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"Up Against the Wall, Son"

Hungering for Justice During My First Congressional Testimony

by MIKE FERNER

Last Wednesday evening, the House Appropriations Committee voted to throw another $67,000,000,000 at the murderous work in Iraq and Afghanistan. That night members of the committee, righteously indignant and nearly unanimous, gave President "Bring Em On" Bush a loud slap in the face.

Whoa! You mean the most powerful committee in Congress voted 62-2 to stop funding our national war crimes orgy? Of course they didand then we all lived happily ever after.

No, the killing will proceed as planned, with no congressional intervention, although chances are you heard absolutely zip about the 67 Billion Dollar Question, thanks to the Guardians of Reality who insured the news from that hearing was the Dubai Port deal, not the unimaginable sum of our money Congress voted for war, nor the voices raised against it.

That news must come from places like the internet site you’re now reading, not the corporate press. And I’m here to tell you the story.

More than an hour before the start of the hearing on the "supplemental" spending bill for the war, five of us from Voices for Creative Nonviolence s "Winter of Our Discontent" campaign lined up outside the Appropriations Committee Hearing Room in the Rayburn House Office Building. Ed Kinane, Cynthia Banas, Lorie Blanding, Jeff Leys, and yours truly were prepared to shine a light of reality, however briefly, into one of Disneyland’s darkest corners. Two of our crew had banners that said, "STOP THE KILLING," ready to open them when we began, in turn, to read names of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis killed in the war.

We’d been in line early enough to be among the first 15 people admitted, but by the time the hearing room was changed from it’s assigned grand room to a much smaller venue, 60-plus representatives, their staffs, AND a few dozen lobbyist-regulars were shown in, the general public was shown an overflow room a few doors away.

Moments after entering the overflow, we realized we’d just been cut out of the actual hearings and would not be able to say what we had prepared. We regrouped in the hallway outside of where the hearing had just begun.

Three members of the D.C. Antiwar Network, Malachy Kilbride, Pete Perry, and David Barrows reacted to the switcheroo faster than we did. They barged into the hearing room, forcefully told the Members of Congress they all had the war’s blood on their hands, and got promptly ejected by the Sergeant at Arms deputies.

Fortuitously, a couple minutes later, my hometown Congressperson and Appropriations Committee member from Toledo, Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), arrived. I greeted her and we chatted briefly, and then she asked if I was going to attend the hearing.

"No, it seems to be pretty filled up with staff and lobbyists," I replied.

Walking up to the Sergeant of Arms guarding the double doors, she informed him she wanted to find a seat for her constituent. What was I to do but go in and take what seemed to be the last chair in the room?

By then, Committee Chair Jerry (not the one they love in France) Lewis (R-CA), had opened the first agenda item, an amendment to prevent the administration from completing its plans to hand over operations at a strategically located Middle Eastern port to a Dubai-run company. Discussion was lively, including one comment from Rep. Jim Moran (DVA), who, trying to slow the rush to snub Dubai, actually said, "If we want to Americanize and Westernize the Arab world," the U.S. needs to continue doing business with nations like Dubai that are "run by a staunchly pro-American, pro-business person."

At this time, a goodly number of reporters were attentively in attendance. I was, unfortunately, about to make a serious mistake in activist judgment.

As the only one of our merry band able to get into the hearing, I knew I’d be flying solo at my first Congressional testimony, and decided to wait until the hearing progressed beyond the amendments, to the $67 Billion war appropriation itself.

My heart sank as I watched half the reporters abandon ship right after the Dubai Port amendment sailed through. A second amendment quickly passed. A few more reporters left. Then Lewis announced a recess so members could return to the House floor for a series of votes.

Not wanting to relinquish my serendipitously-won seat, I stayed put, surprised in a few minutes as Ed Kinane slipped through the relaxed security at the door. We quickly exchanged notes, decided we’d stay until the committee reconvened, and then watched as a half-dozen Capitol Police appeared. The stage was set.

