by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & peaking in a fearless, authoritative cadence, former Army chaplain James Yee brought the floor to a caterwauling standing ovation on Saturday during the Washington state Democratic Convention. He needed no more than a minute to scald the Bush administration with charges of civil rights abuse and to state his credentials for doing so:
"I was thrown in jail, subjected to sensory deprivation, shackled and even threatened with the death penalty by own government!" he preached. "This is what happens when fear-mongering politics corrupts our nation!"
Yee will serve as a delegate to the national convention from the 9th Congressional District.
With the rank of captain in the Army, he had been a Muslim chaplain assigned to minister to the inmates at Guantanamo Bay. He was disturbed by what he saw.
"I objected to the cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners," Yee told the Inlander after his moment of inspiration on the floor. "I raised concerns about the conditions and even about the 12-year-old prisoners being held at Guantanamo," he says, claiming he did the right thing by going to his chain of command instead of to the media. "As a result, I was then thrown in prison myself by the U.S. military -- locked away for 76 days." He was charged with sedition, aiding the enemy and spying, among other crimes.
In March 2004, all charges were dropped. Yee resigned his military commission and was granted an honorable discharge. He now crusades as "a symbol of the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11" and resoundingly endorses Barack Obama for his stance "banning torture without exception, closing Guantanamo and restoring the habeas rights that were stripped from prisoners." Yee brands Senator John McCain as one of the "architects" of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and hopes that a Democratic president with sufficient support in Congress will repeal it.
Yee candidly acknowledged the real threat of "extremism and crime" and the necessity to deal with it, but doesn't believe that infringing upon the rights of Americans is the answer. In 2005, he published a memoir of his life and ordeal: For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.
While Yee's testimony stirs people up everywhere he speaks, it was especially personal for at least one other individual at the convention. Wearing an earth-toned abaya, Lesley Ahmed offered her story of life as an American Muslim after 9/11.
"It's really personal to me, because I lost my sense of community and my home," says Ahmed, who lives in the Seattle area. The daughter of an African-American father and a Welsh mother, she was raised a "military brat," living in various countries and locations around the U.S. "I've lived the American experience, so I know what patriotism is and I know what it means to serve," she says. Recalling the values her father instilled in her as a child, she spoke of being stationed in Guam where Vietnamese refugees were sheltered in an aircraft hanger. Her dad took her -- and his five other kids -- to go welcome them, lecturing that they were ambassadors for their country wherever they go, and that this was what Americans do.
Now 44, Ahmed converted to Islam about 12 years ago.
Because her father is a native New Yorker, she says she took the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks personally. Her world changed when she realized that she, because of her physical appearance and mode of dress, had become an object of fear, distrust -- and in some cases, outright hatred -- to some of her fellow Americans.
"I have friends who are pilots of American Airlines," she says, "and I told them people are looking at me like I'm a criminal, an outsider, a terrorist, in my own home." With sympathy in her voice rather than bitterness, she says that friends in her Muslim community have been attacked on college campuses and that she has been randomly railed upon while walking on the street with her 3-year-old son. When her husband warned her about going out, she says, her answer was "I refuse to give up my freedom."
"One of the greatest blessings this caucus process gave me was my sense of community back," she says. "I've been missing that for seven years." A hopeful Obama supporter, she says, "I feel like there's light coming in the room and fresh air coming in the window and that I belong here again. ... It's the greatest honor that I live with that caliber of people -- they see what's going on."
MR. TOAD'S PARTY
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "I & lt;/span & don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat," quips Don Hamilton, custodian of Toad Hall, tending to sizzling bratwurst through a beer haze. Attributing the quote to Will Rogers, Hamilton confesses his ignorance of how political machinery works.
Not far from the grill is the hall's namesake -- a large iron figurine of a toad sitting regally on an old bench in the shade. One prong of his crown is broken where it's rusted through. A plaque around his neck reads, "The Management."
With a stated primary purpose of "putting the party back in the Party," the Toad Hall Democratic Club hosted a kick-off for the state convention last week in Spokane. Because, as cohort Tom Keefe put it, "Free beer and hot dogs have their own constituency." They certainly did this evening: Perhaps a couple of hundred Dems from the rank-and-file to the movers and shakers of the party. A band played classic rock inside.
State Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown was accosted by a pesky reporter as soon as she stepped away from the keg and pressed to field a few questions.
Is the state of Washington becoming more solidly blue?
I believe it is. However, the people of Washington are very independent, so they will stick with a party as long as it represents what they believe in. If they feel it's not going in the right direction, they will shift away. ... I like to think that Democrats have been listening closely and that our priorities match the public's, and that's why we're having a lot of success right now. But I don't take it for granted.
How will the Obama/Clinton rift play out at the national convention?
I think people will unify behind Obama. I was onboard with him early on, but a lot of my friends were with Hillary, and for good reason: She's been in the trenches for decades working on issues like health care, women's rights and social justice. But I think we realize the most important thing is to change the direction the country is going in right now.
Where have we been, as a nation, for the past eight years?
Unfortunately, the federal administration has headed in the wrong direction: On climate change -- not even admitting it until recently -- on health care ... and certainly with respect to the war. The public has come to realize that the original justification was thin, and they want to see someone with a more diplomatic bent in the White House.
Shortly afterward, a total stranger noticed said reporter was without beer and handed him one. "Nectar of the GAWDS," he says, then walks away.