetted against a darkening Indiana sky as he whisked back to Washington to plan World War III.
Bush was in town raising money for Chris Chocola, a Republican running against Democrat Jill Long Thompson for the 2d District U.S. House seat being vacated by Democrat Tim Roemer. The president spoke of war to a group of high rollers willing and able to spend $4,000 for a picture with him in a windowless room in a convention hall on the river's north side.
It's a safe bet that no one told the president that the river that ran between him and the people, like nearly all Indiana waterways, is an industrial sewer. He certainly does not know that state environmental and health professionals say channel catfish 26 inches or longer in the St. Joe are unfit for human consumption due to mercury and PCB contamination.
Protesters, which included environmentalists like Martin, Lee and Skinner, labor unions, church groups, peace and justice groups, and capital-punishment opponents, among others, numbered 400 or so. At least that's what one member of their group counted, Skinner says. They were confined to a park on the river's south bank.
"We could see the building," Martin said on Friday over a smoothie at the Soma Coffeehouse, fresh back from his political excursion. "But we couldn't see anyone going in. And nobody coming and going could see us. That was frustrating."
Lee said Long Thompson summed up another frustration protesters felt when she said: "Over on this side of the river are the people who make up most of America. The only people he's seeing are the ones paying for meals and pictures."
"He's supposed to be working for the people," Skinner said.
Martin, Lee and Skinner agree that this early experience with protest on the presidential level could have been a negative for them.
"How free is your speech when you are corralled and sent across the river?" Martin asked, noting that, with the exception of some South Bend media, the press ignored and/or marginalized their presence.
But all three activists say they found their foray into presidential protest anything but discouraging. They found it inspiring.
Where these three young activists found the most inspiration was in what Martin called the "convergence" of the diverse interests and groups represented there.
"One of the biggest impressions I came away with was the community of labor activists, peace activists and environmental activists all working together around issues and candidates," said Martin, a Connecticut native who has completed work on his master's at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs and now serves as Midwest Coordinator for the American Lands Alliance.
He said while some were frustrated that there wasn't any confrontation or "dust-raising" in South Bend, the gathering was as much a political rally for Long Thompson as it was a protest.
Skinner, a senior at IU studying theater and spirituality and ecology (an individualized major), was impressed with the diversity of interests that assembled. "There were families with kids, labor unions, environmental activists, peace activists, students, everyone seemed to be represented," she said.
The coalition building she saw among the various groups encouraged Lee, who has finished her bachelor's degree in biology and is going into the Peace Corps.
"It's kind of a lonely world out there sometimes," she said of progressive political activism. But seeing so many different people working on so many different issues with similar goals offered hope. "These groups were determined, and I think they're going to be persistent about what they want."
Skinner, who first got involved in activism through the anti-sweatshop student group No Sweat!, said she made contacts that she will share with others in Bloomington. A nascent "living wage campaign" here, for example, can learn from the more experienced St. Joe Valley Living Wage Campaign in South Bend. She also traded contact information with a Notre Dame student who works on labor issues.
"There was a lot of coalition building and networking," she said, "and that was positive."
Even the less-positive events were instructive, Skinner said. For example, they were passing out Indiana Forest Alliance literature on logging when some guys identified themselves as members of the carpenter's union and gave the fliers back.
"We should be talking to the carpenter's union," she said. "Just because they work with wood doesn't mean they should support unsustainable logging practices."
Martin said groups as diverse as environmentalists and carpenters' union activists found common ground. Every speaker "tipped their hats" to the other groups and thanked them for their courage.
"We realized that the differences we have are smaller than our differences with President Bush," he said. "It's global corporatization that is taking power away from the people. We all believe that. And the president is the embodiment of that."
The lack of dust raising in South Bend did not reflect a lack of passion, especially among the labor activists, Martin said. They hammered the podium during their speeches and pointed across the river, shouting at Bush and his supporters. And even though protesters were supposed to remain in the park, they did march across the bridge.
"We didn't get very close. But we did go downtown," Martin said. "We took up several city blocks," Lee said. "We got a lot of honks and thumbs-up," Skinner added.
But the activists acknowledge some disillusionment that there weren't more people there expressing their opinions.
"I feel real positive about the experience we had up there," Martin said. "But I was frustrated that more people weren't there. I don't know if it's apathy, or fear, or if people are just too busy."
"It's absurd to me that more people don't' see what the Bush administration really is and what the effects of its policies are on them, and that more people don't come out," Skinner said. "It was a really small representative sample of what is out there."
She pointed to a post-demonstration experience they had in a restaurant as an example of one reason why the public isn't more involved. A television screen featured activist Kathy Kelly being pummeled on the Fox News television show "Hannity and Combes." Kelly is an "amazing organizer" in the group Voices in the wilderness, which is committed to ending economic sanctions against the people of Iraq, Skinner said. She's been to Iraq more than dozen times.
"She knows what she's talking about," Skinner said. "And here they were totally belittling her. They told her war was a 'necessary evil.' So many things that are now considered amoral were once considered necessary evils, like slavery."
"It makes me scared for the people who aren't educated on the issues," Lee agreed. "I think a lot of people are frustrated and don't go to protests because of what they see in the media, the image of the angry protester. A lot of people don't think they have the power to change things. People just don't think protesting is the way to go."
"They don't want to be called 'one of those people," Skinner added.
Martin doesn't mind being one of those people. In fact, even though his emotions ran the gamut from hope to despair in South Bend, he would be worried if he weren't one of those people.
"I'm glad I went," he said. "I don't want to be sitting in a polluted world 30 years from now wishing I had done something about it. I'm glad we went up there and gave it a shot."
Skinner said the inspiration they all carried away from South Bend will be a springboard for future action. People will go back to their communities, organize harder and tell more people.
"Out of that inspiration will come change," she said. "It needs to lead to action."
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