October 14, 2009

Peacemakers Are Confronted with Violence at the White House

“We have assumed the name of peacemaker, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war of course, continues, because the waging of war by its nature, is total, but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial….We cry peace and cry peace and there is not peace.
There is no peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war, at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace, prison, and death in its wake.”
-Daniel Berrigan

Joy First, Madison, WI
October 9, 2009

I have always written a narrative about my experiences in civil resistance, but I am finding myself wanting to avoid writing about this past action. Friday morning I found out that Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize and it sickens me. Not only does he continue the illegal and immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I personally felt the expression of violence from his administration as I and 23 others were forcefully removed from the White House sidewalk where we were exercising our First Amendment rights on Oct. 5.

In the spring of this year the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR) called together a coalition of peace groups to plan a large demonstration at the White House to mark eight years of war and occupation in Afghanistan. The coalition eventually included the War Resisters League, Witness Against Torture, Atlantic Life Community, Activist Response Team, World Can’t Wait, Vets For Peace, Hay market, Code Pink, Peace Action, After Downing Street, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Voters for Peace, Black is Back, and Progressive Democrats of America.

All of the groups committed to following the practices of nonviolence as we organized for an action at the White House on the eve of 8 years of war and occupation in Afghanistan. Our demands would be an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an end to the drone bombing of Pakistan, closing of Bagram and Guantanamo, and paying reparations to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq who have suffered so much as a result of our government’s imperialistic policies. We had a conference call almost every week for four months to plan this action initiated by NCNR. It wasn’t always an easy process with so many people working together, but it was important to bring many groups together in coalition to create a large action that could not be ignored by the White House.

Jeff Leys with Voices for Creative Nonviolence did a lot of work in getting a registration form and database set up on the Voices website so we would have a sense of how many people wanted to participate in the action. The weeks prior to the action, I was watching the number of names in the database grow. By the time I left Madison, we were expecting that close to a hundred people would risk arrest at the White House on Oct. 5.

I flew to DC on Friday with my daughter Jennifer who would be working with seasoned activists on coordinating support work. We always need good support people and so I was very happy that Jennifer would have this opportunity to learn more about what is involved in coordinating support for a large action. I am hoping that this experience will give her the confidence she needs to step more deeply into the important role of coordinating support for future actions.

On Saturday I went to a meeting with the Witness Against Torture group to discuss plans for January. I have been involved in Witness Against Torture actions, risking arrest as we call for the closure of Guantanamo for the past three years. On his second day in office, Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo within a year, which would be January of 2010. Now it looks like that deadline will not be met and so we needed to discuss how we will continue the campaign, including adding the growing concerns of Bagram to what needs to be addressed. About 60 men who have been cleared for release are still being illegally detained in Guantanamo. Men are still being tortured there. And now there are similar things going on in Bagram. Plans are being made for actions in January to demand an end to torture and illegal detainment of innocent people by the U.S. government.

Sunday was a very intense day with a four-hour meeting to work out our final action planning for Monday. Over 100 people came together at the Festival Center in Washington, DC for this meeting. We briefly laid out the basic action scenario, determined the affinity groups who would be participating, and each affinity group shared what they would be doing. This action would be somewhat different from previous actions that I had been involved in. In other actions, we would all be together doing the same thing, but for this action we decided to break into smaller affinity groups, with each affinity group doing something a little bit different. And though each group would be doing something a little bit different, we would all be working together demanding an end to U.S. imperialism. Art Laffin and Susan Crane gave a moving presentation on legal issues. Susan began by discussing the importance of civil resistance, reminding us that we are not going to the White House to break the law, but rather to uphold the law. We finished the meeting by breaking into our affinity groups so we could finalize our action plans within each group for Monday. At the same time the support group met and finalized their plans. I was exhausted by the end of the meeting.

After dinner, we went back to our hotel for an early night. I was feeling excited and anxious about the next day as I drifted off to sleep.

Witness Against Torture was asking people to gather at the Supreme Court building at 8:30 am as the high court began a new session, the first official day of court for Sonia Sotomayer. I wanted to be there, but I had other responsibilities. I had to get ready for the 10:30 am rally in McPherson Square that would be followed by a solemn procession to the White House. So on Monday morning, I went directly to McPherson Square to prepare for the rally which I would be emceeing with Max. I was feeling very nervous. I really hate to speak in front of people, but sometimes this is part of what I must do in this work. We had a gathering of a couple hundred people at the rally where John Carroll and Emma’s Revolution provided music, and Carol Graser and Dave Kunes read poetry. Chi from Black is Back spoke.

