It's election time in Crawford - peace and free speech keep right on waving and smiling
The sun is shining on Crawford, Texas. Business isn't exactly booming, but it's enjoying more than a lazy country weekday. Folks pull up in Rams, Suburbans, and F-150s to stop in one of the few shops that line the intersection that is the center of town. Atop the corner's gigantic grain mills that serve as civic centerpiece, a long banner spells out the apparent sentiment of the majority of the citizens:
Two weeks until the U.S. presidential election, and the sleepy burg just west of Waco is preparing for a party. At Main Street Place, a shop specializing in country decor, local foods, and souvenir Bushana, Joe Cuff pulls out scrapbooks from the local inaugural bash in 2001 as he excitedly tells of plans for the next.
In the five years since George W. Bush purchased the nearby Prairie Chapel Ranch, dealing with the press has become old hat. In a town this small ("Pop. 705"), the most sought-after pundits are the guys hawking the merch. Like many in this once run-down crossroad, Cuff is proud of his relatively new neighbor and credits Bush with the town's economic boom. "There's no doubt he's gonna win," gleams Cuff.
Over at the Yellow Rose gift/gun shop, part-time clerk Kendra Bowdoin has noticed an increase in store traffic as the election draws near. "There's more people coming in. Usually on the weekdays we have less." The Yellow Rose, like most of the small businesses on this tiny strip, specializes in Bush souvenirs. "There's a lot of positiveness about Bush," says workmate Brooke Marshall, "and how they're hoping he's re-elected."
Marshall says most customers are Bush supporters, but not all. "Once, protesters left postcards that said, 'Bush lied and our soldiers died,'" she relates. "Some people with Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers said, 'We heard this was Kerry/Edwards country.' And I go, 'No, Kerry/Edwards Country is way up north!'" Marshall chuckles. "'You're in Bush Country!'"
The young women say that encounters with non-Bush supporters have been cordial. "We've had a lot of people who've been really nice," Bowdoin says of Bush detractors. "They're curious and want to see what Crawford looks like," adds Marshall, who is looking forward to the election, and for life to get back to normal.
Most likely Elmano Madail, a man for whom "normal" means traveling to the world's political flashpoints a far cry from "normal" USA did not make it to the Yellow Rose. A war correspondent and journalist one of an increasing number of international correspondents in Crawford as Election Day nears Madail is on assignment from Jornal de Notícias, the largest daily newspaper in Portugal. Last week, making his way across the farm-to-market backroads, Madail pulled into a gas station to ask for directions. "Since I'm not from here, I really don't know the way," says Madail in articulate but broken English. Then, according to Madail, "just like in the movies," a local sheriff pulled up and blocked his rental sedan. Another car blocked his way from behind. "My orange shirt looks suspicious, I guess?" says the dark, sharp-dressed European. Apparently, a citizen called in the suspicious character to the local authorities. "C'mon! Hello people, I'm terrorist!" he adds ironically, with his thick Portuguese-laced English more closely resembling Inspector Clouseau than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. "I came here to just blowing you up! This town is ridiculous. I came to buy a T-shirt!"
Despite press credentials, the reporter says he was detained for more than two hours and released only after his editor in Portugal was reached by telephone (luckily for him, his culture values knowledge of more than one's native language). Madail's passport, stamped from volatile regions like Afghanistan and Jordan, the main portal to Iraq, surely didn't ease the minds of the cops. Homeland Security is taken very seriously in the president's "hometown," with the borders of Crawford secure ... sort of: For racial profiling to work, authorities must first be able to determine race.
It was this sort of random clash of cultures, politics, and perception, so common in hotbeds of international news, that inspired the founding of the Crawford Peace House, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for peace education and support for thoughtful modes of protest expression. The house is a haven for political dissent, offering guidelines to keep protests peaceful and within legal boundaries for groups like Veterans for Peace and Republicans for Kerry.
