Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Back to Crawford by way of Washington D.C. (September 23-24, 2006)

These days, I seem to be on the road too much, but rarely do I get the sense of accomplishment of the past weekend. Sue Lyons and I drove down to DC on Friday morning (September 23rd), and checked in at a Day's Inn at Silver Spring, near D.C. We had both volunteered to be legal observers for the National Lawyer's Guild during the anti-war demonstration which was to take place on September 24th.

The Legal Observer program is part of a system of legal support which was designed to enable people to express their political views without unconstitutional interference by the government, and if possible, with little or no consequences from the criminal justice system. Legal observers, who include law students, paralegals or other people who work within the legal system or who work on legal issues for community organizations, or even out-of-state lawyers who are not licensed in the state of the demonstration, are the eyes and ears of the legal team that may later be called upon to report on the activities of law enforcement with regard to demonstrators, or to engage in defense work or in lawsuits. Legal observers are there to document police activities, including the use of force, the denial of public space to demonstrators, any arrests, display of force for purposes of intimidation, or other type of behavior that would limit the ability of demonstrators to fully express their views. If the legal team later needs to bring charges against police or government agencies, documentation provided by the legal observers helps to defend and to advance demonstrators' rights. The simple presence of legal observers in a demonstration, wearing clearly visible lime green badges hung around the neck and lime green hats, serves to deter unconstitutional behavior by police.

We were to dress casually and to wear neutral clothing without political slogans or buttons. There were probably about fifty of us from different states and from DC, most of whom had volunteered in advance to march with the group as observers and to take detailed notes of ongoing activity. We had obtained access to a training manual, and training had been conducted by our coordinator so that we might know what to expect. There is also substantial 'Know your rights' material at the Guild's website which explains some of the issues that may arise during a demonstration. We exchanged telephone lists, spoke to members of security, and set out armed with our visible head gear and badge and a notebook to record any activity, whether peaceful or otherwise. We also had disposable cameras. We were to take notes of the condition of the streets at various times and locations, identify the various law enforcement agencies present, including private security firms (in DC, these included US Park Service, Metropolitan Police, and agencies such as the FBI), names and badge numbers of officers if available, physical descriptions, routes used by demonstrators, and detailed notes on the conduct of law enforcement officers, including warnings, use of force, etc.

Several times Sue and I were stopped by marchers who thanked us for doing the work of legal observer. The Guild has been present at many demonstrations since its founding in 1937, including labor union, anti-war, civil rights, immigration rights, and anti-nuclear events and activities. Many of the people who spoke to us had been arrested at other political events or at activities of civil disobedience, and knew the importance of the legal observer work.

Although I have been to DC three times previously since we attacked Iraq, this seemed to be the longest march; my aching legs and back attested to that. The organizers had obtained permission to march in front of the White House and along Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in many years. The day had begun with presentations by speakers, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Cindy Sheehan and George Galloway, with a rally planned for 11:30 AM and the actual march to start at 12:30 PM, however, demonstrators kept arriving in buses and trains; the sheer number of people present made for extensive 'traffic jams' and bottle-necks of demonstrators. There were funny and witty signs and buttons, home-made ones as well as pre-printed ones from various anti-war websites, and sad and outrageous ones, a lot of 'street theater,' such as the Billionaires for War, and the Raging Grannies, but my sense of the event is that it was peaceful and yet tense; tense because there is a sense of frustration and outrage in the streets as a result of the growing incompetence of the current administration both abroad and at home (there were many Katrina signs... Make levees not war comes to mind). Perhaps this is the reason for the hundreds of thousands who came to DC and who marched, demonstrated, expressed their opinion of the present state of affairs...

