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Interrupting the Empire, 30 Seconds at a Time
The massive U.S. Capitol Building is situated to dominate Washington, D.C. from every angle. Its brightly lit facade dominates the night skyline even more.
Inside, a first time visitor is at least impressed if not overwhelmed, waiting to enter the House or Senate gallery. A mural entirely dominating one stairwell titled, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," depicts heroic, windswept pioneer families cresting a mountain pass. Dark, formal portraits of the icons of American history look down from within ornate, gold frames. The illuminated words of founding fathers inscribed on marble walls fairly shout hosannas to liberty, freedom and democracy. By the time a visitor approaches the final security checkpoint immediately outside the gallery itself, mere mortals about to view the workings of the gods are properly awed; particularly if they’ve read the back of their gallery pass which states:
Rules of the Gallery
Nothing may be taken into the Galleries other than articles of clothing and handbags.
Guests must remain seated and refrain from reading, writing, smoking, eating, drinking, applauding or picture taking.
Front railing must be kept clear of all objects and guests must not lean on railings.
Appropriate hats may be worn by gentlemen for religious purposes only.
Any disturbance or infraction of these rules is justification for expulsion from the Galleries.
The Sergeant at Arms
Such was the setting on September 20, 2007, when Linda Wiener, Leah Bolger and I walked into the gallery overlooking a session of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In large letters our banner read, "FUNDING THE WAR IS KILLING OUR TROOPS" and it had a fine pedigree — only hours before it was a tablecloth at the trendy Washington Chop House where a sympathetic busboy donated it to the cause. Neatly folded and tucked into my pants, it made it past every security check except the last, electronic one which beeped at the cell phone I’d forgotten in my pocket. It seemed fitting that a banner with such a prestigious past should hang momentarily from the balcony of the House gallery, but such was not to be.
We were seated in a coveted first row, immediately behind the balcony railing, prepared to send our message at least verbally. Below us, the Acting Speaker of the House was conducting a vote described on a small, electronic scoreboard only as "On the previous question." Voting consisted of a surprisingly raucous, undisciplined period when members walked around and talked loudly with their colleagues. To the untrained eye it appeared entirely chaotic. We waited for two such votes on equally mysterious questions and decided to do our presentation over the noise and bustle below.
I put on my blue garrison cap with white letters spelling "Veterans For Peace," and stood up with Linda. In unison, we said loudly and clearly, "Congress! Congress! Funding the war is killing our troops. Please stop." About half the members on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives stopped talking and turned to look. We were able to repeat our message a couple more times before the Acting Speaker pounded a gavel and said the magic words to the Sergeant-at-Arms and Capitol Hill Police: "Restore order!" Within seconds I felt a strong hand on my arm and heard a voice say, "Sir, come with me!" We accepted his invitation but continued delivering our message on the way out and in the hallway where we were quickly handcuffed and propelled towards the elevator.
After a 30-hour twilight of custody by the Capitol Police, D.C. Metropolitan Police, and finally U.S. Marshals, I appeared before the judge in D.C. Superior Court for less than five minutes. My attorney, a third-year law student from the Georgetown Law Clinic successfully rebuffed the prosecutor’s request that I be given a "stay away" order preventing me from stepping foot in the several Congressional Office Buildings, the Capitol, and sundry bits of property adjacent to them all. I was told to return for a "status hearing" on October 30th, and released on my own recognizance.
That jail experience, although relatively short, was degrading as all jail experiences are intended to be. Going back to Washington D.C. for a status hearing and again for a trial is costly and inconvenient. But let’s face it. Many, many people in social justice movements before us have paid much more dearly than we’re asked to. For the most part, peace protesters these days aren’t being clubbed mercilessly, or disappeared into a gulag of prisons, or tortured when we’re arrested. We’re not yet under martial law, subject to being swept off the streets at a whim, nor are we being gunned down for protesting. That’s why it is so very important that we step forward now, before things get that bad, and demand an end to this war and justice for Iraqis and our returning troops.
Officer Wilson of the Capitol Police, whom I’ve gotten to know after a couple trips through his booking facility, asked, "Is it worth it? You know you’re not going to stop the war." I have to admit that just that morning on my way to the Capitol I considered saying "the hell with it" and going home. I had just been arrested September 15th with 200 others on the grounds of the Capitol. I knew this next arrest would entail an overnight stay in the D.C. Metro Police lockup and more trips to Washington for court appearances. One more arrest wasn’t going to end the war. But I thought of the absolute hell experienced by the people of Iraq and the relative hell experienced by our soldiers occupying them; of the physical and mental anguishes they suffer and will continue to suffer for years to come; of the culpability I share in this criminal war. The logic seemed simple and clear to me: this was something I could do, therefore I must do it. In trying to end this war using nonviolence, such actions are among the most significant a person can take. So I answered Officer Wilson, "Yes, it’s worth it," and tried unsuccessfully to explain my position to someone with a very different view of the world.
Later, I learned that on the day Linda spoke out and were arrested, 36 activists were arrested elsewhere in the Capitol Building, doing a die-in and reading the names of people killed in the war as a tour group of students watched.
From that one day’s experience, imagine what would happen if we decided to educate Congress with a variety of short speeches four times a day, for four days a week, for two weeks. That would take just 32 people; 64 people could keep it going for a month. Then, the next time 100,000 people come to D.C. for a demonstration and 5,000 of them do a die-in, what would happen if they were prepared to stay there indefinitely–and got on their phones to tell their friends to join them–and within days we had several times that number filling the streets, filling the jails? Now that actually begins to stop business as usual in Washington.
We can do it; therefore we must!
MIKE FERNER is a former Navy corpsman and author of "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq". He can be reached at: email@example.com