We finished off the rally listening to the inspiring Liz McAlister who reminded us of the importance of clinging to hope. She said,
“It is happening here today/among us. It is happening all over our world. Things are way more dynamic and alive than those in power calculate….. Many of us understand that a deeper resistance is summoned of us. We are trying, praying, working – to be strategic, to be faithful, to be human. And we know that we must keep at it…… So, dear friends, let us not be awed by the mayhem with which the powers of this world bamboozle us. Let us embrace intransigent resistance; let us imagine that a new world is
possible. And then let us live as if that new world were indeed among us and so live it into being.”
And with those words, we were ready to step off to the White House as we continued our struggle to bring about a new world.

By the time we got to the White House, two blocks from McPherson Square, there were about 400 people who were with us. It was a bit chaotic. There were a couple of large cleaning trucks making an incredible noise and so even with a bull horn, it was almost impossible to hear anyone speaking. Luckily after 20 minutes, the crew stopped for lunch and the noise stopped. After a few words by Medea Benjamin, and a reading of the International Declaration of Peace by Cindy Sheehan, the various affinity groups began their actions on the White House sidewalk. Those with Witness Against Torture, dressed in orange jumpsuits with black hoods, chained themselves to the White House fence. The War Resisters League, wearing pictures of Afghanis who had suffered because of the war, lay down on the sidewalk, World Can’t Wait did a waterboarding demonstration and exhibited their museum of torture. Other groups participated in other ways, each group sharing the same sentiments as we called on Obama to end the wars in Afghani stan and Iraq, to stop the drone bombing of Pakistan, to close Bagram and Guantanamo, and to pay reparations to help the people that we have done so much harm to.

I was with 23 others in the NCNR/Peace Action affinity group. We went to the guard house to deliver a letter to President Obama. The letter was refused and so as we announced one-by-one that we could not leave as long as the war continued, we lay down on the sidewalk in front of the guard gate. We laid there on the sidewalk, simulating death, for one hour. Then June, a member of our group, touched each person and said it was time to get up because we had more work to do. By that time the police had cordoned off the area we were in with yellow crime scene tape. Other officers were in the process of arresting 61 people from the other affinity groups who had remained directly in front of the White House, about half a block down from where we were. We talked about joining our brothers and sisters there, but the police told us we would not be allowed to do that and so we remained where we were.

There are quite a few different police jurisdictions that we work with when we do an action in DC. Generally, as was the case that day, it is the U.S. Park Service Police who we deal with in front of the White House. They told us many different stories throughout the next couple of hours. At one point they said they could not arrest us because they did not have resources, Then they told us they would arrest us, and on and on. We knew that we could not believe anything they were saying to us. At one point they said they could only arrest 12 of us and that the other 12 would have to leave the restricted area. We said that we were a community and that was impossible.

At various times they told us we could leave and not face arrest. We refused to leave. We are not there because we want to get arrested, but because we have a right to be there under the First Amendment and we also have the responsibility to be there. As Susan Crane said during the training, we are not there to break the law, but to uphold it. We could not in good conscience walk away as the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and other places around the world continue to suffer as a result20of the imperialistic policies of the US government – and so we stayed to face whatever would follow.

By the time we were there in front of the guard house for about three hours, the 61 arrested in front of the White House had been taken away on a bus and there were only a handful of supporters, including my daughter Jennifer, remaining to witness our action. The supporters were standing directly on the other side of the crime scene tape and we could walk up to them and talk to them. They tried to give us water, but they were warned that they would be arrested if they passed anything into a restricted area.

Eventually the DC Metropolitan Police also showed up. They also gave us varying stories of what was going to happen to us. We noticed there were also a number of officers from the U.S. Secret Service Police force at the scene after we had been there for more than a couple of hours. So, eventually there were almost 100 police officers there from three different police jurisdictions for 24 peaceful people, many of us over=2 050 years old. It’s hard to believe we were that threatening. Eventually, they moved our supporters back away from us, and put up more crime scene tape to create a zone between us and our supporters. They parked two vans in this zone so that visibility was limited between us and our supporters.

