The curse of the clashing meetings caught up with me again in Gainesville when my talk ended up as being just before the start of a 'Winter Soldier' hearing in another part of town. Despite this we got around 25 people along which was good for a town of 90,000.
The venue in Gainesville was the Civic Media Center, a long running social centre type space that was founded after a visit by Noam Chomsky to the town in 1983. It has moved to a larger premise since I visited but even then it was a fairly large space on a busy street with a sizeable reading room/library out front where the meeting took place and some office space in the back. I'd met James, the host of the Gainesville meeting at the All Power to the Imagination conference in Sarasota and had got a lift with them back to Gainesville. Pretty much my first experience on arrival was the van we had transferred to being pulled over by a police car for some minor traffic violation, given that this was pretty much my first smaller town experience of the south quite reminiscent of watching the Dukes of Hazard as a kid. Hopelessly inaccurate of course but hey.
I had opted to stay in a farm commune some distance outside the town where I got to feed the chickens and listen to the trains passing by. I also watched a tattoo being created. The guy doing it was just learning, it may even have been his first go and the design was a fairly complex version on a family crest. Sounded like a receipe for a disaster, especially as a a good quantity of whiskey was being consumed in the progress but it turned out he was a pretty talented artist, much needed as the size of the design required it to wrap around the upper arm. The guy getting the tattoo had looked up his name on the internet to find the crest and was a little shocked mid-way through the process when I explained the large red hand of Ulster it was centered around was rather associated with Irish loyalism. After freaking him out I had to reassure him that it was however also used by Ulster GAA clubs. Still a good warning about the dangers of getting permanent designs on your body as a result of a google image search!
I spent the day of the meeting in Gainesville either at the GMC or wandering around the town. I also met the student who had initiated putting the entire Florida leg of the tour together. Turned out he was someone who was on a Crimethinc mailing list to which someone had forwarded my email announcing the New England leg of the tour and the offer to speak elsewhere. So that was a lucky break as I'm very glad I got to see Florida. The university itself has some very interesting planting in it (in general university grounds turned out to be good spots for seeing local vegetation when your stuck in an urban area) and in particular a couple of small swamp areas complete with trees decked with the amazing bushy lichen that hangs off them. You see this stuff in Rambo: First blood which was actually filmed in the south and not the North West Pacific where its supposadely set. A fact I found out after noticing the lichen in the film about a year ago and becoming curious enough to check.
The other interesting thing about the wander around the campus was that a couple of the frat houses had put giant pro war yellow ribbons on the front lawn. No idea if they were a constant feature or had been put there because of the Winter Soldier hearing that night but the meeting certainly made the point that their 'Support the troops' slogan was perhaps not as clear cut as they imagined. Gainesville has a bit of a history with Vet anti-war organisation, back in 1972 8 members of the Gainesville chapter of VVAW were charged with conspiracy to attack the Republican Party convention in Florida. They were acquitted though as it was clear their plans were defensive, they believed there was a conspiracy to attack the planned protest with live police fire.
It was unfortunate our meeting co-incided with the Winter Soldier hearing, obviously a much bigger draw. But on another level it was handy for me as this meant I got to attend some of that meeting.
The Winter Soldier event which was fantastic. Six US military who had served in Iraq were there to testify to a crowd of maybe 400 in opposition to the war. Five of them were men, one a women and they were drawn from the Marines, Navy (who had been on the ground in Fallujah 2), Armour, Infantry and supply. Four were members of Vets against the War which recruited 250 vets in the previous month. The testimony they gave was varied ranging from the way the experience had destroyed their lives (there have been 10,000 vet suicides and at least two of the six speakers seemed a little suicidal to then point where during the Q&A one audience member appealed to them to talk to people who could help).
Others talked of the horrors of the war, of dead bodies floating in sewage during Fallujah 2 and being used for target practise to sight in weapons. Of how they were told they were obeying the Geneva conventions because it was left to their Iraqi interpretors to torture captives which they looked on. Of the experience of contractors driving fleets of 3,000 dollar a week SUV's while they could not get the air conditioner needed to keep their warning computer running all day. How dogs and livestock were used as target practice and of how a farmer irrigating his field one night because that was when the electricity was available was delibretely shot even though it was known that was what he was doing.
Some of the most interesting testimony was from the guy who had served in the armored division as it was the first time I heard a first hand account of the sort of demoralisation that crippled the US army in Vietnam. Apart from individual resistance in the form of drug taking (more self medication than anything else) he revealed that his crew would pretend to go out on mission but really sit in the bases Burger King and radio in reports as they supposidely passed way points. This would be considered mutiny. Of how they had several serious discussion of fragging one particularly hostile officer and that the only reason nothing had happened was that in the end he didn't manage to get anyone killed. Of how when there was a chance they would be sent back to Iraq for another tour they planned to sabotage their vehicles.
Each of the six had different views on the war, some had broken much further with US policy than others. So while one worried about what would happen if they pulled straight out another in calling for immediate withdrawal compared the resistance to what would happen if an invading army occupied Florida. And called for not only an immediate pull out but for the US to pay repariations to the people of Iraq. Over the summer they hope to open the first 'GI coffeeshops' near military bases just as was done during the Vietnam way to make contact with those still trapped in the army.
While in Gainsville I recorded an audio interview with James Schmidt of the Civic Media Center which you can listen to at http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/apr2008/james.mp3 The interview covers organising in a student town, the recession, CMC origins, IWW, homelessness, organic farms and farmwork and the elections. You'll find more pictures from Gainsville at http://www.indymedia.ie/article/87137?
Getting out of Gainesville involved the Greyhound once more, the Gainesville stop being one of those weird edge of town stations with no connecting public transport. Next stop was four or five hours down the road in Atlanta. Originally I'd lined up provisional dates in Pennsicola and New Orleans but to get to Chicago for the conference I'd have had to escalate the schedule to means getting the overnight bus the 12 hours to Pennsicola, do the meeting that day, catch the overnight bus 13 hrs to New Orleans, get off the bus do the meeting and catch an overnight bus 16hrs to Atlanta to do the meeting there. Somehow this seemed a meeting too far so I had to head straight for Atlanta instead.
WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )