Thursday, September 28, 2006

Clark: The Day We Took Over the Senate

The Day We Took Over the Senate by Gordon Clark

Even for these now veteran activist eyes, it was a glorious and inspiring sight to see.

On Tuesday, September 26, more than 100 nonviolent activists took over the central lobby and atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building, and staged a protest of the war in Iraq while dozens and dozens of Senate staffers looked on. For one hour, at least, American opposition to the war in Iraq became the central focus for these offices of the U.S. Senate, and 71 individuals were arrested for making this happen.

The action was organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (formerly the Iraq Pledge of Resistance), as part of the week of anti-war actions around the country organized by the Declaration of Peace campaign.

The action started that morning with a rally and interfaith service at Upper Senate Park. Another remarkable aspect of the day was the presence of national religious leaders, such as Jackie Lynn, head of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and Rick Ufford-Chase, Director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and for the past two years the moderator of the 216th Presbyterian General Assembly - the highest office in the denomination. They were not only participating themselves in our nonviolent direct action, but were now urging their faith communities to begin following suit.

At the end of the rally and service we formed a procession to go by the Capitol building and then on to the Senate office buildings. Police stopped us after three blocks, telling us that the large procession constituted an unpermitted demonstration and that we would not be allowed to continue. It was at this point that one affinity group broke away, and crossed police lines and Constitution Ave., carrying a coffin to the steps of the Capitol. Sixteen were arrested for that act of nonviolent witness.

The remaining 200 or so of us, however, were suddenly left without any police presence at all, since literally every one of their officers had followed the coffin. As our goal was to get to the offices of the U.S. Senate, we decided to simply turn around and head back up Constitution Ave. to the Senate office buildings - which we did without incident until some of the police realized their mistake, came roaring back and set up a line to stop us in front of the Russell Senate Office Building, one block short of our ultimate goal.

A small group of us conducted negotiations with an officer of the Capitol Police for 15-20 minutes. Although they continued to assert that our procession was illegal and could not continue - if we wanted to visit our Senators, they said, we had to return to Upper Senate Park (where we did have a permit), leave all our signs and banners behind and break up into small groups - the officer in charge was a model of courtesy, and in fact, an extremely friendly fellow. When their "final" decision was made, our decision was to stay put. We intended to proceed as a group, no matter what, and if they felt compelled to arrest us they would have to do it right there.

The police gave a five minute warning, but that five minutes passed and nothing happened. Ten of our number managed to cross the police line and get to the Russell building entrance, where they were promptly detained and arrested. Others called their senators' offices to demand to know why weren't being allowed in to see them. A giant Gandhi puppet, carrying a sign that said "Be the change you want to see in the world," came rolling down Constitution Ave. and evoked a huge cheer from our crowd, all the more so because the same puppet had earlier been stopped by police who refused to allow it near the Capitol complex. Interestingly, Gandhi was now being given an entire lane of traffic on Constitution Ave.

While all this was happening, Rick Ufford-Chase continued to negotiate with the police. Rick is a pretty darn friendly guy himself, and apparently a heck of a negotiator, since after another 15-20 minutes it was announced that if we left our large banners behind, we would be allowed to proceed as a group, enter the Hart Senate Office Building, and reassemble after passing through security. Rick had re-emphasized our commitment to nonviolence, and had patiently explained that our planned action in the Hart atrium would be a respectful, interfaith-led protest of the war in Iraq. The police explained that if we did that, we would likely be arrested inside the Hart building.

When this agreement was announced, it was immediately apparent how remarkable and unprecedented it was. The Capitol police would allow us to continue what they considered an unpermitted demonstration, and then enter a Senate office building - for the express purpose of carrying out another illegal demonstration. (The charge given those arrested inside was "unlawful assembly.")

While a number of us continued a protest outside, more than 100 of us entered the Hart building. For those not familiar with it, the Hart Senate Office Building is really quite beautiful and unlike any other congressional office building, in that it is designed around a giant, open, building-high lobby and atrium, with senate offices lining the seven stories facing on to the atrium. If you control the atrium, you essentially control the entire building.

And that is precisely what we did. With some reading the names of the dead or holding up peace signs on the balconies surrounding the lobby, a large group assembled in a circle on the first floor for our nonviolent witness against the war. As it went on, the balconies filled with onlookers, until finally all seven stories, on all four sides, were lined with senate staffers and visitors watching the protest and eventual arrests. Several applauded and gave thumbs up. The protest also garnered the front page and a full inside page spread of the following day's Roll Call newspaper, meaning that every office on Capitol Hill knew about it within 24 hours.

I have often heard "this is what democracy looks like" chanted during street marches and protests. Standing in this august senate office building, with our protest being watched by a majority of the people working there, I had the profound feeling that this is exactly what democracy should look like. If our elected leaders refuse to heed the will of the people, then we the people will take over their offices until they do. It happens in other countries around the world, usually to our great approval, so why not here in the U.S. as well? Truly, this was democracy in its purest and finest form.

People were peacefully arrested, and led away. They joined their colleagues from the previous arrests, and had by all accounts a time of great community and fellowship during the several hours it took the police to process and release them all. Those of us waiting outside the police station heard frequent outbursts of laughter and applause. The police officer in charge sought me out at the end to thank me several times over, and stated plainly that they were glad they were able to help us accomplish what we wanted to do that day.

Relationships with police are a complicated and challenging matter for our movement, a source of often heated debate. And this particular police force in question had a somewhat different interpretation of our goal, believing we were there "to be arrested." (While the nonviolent activist is willing to risk arrest and make other sacrifices, our goal is not to be arrested. We usually end up reminding the police of this, and inviting them to not arrest us the next time, but rather to join us.)

The fact remains, though, that this is one of several examples - we've been doing nonviolent actions since before the Iraq war began - where different police forces in the nation's capital not only treated us well, but actually helped us achieve our goal. A large part of that has to do with our own commitment to nonviolence, which leads us to treat all people, including our adversaries and even arresting officers, with openness and respect. Respect them, and often they will respect you in return.

Just as important, though, is the fact that many of these police, possibly even the large majority of them, actually agree with us and support what we're doing. They have privately told our activists this on many, many occasions. They have brothers and sisters and buddies in the military, and lost some of them, and they are just as sick of this war as we are. It reminds one directly of the epilogue in the updated edition of Howard Zinn's classic People's History of the United States, where he argues that a "revolt of the palace guards" may be part of how a peaceful revolution happens in this country. Listening to and working with these police, one gets the feeling the revolution may be a little closer than we think.

Above all, though, we achieved our goal, and for a least one hour on a Tuesday in September, we brought the work of a Senate office building to a standstill, and made loud and clear our demand that the immoral, illegal and unjust occupation of Iraq must end. If we can continue to ramp up our actions in this way, including the extremely important electoral work for this fall, we can and will compel members of Congress to heed our demand.

Gordon Clark is the convener of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, formerly the Iraq Pledge of Resistance. For news stories and images of these actions, as well as more information, go to, or

Friday, September 08, 2006

Keillor: What Really Makes our Nation Strong

What Really Makes our Nation Strong
by Garrison Keillor
Published on Thursday, September 7, 2006 by the Baltimore Sun (Maryland)

Growing up in the '50s, we imagined our country defended by guided missiles poised in bunkers, jet fighters on the tarmac and pilots in the ready room prepared to scramble, a colonel with a black briefcase sitting in the hall outside the president's bedroom, but Sept. 11 gave us a clearer picture. We have a vast array of hardware, a multitude of colonels, a lot of bureaucratic confusion, and a nation vulnerable to attack.

The Federal Aviation Administration has now acknowledged that the third of the four planes seized by the 19 men with box cutters had already hit the Pentagon before the FAA finally called there to say there was a problem. The FAA lied to the 9/11 commission about this, then took two years to ascertain the facts - a 51-minute gap in defense - and released the finding on the Friday before Labor Day, an excellent burial site for bad news.

So America is not the secure fortress we grew up imagining. Perhaps it never was. What protects us is what has protected us for 230 years: our magnificent isolation. After the disasters of the 20th century, Europe put nationalism aside and adopted civilization, but we have oceans on either side, so if the president turns out to be a shallow, jingoistic fool with a small, rigid agenda and little knowledge of the world, we expect to survive it somehow. Life goes on.

It's hard for Americans to visualize the collapse of our country. It's as unthinkable as one's own demise. Europeans are different: They've seen disaster, even the British. They know it was a near thing back in 1940. My old Danish mother-in-law remembered the occupation clearly 40 years later and was teary-eyed when she talked about it. Francis Scott Key certainly could envision the demise of the United States in 1814 when he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Abraham Lincoln was haunted by the thought. We are not, apparently, though five years ago we saw a shadow.

We really are one people at heart. We all believe that when thousands of people are trapped in the Superdome without food or water, it is the duty of government, the federal government if necessary, to come to their rescue and to restore them to the civil mean and not abandon them to fate. Right there is the basis of liberalism. Conservatives tried to introduce a new idea - it's your fault if you get caught in a storm - and this idea was rejected by nine out of 10 people once they saw the pictures. The issue is whether we care about people who don't get on television.

Last week, I sat and listened to a roomful of parents talk about their battles with public schools in behalf of their children who suffer from dyslexia, or apraxia, or ADD, or some other disability - sagas of ferocious parental love vs. stonewall bureaucracy in the quest for basic, needful things - and how some of them had uprooted their families and moved to Minnesota so their children could attend better schools. You couldn't tell if those parents were Republicans or Democrats. They simply were prepared to move mountains so their kids could have a chance. So are we all.

And that's the mission of politics: to give our kids as good a chance as we had. They say that liberals have run out of new ideas - it's like saying that Christians have run out of new ideas. Maybe the old doctrine of grace is good enough.

I don't get much hope from Democrats these days, a timid and skittish bunch, slow to learn, unable to sing the hymns and express the steady optimism that is at the heart of the heart of the country. I get no hope at all from Republicans, whose policies seem predicated on the Second Coming occurring in the very near future.

If Jesus does not descend through the clouds to take them directly to paradise, and do it now, they are going to have to answer to the rest of us.

Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.