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On February 27th, I participated in my first open act of civil disobedience as part of the Occupation Project. I along with St. Louis local chapter President Chuc Smith, three other veterans; Jim Allen, Harry Wyman and VFP office manager Cherie Eichholz and Military Families Speak Out Member D. Ridgley Brown visited Representative Russ Carnahan’s office to continue our conversation to persuade him to vote down any bills that continue to provide funding for the war in Iraq. Jim Allen and I decided to sit-in to protest Carnahan’s refusal to pledge not to continue funding for the war. As a result, Jim and I were arrested.
This was not the first time Rep. Carnahan a Democrat has been approached on this subject. He has been visited several times by many members of his district and others who want him to take a leadership role in Congress to de-fund the war. I have been to his office more than once and on Friday February 23rd, I along with veterans Woody Powell, Catie Shinn, Cherie, Chuc, and National Guard member and Appeal for Redress signer Brian Hill with Iraq Veteran Cloy Richards sat down with Carnahan and discussed de-funding. Carnahan’s basic rap is that he is against the escalation and believes the war must come to an end. He cannot promise to vote against a bill he has not seen. He thinks that Jack Murtha’s plan to restrict the ability of the President to continue the war via oversight and placing high standards on troop readiness before deployment is promising and he does not want to de-fund the troops. We explained that de-funding the war is not de-funding the troops; legislative restrictions on the President will not end the war. Giving money to the President for the war will only prolong the war and Bush has told us over and over he does not intend to end the war. The American people voted for new congressional leadership to end the war and de-funding is the quickest route to make that happen. We also told him that Democrats should put the President on the defensive by de-funding the war and make him explain why he continues to wage war when Congress has demanded a change of course based on the mandate from the American people. We emphasized that everyday Congress spends looking for less direct ways to end the war on average three US service members die and many Iraqi children, women and men.
Unfortunately, we reached little agreement beyond the obvious, the war must end. It appears that most Democrats and Veterans For Peace are on a different time table.
Our entering Rep. Carnahan’s office Tuesday is part of weeks of outreach and meetings to change his mind. I decided that this time I was not leaving until I received a satisfactory answer. Thus I was willing to risk arrest. There are many who wonder why risk arrest. They ask, “Do you really think being arrested will make a difference?” Well, my objective is not to be arrested. My objective is to persuade my Representative’s or Senators’ to vote to de-fund the war. Yes I am willing to risk arrest and I do not know if my refusal to leave and subsequent arrest will make a difference. However I do know that inaction will change nothing. Up till now I have done all I can do short of civil disobedience. I have marched. I have given out materials and made countless talks and speeches. I have called and written congress. There are other creative ideas I hope to develop and I will continue to do all of the things I have done in the past. But yesterday was the time for me to put a little more on the line. I am not rich, so I cannot get their attention with large campaign contributions. I am not famous so I cannot awe them with my notoriety. So all I can do is visit, dialogue and sit-in.
The journey to civil disobedience has been one of reflection and hesitation. Of course I ask will it make a difference. One cannot be sure. But for me it has also been a question of conditioning and survival. I did not come to this decision easily. As a Black male in America who has been trained to be wary of the police it has not been easy to decide to willingly put myself into their hands. I have spent most of my forty-two years trying not to be arrested. I have plenty of examples of police misconduct against Black men. In the late 90’s the sodomy of Abner Louima and the shooting death of Amadou Diallo in NYC heightened my fear of being pursued and in the custody of police. In 1997 Abner Louima was arrested outside of a Brooklyn nightclub for unclear reasons. He was beaten in the squad car in route to the station, beaten in the station and eventually sodomized in the station restroom with a plunger. Two years later in 1999, Amadou a Guinean emigrant walking home from a meal, unarmed and innocent of any crime was gunned down by four police officers in a barrage of shot at 41. He was struck 19 times. It was a case of mistaken identity. The plain clothes officers attempted to stop him because they thought he fit the description of a since captured serial rapist. Another terrifying story took place on November 26, 2006. The circumstances of the incident are still under investigation; however it is clear that Sean Bell a young man leaving his bachelor party at a nightclub in Jamaica Queens with two friends died in a firestorm of 50 shots from five undercover police. One of his friends was critically wounded. No gun was founded on Sean or his friends. Sean was scheduled to marry later that day. These three incidents are the extreme and thankfully rare, but real. The names of these three men stay with me and remind me of dangers I face.
In the week before my participation to occupy Russ Carnahan’s office I received the January/February edition of The Crisis magazine, a bi-monthly periodical founded in 1910. It is the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP. An article entitled ‘A New Day?’ examines “whether gains in Black political power will improve the lives of average African Americans.” Well that’s me so I read the article. While there are promising facts in the article describing unprecedented political gains and individual achievements there were other items that gave me pause as to whether or not I should occupy my reps office.
Statistics show that Black men were the most incarcerated demographic group in the country, with the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to a recent Justice Department report, 12.6 percent of Black males in their 20s were behind bars. Federal government statistic show that Blacks have an 18.6 percent chance of going to jail at some point in their lives, while less than 4 percent of Whites will spend time locked up.”
I asked myself, do I really want to add to these sad numbers.
So what motivates me? Why have I decided to move forward with this tactic? I am motivated by the death of tens of thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in this war. I am most motivated by the life of my only son who is a soldier in the 101st Airborne who has already participated in one tour in Iraq. I am motivated by the death of his second child, my 7 month old grandson who died on January 3, 2007 of a genetic disease. I am motivated by the fact that when I ask Goddess why my grandson died and when I peer through the pain of his death in search of reasons and people to blame, I can only find the reality and cycle of life. People die from disease. It is natural and for the most part not any one person is to blame. I could look and perhaps find human created environmental factors. But if these factors do exist they are many steps removed from causing death. Unlike the firing of a gun or dropping of a bomb where one can easily observe cause and effect and can witness who fired the gun or dropped the bomb. Having sat and cried with Iraqi and American Gold Star fathers and mothers and feeling a glimpse of their pain, I thought I had an idea of that pain. How foolish of me. I did not know the emptiness one feels. Or I should say there is an empty space I feel that will never be filled because Jeremiah my grandson who once lived there is gone for ever. Where I must accept the reality of life, Gold Star Parents must face the reality of war, a human activity caused by human actions. Where I can find no one to hold responsible for my anger and pain, an Iraqi can hold my nation, my son and me responsible for their pain. This is the sense of urgency I hope my small act of civil disobedience will help convey to Representative Carnahan and Senator McCaskill.
Lastly I ask myself, if not now when? After nearly four years of protest, over 3,100 dead US service members, tens to hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis who are guilty of nothing but living in Iraq, obvious lies by our leaders that took us to war, possible war with Iran, an election for a change in direction, no change of direction by our President and an indecisive Congress who needs to be pushed in the right direction; when would be a better time to give civil disobedience a try? We are at a critical moment. Congress will soon vote for a $90 billion appropriation that could fund the war until the end of President Bush’s term. After this vote, Congress will have little power to end the war. We need to flood Congress with letters, phone calls, e-mails and faxes demanding they end funding. We must show up at their door in force. If enough of us sit-in they will end the war. If we don’t they won’t. Maintaining a majority and a gaining the presidency is the priority of the Democrats. Ours is ending the war. You do not have to commit an act of civil disobedience to participate in the Occupation Project. Stand on the corner while others enter the office. Be present when occupiers are taken away or released from custody. Every small act makes a difference. We need more acts to move them forward. Add yours.
Michael T. McPhearson is Executive Director of Veterans for Peace.