Toeing the Line
The House rests alongside Hwy. 185, about a block from the main intersection. When Josh Collier, a Texas native raised in Bastrop, first came to take the position as resident volunteer, he says many townspeople would not even make eye contact which was less threatening than the ones who would offer the middle-finger salute or call out names like "faggot." ("They call you faggot?" asks Madail with a smirk, "Oh, I'm lucky than you, huh? They call me terrorist!") Collier's good nature, however, remains intact; he still waves at every truck that churns past the front porch.
Collier, whose mission seems to have become putting a human face on "Peace," has witnessed firsthand the troubling contradictions. While things have improved greatly on a personal level once familiar, much of the town warmed to him and he can celebrate small victories like the return of a wave or a smile divergent viewpoints are still not exactly encouraged. One local man, speaking on condition of anonymity says, "I wouldn't be caught dead putting a Kerry sign outside of my house, because I think I'm the only one." Collier shakes his head. "Probably 30 percent or more of the people here support Kerry. But there's a real fear of expressing your opinion. There's this impression of having to toe the line with Bush ... otherwise you're not patriotic."
Just ask soft-spoken W. Leon Smith, editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast, the Crawford paper published in Clifton, the "Norwegian Capital of Texas," about 20 miles away. The town is quiet, with a buzzing antique shop/soda fountain featuring Dublin Dr Pepper on ice. Here, as in Crawford, the bumper stickers read the same: "W. The President." So, it's no surprise that when Smith, a jovial bear of a man with a more than passing resemblance to Wilford Brimley and Santa Claus, co-authored an endorsement of John Kerry (www.iconoclast-texas.com/Columns/Editorial/editorial39.htm), it ignited the town's outrage.
Global coverage, even a piece in The New York Times, illuminated an uncomfortable rift. Perhaps to deflect perceptions of dissent within the town, angered Crawfordians bitterly point out that Smith and the Iconoclast do not actually reside in town (although Bush, despite his non-Texan roots, received instant homeboy status). Almost 200 local subscriptions and distribution points were canceled. And the buck doesn't stop there. Smith, a local, whose father owned an earlier version of the paper in the mid-Sixties, has received threats not only to his livelihood but to his life. Advertisers have received threats as well.
"People have a right to cancel subscriptions, to cancel their ads, of course," the editor states emphatically. "But some are trying to run us out of business, telling other advertisers not to advertise or they'll run them out of business. It's a concerted effort to silence us. That's disturbing." He notes that when the paper endorsed Bush in 2000, the Gore camp didn't make a fuss.
The Iconoclast quixotically takes its role as the Fourth Estate very seriously even its name is a tip o' the brim to a Baylor-baiting Waco publication opened in 1895 by William Cowper Brann, shot and killed in 1898 by an outraged reader. Despite the paper's small size and relative scope, the new Iconoclast's staff manages to rake enough Texas muck to tackle investigations into the Texas Employment Commission, the TAKS test, and one Texas steel processor's tribulations with military contracts.
The future doesn't look good for the First Amendment, worries Smith. "It's like these people are saying, 'Okay you can have the First Amendment, but you'd better be careful how you use it.' We really need to protect the Bill of Rights.
"Well, 80 percent of the people in the area voted for Bush. How dare we endorse somebody else?" Smith continues, with exasperation. "We endorsed Bush [in 2000] and changed our mind; we don't base editorials on polls. I hope it blows over and people understand that we're not their enemies. We're expressing a point of view in the editorial pages just one that's not real popular."
The Peace House's Collier suggests that it's not so much the government itself, as it is the mutually complicit nature of thought repression. "It's not state control," Collier says of this threat. "People make a choice to participate in the fascist trends." This culture of discouraging dissent seems to beg the obvious, and casts a pall on even asking: What's the purpose of fighting a war and defending our "way of life" if basic rights to free speech and a culture that supports it are not included?
Kate Getty and Roberta Loynd contributed to this story.