Several thousand people lined up to see George Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice shovel dirt into a hole at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the site slated to become the George Bush Presidential Center housing a museum, library and archives.
Over 100 peace activists showed up to protest, including New York City artist Laurie Arbiter, who helped organize a March of the Dead and carried a sign asking "Does America Have a Conscience?" "Rather than build a library, we should leave the broken ground and just fill it with a big pile of rubble," said Arbiter. "That would truly represent the catastrophic results of the Bush Administration."
As part of the March of the Dead, protesters dressed in black, wore white death masks and had signs around their necks representing dead Iraqis, Afghans and U.S. soldiers. The dramatic March stopped traffic and provoked strong emotions in passers-by, participants and even the police. Renee Schultz, who drove from Indianapolis to join the protest, wore the death mask and a sign representing a 23-year-old female U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. "When I first put on the mask, I just stood there and cried. I kept thinking, 'I am 23 years old and had my whole life ahead of me. Why did I die?'" Schultz looked over at the riot police and noticed that one of them also had tears streaming down his eyes.
When the marchers attempted to reach the public viewing area, the police forced them back to the designated "protest pen" far from the ceremony. One of the protesters, a wheelchair-bound veteran of the Korean War and World War, angrily told the police that he did not fight in two wars to be told that his freedom of speech would be confined to a "protest zone."
The gathering was part of a three-day People's Response, filled with rallies, marches, teach-ins, and exhibits of crosses and soldiers' boots to represent the war dead. Organized by Texans for Peace, The Dallas Peace Center, CODEPINK and Veterans for Peace, among others, the speakers included former FBI agent Colleen Rowley, former CIA agent Ray McGovern, retired Colonel Ann Wright, professor Robert Jensen, author David Swanson, CODEPINK cofounder Medea Benjamin and Texas State Representative Lon Burnam.
Among the protesters was also Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who led a prolonged protest outside Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2005. "Bush should not be allowed to profit from war crimes, crimes that he has even admitted to," said Sheehan. "It's not right that he will make millions from his book and speaking engagements, while millions have been killed, displaced, tortured and had their lives ruined because of him."
The protesters focused on the lies Bush told the American public to justify invading Iraq, his authorization of torture and the need for accountability. "Accountability is the sign of a true democracy," said former CIA agent Ray McGovern. "No one should be above the law and the truth must not be buried or rewritten."
Protesters were also concerned about the policies the new Bush Center will promote. President Bush said the Center would include an "action-oriented institute" to advance the principles his administration stood for, including the "benefits of limiting the role of government in people's lives." According to local organizer Leslie Harris of CODEPINK, "this really means promoting the same kinds of disastrous policies that brought us pre-emptive war, economic crisis, environmental disaster, unprecedented presidential power, and diminished civil and human rights. We can't let one of America's worst presidents shape our future policies."
The peace activists who came to protest Bush also discussed their disappointment with the Obama administration and the difficulties they anticipate in pushing the new, more conservative Congress to stop funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the actions they encouraged were:
- supporting the Midwest anti-war activists whose homes were raided by the FBI and supporting the January 15 FBI protest in Washington DC;
- promoting local campaigns, including citywide resolutions, to bring our war dollars home;
- reaching out to allies, particularly groups victimized by the economic crisis, but also reaching out to members of the Tea Party who want to see cuts in Pentagon spending;
- pressuring the State Department to stop using private security contractors;
- supporting the December 16 veteran-led civilian disobedience in Washington DC;
- organizing a delegation to Iraq to take testimonies from Iraqis about George Bush and the legacy of the US invasion;
- building on the new calls by Amnesty International and the ACLU to prosecute Bush for war crimes;
- stopping John Yoo, author of the "torture memos", from teaching law at the UC Berkeley law school.