The first person I had seen that day was Hadi, one of the founders of the Crawford Peace House. I had introduced him to Sue, and he told her about our cooking and singing at the Peace House, and about his 'feeding' me Rumi, which referred to the morning when he recited Rumi for me in Farsi and English while I made an omelette, speechless for once. I had told him then that although I had been feeding their bodies, he was feeding my soul... So before the march began we had visited the Crawford House camp; so many people from Crawford were there it seemed as though I were back 'home' and was going to have to put my apron on. I saw Phil Reiss and his new bride, our own Ellen, but that was it for the many members of Pocono Progressives who attended the march. There were hundreds of thousands present! It was a feat to find someone you knew. At some point Ann Wright, our "Field Marshal" for Casey II, asked Casey volunteers to grab a small tent each and we proceeded to put them up near the crosses; she would not say why! It was spooky; Casey II was there again, boots, crosses, tents, and thousands of people. Rick Burnley was reciting to an audience,; everyone was up to grief or merriment.

On Sunday we joined a training held by United for Peace and Justice on lobbying; it was held at American University from 2 to 5 PM, and included several speakers. A similar training on civil disobedience was being conducted, to help those who had decided to participate to understand what they might expect. Sue and I had offered to be legal observers, but it was not necessary, so we finally went back to the hotel and had dinner at a wonderful Asian bistro. Miso soup is good for the soul... and the day before it had been a Lebanese taverna and lentils, which I maintain will cure anything, including a broken heart. Appointments had been made for PA delegates to visit Senators Santorum and Specter, but we had yet to obtain an appointment with Congressman Kanjorski.

Monday we were told that an appointment had been made to see Kanjorski's aide, Tom Nicholls, at 2:15 PM. The Republicans had cancelled all votes for Monday, so in general we were to speak to aides of the various Senators and Congresspeople. Nicholls was a young but well informed aide, and we had a 40 minute session, at the end of which the Congressman walked in and greeted us. Sue and I had introduced ourselves as local members of the Monroe Democratic Party, committeewomen for our districts, on the board of the Pocono Progressives, as well as explained our various professional affiliations.

We had a specific agenda to discuss:
a) co-sponsorship of H.J. Res. 55, jointly introduced by Abercrombie (D-HI) and Jones (R-NC), known as the Homeward Bound bill, which calls for the President to announce a plan of withdrawal of troops from Iraq by December 31, 2005, with actual withdrawal to begin by October 1, 2006;
b) co-sponsorhip of H.Con. Res. 197, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), which calls for prohibition of permanent bases in Iraq;
c) co-sponsorship of H.R. 551 - Student Privacy Act of 2005, which would change the present provision in the 'No Child Left Behind Act' to require that military recruiters not be allowed to contact students unless parents agree to 'opt in,' rather than the present requirement that parents 'opt out.' It was introduced by Rep. Honda (D-CA) and has 64 co-sponsors.
d) Joining the Out of Iraq Congressional Working Group, organized to increase pressure on the administration and Congress to end the Iraq conflict and bring the troops home.
e) voting against additional funding for combat action.
Nicholls stated that Kanjorski had voted in favor of the war but only because he had been lied to, and that he was concerned with developing an effective exit strategy so that we could bring the troops home as soon as possible. We discussed the fact that the presence of US troops in the region might be fueling the ongoing insurgency. He stated that he would have to discuss the Student Privacy bill with the Congressman and promised to write to us about that. Finally, he stated that if there were once again a Democratic majority in the House, we would 'see investigations' into such irregularities as the Downing Street memoranda, conduct of the occupation, mistreatment of detainees, and other such matters. He agreed that the mood of the American people was changing; that polls showed about 60% of people dissatisfied with the conduct of the war.

The Santorum interview was held by a male aide by the name of Rayburn and a female aide, they both came to the room almost 25 minutes late; there were twenty plus people from different regions in Pennsylvania, York, Allentown, Philadelphia, all sharing a great outrage and a desire to have our questions answered. The aides were not helpful, but I left after a few minutes because we had a 4 PM appointment with Senator Specter, and I was to be the point-person for that meeting.