The committee returned about an hour later, sans TV cameras, photogs or any reporters as best I could tell. Luckily, the one cameraperson operating the video unit on a tripod was back at his post for about 5 minutes until he began breaking down his equipment. As innocuously as possible, I zipped over to what I learned was no less than the network pool camera operator, and whispered to him he may want to stick around a bit.

"Why, is there going to be a protest," he asked loudly enough for the immediate world to hear?

"Yes, there is," I replied, not knowing why I bothered whispering again.

"Well, we saw the one already," he returned, "and besides, the networks said we can call it a day."

Nothing else I said would deter him so I returned to my seat.

Hoping that C-Span might still record our protest, I sat for a short while longer near Ed who noted that his own representative, James Walsh (R-NY), had just risen to offer an amendment. Walsh wanted to shift some Veterans Administration funds from future hospital construction to ongoing operational needs. The Congressman who, like the vast majority of his colleagues consistently voted to fund the war, wanted to be sure the hospitals could keep up with the results.

No one wanted to oppose that idea, especially when it didn’t require any new money. Walsh’s amendment passed quickly. Although it looked like I’d be speaking only to those in the hearing room, there would never be better timing. I rose to my feet, wearing a Navy pea coat with my third class Petty Officer insignia, and my Veterans For Peace cap.

"My name is MIKE FERNER, from Ohio. I served as a Navy Hospital Corpsman during the Viet Nam war," I began, "And if you really want to do something about the numbers of wounded and disabled veterans coming back to our VA hospitals, the best thing you can do is STOP THIS WAR!"

Introducing Ed as he scrambled to unfold the banner, I told a now-attentive Appropriations Committee that we were on day 22 of a 34-day fast against the war, and that "speaking for the majority of Americans who are now against this war, we say, STOP THE KILLING!"

"Listen to just a few names of the victims of our government’s war," I demanded, and was able to announce two Marines, Daniel Bubb, 19, and Christopher Poston, 20, and two Iraqi citizens, Ahmed Khalaf, and Hamza Khuzai, before two Capitol Police officers grabbed me and ripped the paper out of my hands.

Refusing to go quietly into the night as I was hustled from the chamber, I looked several representatives in the eye and said, "Those are the names of dead veterans from this war. You are violating international lawsyou are committing war cri" and then it was face down on the hallway floor.

Next came the traditional "up against the wall" routine for handcuffing, and we began the trip to the Capitol Police booking facility. On the way out of the Rayburn Building, we passed a couple very posh dinners held in different hearing rooms. As I nodded and said hello to the food service workers in the hallway, I was glad I’d asked my arresting officer to leave my VFP cap on my head.

We were charged with disrupting a Congressional committee hearing and cited into D.C. Superior Court on March 28. The Capitol cops relieved us of belts, money, I.D., shoelaces, everything in our pockets, and took us to D.C. city jail for electronic fingerprinting and face scanning. After those pleasantries, the D.C. cops drove us about four blocks from the police station to a corner somewhere in the district around 2:00 a.m.

I bummed 50 cents from a passing cop for a pay phone call so we could contact our support team, Carmelite Sister Maureen Foltz, and my wife, Sue Carter, who plucked the two of us off the street.

Ed and I were assigned a court date only eight days after the scheduled end of our fast on March 20, so we’ve decided not to incur the additional expense of going home to Syracuse and Toledo respectively, and stay in Washington.

And you heard it here first: we also decided to extend the fast until March 28 for a total of 42 days.

But PLESE do us a favor: if you’re thinking of a "thank you" or some other gracious response, DON’T. We don’t need your thanks. The Iraqi people and our soldiers need your action to stop this damnable war. Think about it and determine one big step you can take that’s more than anything you’ve yet done. Do it right there, in your hometown, before Ed and I go to court on March 28. Before the full House and Senate vote $67,000,000,000 more for the war. Get your friends together and sit-in at your local congressional offices. Demand they STOP THE KILLING.

Then we can thank you.

MIKE FERNER is a freelance writer from Ohio. His book based on trips to Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion, "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq" is due out in August. He can be reached at: mike.ferner@sbcglobal.net