As our supporters, now separated from us, began singing “Peace, Salaam, Shalom”, those of us in the restricted zone who were risking arrest joined hands in a circle and began singing along with them. As I begin to write about what happened next, I can feel the tension and shakiness in my body grow.

After singing and a short discussion on what the police may do next, the circle broke. As we continued our discussion, it looked like an arrest might be imminent. The park police were standing nearby with the plastic cuffs. Some of us thought we should resume our die-in in solidarity with our brothers and sisters suffering in Afghanistan and so we lay down on the sidewalk.

I noticed that there was a solid line of Metropolitan police standing along the edge of the sidewalk between us and our supporters and that the Secret Service police were standing off to the left of the guard house. Our group was in front of the guard house. I lay down on the sidewalk and was only there for a few minutes when we were rushed by strong and brutal Secret Service officers. They came at us in a line. They pushed the people who were standing over the people who were lying with no concern for anyone getting hurt or stepped on. An officer rushed in and standing near the top of head while I was lying on the sidewalk, he reached down and grabbed me under the arms, roughly pulled me to my feet and gave me a sharp push in my back. I was dumb-founded about what was happening. Violence like this from the police had never occurred in any action I had been part of. I remember feeling like this was wrong for them to be pushing us away. I remember feeling like I wanted to hold my ground, that I had every right to be standing there. But of course, physically that was impossible. They pushed us brutally and kept pushing us until we were outside of the restricted area, which was about 100 feet. As I got my third or fourth sharp push, I said, 0Don’t touch me.” Just before they got me to the edge of the taped in area, about 3 or 4 officers began batting me back and forth, and I was finally flung outside of the taped-in area.

My dear friend Malachy, who was also part of the group and was brutally and violently shoved, was standing there and I fell into his arms crying. I felt so powerless and so violated. Then Jennifer came over. She had seen the whole thing and was feeling upset, having watched her Mom being treated that way. Our group, along with our supporters, walked across the street to Lafayette Park to process what had happened and determine what we wanted to do next. We decided that we would send out press releases about what had happened and file a formal complaint against the Secret Service police.

I later found out that around the same time this brutality was happening outside, a reporter asked Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the protesters outside during the daily press briefing. Mr. Gibbs said,
“I think the President has long believed that whether your opinion is on one side of this issue or the other, that this is the -- the greatness of our country is that you get to amplify that opinion.”

Who gave the orders to treat us in such a violent manner? The Secret Service are in the service of the White House. We were becoming a nuisance and they wanted us to leave. If we were breaking the law, they should have arrested us. If we were not breaking the law, we should have been allowed to continue our activities. Never, during the Bush years, were we treated like this at the White House. There were about 60 police officers from the U.S. Park Service Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police who witnessed the brutality of the Secret Service police, yet did nothing to stop it. Max reported that after the violence, the head of the Park Police told Max that it was not their decision to treat us this way, yet they did nothing to stop it. Is there a change of tactics in the Obama White House to use force with protesters?

On Tuesday I went to see my congressional representatives to share what had happened with them. The aides in Senator Feingold’s office and Congresswoman Baldwin’s office were very interested in my story and asked that they be kept in the loop. They said they would see if they could help in anyway as we continue to examine what happened and why the Secret Service would use violence on peaceful citizens exercising their First Amendment rights in front of the White House.

Because of the violence used against us, this action was more traumatic than many previous actions. However, they cannot and will not deter us. I always carry a quote from Dan Berrigan into my actions. He said,
“We have assumed the name of peacemaker, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war of course, continues, because the waging of war by its nature, is total, but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial….We cry peace and cry peace and there is not peace.
There is no peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war, at as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace, prison, and death in its wake.”

We cannot give up and must continue our struggle for peace and justice, whatever comes. This winter and spring Voices for Creative Nonviolence is initiating the Peaceable Assembly Campaign. Witness Against Torture will continue their call to end torture, and close Bagram and Guantanamo. I will be joining both of these groups in DC in January. I will also be facing charges on January 25 in a trial with Malachy for our action in June at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition vigil at the White House. Beginning in February, the Peaceable Assembly Campaign will continue locally, and I hope that we can build a strong campaign around that initiative here in Wisconsin. I look forward to continuing this work with all my dear friends and as Liz McAlister reminds us,
“let us live as if that new world were indeed among us and so live it into being.”

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