We met with Charles Fitzpatrick, Senator Specter's aide in charge of defense matters. We had some pointed questions about legislation in the works to demand an exit strategy, independent investigations on the Downing Street memo and other such occurrences, an agenda similar to that for Kanjorski, but focused on the Senate. There were about 15 of us present at the beginning of the forty-five minute meeting, and about 5 to 7 additional people came in during the discussion. Many of the members of our delegation referred to Specter's courage and integrity, his ability to be his own man and not necessarily a 'party man.' Fitzpatrick said again and again that Specter has never been a 'rubber stamp,' that he had introduced a resolution, prior to the war, asking that the US go before the UN one more time before starting a war, but the resolution was never voted upon; he was clearly aware of the cost to the state of Pennsylvania of this war both in terms of human lives and money. As a member of the Defense Appropriations Committee, he told us Specter had participated in an investigation of abuses at Guantanamo, and had visited the base and taken a full tour of the facilities; that he had been one of the sole challengers of the Pentagon on the use of torture; one of our members argued that the use of torture seems to be systemic and not a case of individual occurrences. We had begun the Specter lobbying with an introduction by each of those present, which included affiliations, area of residence, interests; what united us all was our desire for peace, for an investigation into the outrages being perpetrated in our name, for an understanding of the specific cost to our state (99 PA men and women dead, $12 billion cost to the state). Ron Brown of Upper Back Edy, for example, mentioned that we were spending $2,316.00 per second on this war... Charles Lynchner, a former Israeli army member, expressed his belief that our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan threatened the continued safety of Israel as a state. One of our members discussed health issues; we had heard a woman recently returned from Iraq discuss the lack of water in Iraq, the lack of electricity, the poor state of hospitals, the fact that physicians are leaving in droves because they cannot treat their patients without water, resources, and have become targets for the insurgents. Fitzpatrick promised to look into this further for the Senator.

On the issue of appropriations for the war, Fitzpatrick explained that although various appropriations had been made, they had not necessarily been spent; that Specter has sponsored debate on the use of appropriations, asked tough questions of Rumsfeld and others. He stated that the Downing Street memorandum is being investigated. About the building of permanent bases, he stated these could not be built without Congressional approval, and that no one in Congress wanted to see a permanent presence. He did say that if bases were being built (14 at last count), it was for the use of the 130,000+ force which is there at the present time. He also jumped when I asked him about the fact that soldiers had had to purchase body armor out of their own funds and said that the matter had now been resolved, and that all troops were now being issued body armor, and those who had spent their own money would be reimbursed...

I think many of us agree that Senator Specter has in the past sponsored legislation not in according with party lines; it is necessary that he be persuaded to do the hard things that need to be done. This war will not end, as Sue Lyons, said, until the Congress has the courage to stand up to the administration and refuse to fund the war effort.

I began this writing expressing that the weekend had left me with a sense of accomplishment; I summarize and state that we did three very important things. We gathered to protest, to express our political views as an aggregate of many voices from different parts of the United States and the world (there were Canadians and Australians and Latin Americans and and ), from our varying creeds and genders and races and beliefs, to say, No more. We were loving and respectful despite provocation in some quarters. We were above all, peaceful; I remember a favorite T-shirt which stated the wearer was a 'peace-monger.' We were all peace mongers.
The second important thing that we did was to train for either civil disobedience or lobbying. Civil disobedience at times such as the present ones is important and vital; it is what brought down the colonial domination of the British in India. The civil disobedience practiced by Cindy Sheehan and several hundred people, which led to their arrests, was part of a well-established tool of dissent. Henry David Thoreau, in his essay 'On Civil Disobedience,' says that

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. (...) It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her--the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.

Dr. King says in his autobiography about Thoreau: I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

This, in essence, is why the civil disobedience that took place on Monday is so important, because 'no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.'

Finally, the lobbying was important because we must show that we can engage injustice and lies and criminally corrupt government on the streets as well as in the houses of the legislature and at the polls. Cindy Sheehan said it best, when she took on the Congress on Saturday; 'we need our checks and balances on this out-of control and criminal government.' These checks and balances will be restored when we continue to ask the Caesar to answer our pleas; when we continue to resist the injustices of government, when we continue to stand, as the Madres stood outside the Plaza de Mayo, as silent witnesses to the truth, seeking not only peace but social justice.

Respectfully submitted,
Silvia A. Brandon PĂ©rez

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