After seeing a CNN report on “human shields”, Ryan Clancy, owner of Trounce Records in Milwaukee, decided to use his frequent flier miles and $1500 in savings to join them in their protest against the war in Iraq. Ryan became part of a group of “human shields” that traveled from London by double-decker bus to join the nearly 300 protestors from around the world in hopes that their presence in Iraq would prevent American bombings.
Ryan spent the majority of his stay in Iraq working with Iraqi school children, bringing them art supplies and attempting to facilitate communication between Iraqi and American students. Upon arriving home, Ryan is facing charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iraq. He has been fined $10,000 and faces the threat of possible imprisonment. Ryan is presumed guilty without the right to a hearing and federal authorities may seize his assets as well as pursue criminal charges. “They’re not differentiating between me and a uranium dealer, even though the only thing I brought over there was crayons and construction paper. I don’t think they can make weapons of mass destruction with that,” said Ryan.
Ryan has generously agreed to talk to GU about his experience as a “human shield”.
GU: What lead to your decision to become a Human Shield & Was it a tough choice or an immediate call-to-action moment?
Ryan: I felt, quite simply, that it was the right thing to do. It was an easy decision to make, but not one that I took lightly by any means. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the way that our foreign policy was endangering not only the rest of the planet, but ourselves, and as soon as I saw that there was such a movement underway, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I left the day I got word from them. More than anything, I wanted to see the situation firsthand. I have some background in journalism and I didn’t believe the mass-media images of Iraq (stock terrorist training-camp footage, Saddam with a rifle in the air) were accurate depictions of that country and its people. I wanted to meet the people that we were going to bomb, and, if possible, let the world know that we, as Americans, were not united in favor of such a decision. I felt that such a statement was important, even if we couldn’t divert the war itself. I knew only that we were about to do a terrible thing and set a terrible precedent, I wanted to do anything I could to stop that.
GU: With a broad brush stroke, what picture would you like to paint for the American public of what you witnessed in Iraq?
Ryan: I was worried about how an American in Iraq might be treated. We were the country, after all, that had led the sanctions on their country for over a decade, depriving them of food, medicine, and so much more. We were the ones that had used depleted uranium the last time we attacked them. And Saddam was always good at spurring anti-US sentiment in Iraq. I spend much of the bus trip to Iraq memorizing Arabic phrases such as “I am an American, but George Bush does not speak for me.” They were unnecessary. I was moved with the generosity of the Iraqis. Here I was coming from a country who wanted to shock and awe them with military might, and I was invited into their homes and given food by the poorest people that I’ve ever seen - people that we helped make poor. It was humbling. The Iraqi people never judged me by the foreign policies of the US government. They are able, probably because of their own differences of opinion with Saddam, to clearly differentiate between a people and its leader. How odd that in the 200 years that we’ve been a country, we’ve gone from fighting for our own independence to fighting people concerned with theirs.
GU: Now, with a more detailed brush, what personal vignette can you share that you think America needs to see?
Ryan: I spent as much time as I could in the schools - I was hoping to facilitate communication between Iraqi and American students. It’s much more difficult to bomb a person than the abstract idea of “bad” that the media often portrays. In the high schools, I asked the students to write letters to their American counterparts. I didn’t want anything political, I just wanted to humanize these students to the people that I knew back home.
One wrote: “We like you and we don’t know why you don’t like us.” There was a very tangible sense among the students that we were not just trying to topple their leader, but that we were out to get them. It was disturbing. In the elementary schools, I asked classrooms to draw pictures of their homes and families, again
with the intention of humanizing them. One little girl drew her home, a tree and her family in the front, smiling broadly.
In the blue sky was a missile with a US flag on it, aimed at her house. I cried that night. I can’t get that picture out of my head.
GU: What was the highest point/lowest point for you while in Iraq?
Ryan: The lowest point was seeing that girl’s picture. I was a Boy Scout back in elementary school - I was always the one wanting to carry our flag – I nearly hit another kid once because when he was carrying it, he let it touch the ground. But now, every time I see an American flag bumper sticker, or a flag waving in a Chevy ad, I think of our flag on that bomb. I had many highpoints - playing dominoes with Iraqis in coffee shops, smoking tobacco out of nargilas (hooka-like pipes) and playing soccer every day with the kids in the street. But over all of the high points, was the terrible, looming fear of what my country was about to do to this place and the feeling that there wasn’t much I could do to stop it.
GU: What insight did you gain into how the average Iraqi citizen might view the U.S. war efforts?
Ryan: By all accounts, Saddam Hussein was a terrible, brutal dictator - none of the Human Shields had any illusions about that. Bush (and the mass media) did a good job of portraying the situation in terms of Saddam being a bad person (and having weapons), and the US therefore having to remove him by force. The more I was over there, though, I realized that it wasn’t that simple. I didn’t meet anyone with any great love for Saddam – but that wasn’t the point. They didn’t like Saddam, but they also didn’t like the idea of a foreign power attacking them to remove Saddam. One cab driver perhaps summed up the general opinion: “Saddam is not a good man. But he is our problem, not yours. Tell your military not to come.”
GU: What do you think was the main thing accomplished by yourself and other human shields?
