CRAWFORD, Texas -- The horde swept into Crawford, Texas, like locusts, taking all the parking spots on the town's small drag, overwhelming the lone traffic light, and marauding the town's Fina station, causing it to run out of gasoline-not to mention batteries, disposable cameras, film, and cherry-flavored Halls. "We're not made for this," said 19-year-old Matt Arrington of nearby Valley Mills, who had the afternoon shift at the Fina station. "I've seen so many people-tourists, I guess. Germany, Tokyo, Amsterdam. Now I'm getting tired of everyone asking the question, 'Where is Bush's house?'"
Crawford has never seen such a circus. First it was the wave of anti-war protesters who rallied to support Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother of Casey Sheehan, a soldier killed in Iraq. Mrs. Sheehan demanded a meeting with President George W. Bush and encamped near his Crawford ranch house from Aug. 6, leaving abruptly to be with her ill mother, then returning Aug. 24 to a hero's welcome. Then it was the Bush supporters who rallied to the town to back Mr. Bush, the war effort, and the troops. If the dry pumps at the Fina station are any indication, Crawford isn't big enough for two protest movements.
On Aug. 21, while the president was busy hosting Tour de France champion and fellow Texan Lance Armstrong on a 17-mile mountain-biking ride around the ranch, Mrs. Sheehan was in California. This left the anti-war protesters in a lurch. Without "Mother Sheehan" (as one left-wing website had insisted on calling her), the protest lacked a face. Instead of protesting Mr. Bush for not meeting again with Mrs. Sheehan-they had already met once before-it was just another anti-war protest.
Many of the protesters were in Crawford through organized rallies set up by MoveOn.org. Others showed up at the behest of the struggling liberal radio network Air America, which sought to turn Crawford into another Woodstock. Had they considered the heat? In a town of full-size pickup trucks and south-facing satellite dishes, anti-war protesters parked their sedans and hybrids in the gullies and ditches alongside Prairie Chapel Road and Morgan Road near the Bush ranch. Nearly 150 slept overnight in cars and tents. Hundreds more drove in for the day from air-conditioned motels in nearby Waco and even Dallas and Austin. Some estimates say the number of protesters were three times the size of the town's 700-person population.
While both the president and Mrs. Sheehan commuted in and out of Crawford, conservatives mounted a counter-protest. About 350 Harley-Davidson bikers-for-Bush rumbled past one of the Camp Casey protest sites before setting up their own camp. Other conservatives, armed with signs and lawn chairs, opened up small counter-protest sites across the road from the anti-war crowd. In town, Gary Qualls, father of Marine Lance Cpl. Louis Wayne Qualls who was slain last year in Fallujah, devised his own response. The Temple, Texas, man opened Fort Qualls under a tent next door to the Yellow Rose, a pro-Bush gift shop decorated by a massive replica of the Ten Commandments.
Eventually the protesters protested each other. Early Saturday morning, an emissary from Fort Qualls approached the Crawford Peace House, a liberal staging ground, and asked for civil three-on-three talks to discuss the war and specific complaints. Dirk Velten of Dallas helped organize three anti-war protesters to meet with Mr. Qualls and two other conservatives. Many others crowded around. "I see my role here as a compassionate air traffic controller," said Mr. Velten, a professional mediator.
The talks even showed signs of progress-Mr. Velten said he would work to remove a cross bearing Mr. Qualls' son's name from Camp Casey. The conversation continued even over the sounds of "Anchors Aweigh" blasting from loudspeakers at the Yellow Rose. A train hauling tanks through town on the nearby track gave pro-Bush supporters reason to cheer.
One onlooker, who identified himself as "Joe America" and told WORLD he intended to welcome all out-of-state liberals, nearly scuttled the talks. The man, later identified in a police report as Michael Dean Mullins of Bedford, Texas, tossed an unwrapped but unused tampon into the crowd, hitting a female anti-war protester. Mr. Mullins said he had spent much of the day handing the tampons out to anti-war protesters who, he said, "needed them." Police stopped his car on the way out of town and charged him with Class C misdemeanor assault.
Undeterred by the chaos surrounding him and choking back tears, Mr. Qualls made a plea to the Bush detractors. "We've got to quit our bickering," he said. "We've got to honor our sons even though it hurts. And it will hurt until the day I die."
But the bickering promises to continue. Even as Mr. Qualls pleaded for civility, a van full of Bush supporters bankrolled by Move America Forward embarked for Crawford from San Francisco on a "You Don't Speak for Me, Cindy" tour. The group of conservatives, including mothers and fathers of Iraq war soldiers, has already clashed with anti-war activists in California who tried to shout them down.
"There's something big going on here," said Mr. Velten, who admitted folks like "Joe America" and left-wing troublemakers were hijacking both sides' messages. "Sadly, we're often identified by the worst of our groups."