Ryan: Obviously, we didn’t avert the war. Although I felt that I had to try, I never felt that people in relatively small numbers had the ability to do so. At some point, it became a question of numbers - the Bush administration may not have a lot of reverence for the lives of Iraqis, but how many westerners would they consider an acceptable loss? I didn’t have enough faith in the Bush administration to think that conventional protests would stop him after he had made his initial call-to-arms. When we saw that he had completely ignored the largest protests that have ever taken place on the planet, it didn’t strike me as a good sign. What we did accomplish was this: We said to the world that not all Americans were in favor of this war. It seems like a small thing, but I feel as though Bush set a terrible precedent in attacking Iraq unilaterally. We just set the precedent that it is acceptable to attack a nation before it attacks you if: a) it has (or we think it has) weapons of mass destruction, and b) we disagree with the leadership currently in power in that country. The same logic, I fear, can be applied to future attacks on the US, and that prospect terrifies me.
I hope that our presence in Iraq, if nothing else, might soften the backlash against what our country has done.
GU: How do you think the peace mission of the human shields has impacted American public and global opinion?
Ryan: With few exceptions, the mass media in the US, and to some extent in the UK, towed the party line and lampooned us. The media in the rest of the planet, where the governments were more ambivalent about the US actions, were far more sympathetic. The independent media and the voices of individuals were clearly with us. During our long journey through Europe, people in every country along the way fully supported us. We couldn’t stop in a small town in Greece, Turkey - anywhere, really - without rallies starting up around us, and people coming out to join us or to support us. It was touching. The disparity between common opinion and the media portrayal of our actions was appalling.
GU: Where do things stand right now with you and the federal government regarding fines & penalties?
Ryan: I’m a certified English teacher, and a former Peace Corps volunteer. I tried to do in Iraq what I was doing when volunteering overseas in a more official capacity. (Ironically, about the same time that I received word from the Treasury Department that they wanted to fine and jail me, I received a commendation from George Bush for my “contributions to global peace and understanding” in the Peace Corps. It rather seemed like Himmler thanking someone for being so sensitive to diversity.) But I digress. My first point of contact was a phone call from the Treasury Department. It boiled down to, “You owe us $10,000. Even if you pay the $10,000, we can still try you criminally for up to 12 years in jail and $1 million in fines, and there is no due process or appeal process of any sort. We don’t even have to tell you what evidence we have against you.” It actually woke me up in the morning, and seemed so absurd that I thought it was a friend playing a joke on me. It wasn’t, although it would be almost funny if it weren’t happening to me. As it turns out, the Treasury Department has the authority to levy fines without any sort of due process, simply based on their suspicion that someone might have gone to Iraq. I ran to the constitution to see if this was right, as I remembered something in there about people not being able to deprive citizens of liberty or property without due process of law, but apparently I was reading some old version or something. Only after the American Civil Liberties Union accepted my case, and they performed a request under the Freedom of Information Act were they able to get anything resembling a written response from the federal government. Apparently, they’re still prosecuting people for having gone to Bosnia, so I have no idea whether they’re going to kick down my door and seize everything I own tomorrow, or ten years from now. It’s worth noting that out of the Human Shields from over 50 countries, it was only illegal for Americans to go and see Iraq first hand before we “liberated” it. I can’t help thinking that we should restore freedoms at home before we try to start exporting our brand of “freedom” overseas.
GU: Other than the official government flack, have you received any personal confrontation about some sort of idea of unpatriotism?
Ryan: The first person that I talked to when I stepped off the plane back in the US was a customs official, who demanded my passport, and searched it for the very unsubtle full-page Iraqi visa. He was red-faced and shaking, he was so furious. “How could you go over there?” he sputtered out, “All those people hate us!” I had just spent a month among some of the kindest, most gentle people that I had ever met.
I played with their children, took their hospitality, and was, upon my return, hoping to portray them to my fellow citizens back home. The anger and fear, really, more than anything - of that official scared me and threw me off guard. All I could manage was “No. No they don’t.” Words failed me.
GU: What, if anything, are you doing now to stay active in protesting the Iraqi war?
Ryan: Upon my return, being somewhat stressed out with the large amount of media attention and constant (often hostile) interviews, I found comfort in an organization called Peace Action Wisconsin based in Milwaukee. I started getting more active with them, joining in more conventional protests, and I now sit on their Board of Directors. I ask that if anyone wants to support our right to dissent and travel, that they send donations to them instead of myself:
Peace Action Wisconsin
1001 E. Keefe Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53212
GU: So…..how’s biz these days at Trounce Records?
Ryan: Heh. Well for a while, I was being interviewed on TV pretty frequently in the store and people would call up saying “Do you still have that black record bag that was behind you on that NBC interview?” but business has trailed off a bit under this economy. I suppose I could have a trouncerecords.com “Our country is insane - everything must go” sale, or a “Get your hands on these low, low prices before Uncle Sam does” sale, but I resent Ford when they use patriotism to sell cars - I’d rather not use dissent to sell turntables.
Interview by Ann-Marie originally appeared on GetUnderground.com, a now defunct cultural web publication that spawned WAV Magazine, and eventually Kotori Magazine. This version was originally published in WAV Magazine in the Spring of 2004. Click here for a PDF of the full print magazine, which also includes interviews with Saul Williams, The Crystal Method, DJ Dan and much more.)