Tuesday, May 1, 2007

CODEPINK volunteer from New Hampshire shares her experience in DC

By Barbara Hilton

"Come on down to D.C. and stay at the Codepink Activist House... come for a day, stay for a week or a month."

This information was in an email I received in mid-March 2007 from www.codepinkalert.org, a women's peace activist organization that I had encountered at least a year before and had subsequently signed on to their website to receive periodic emails about their activities. Well, I read this and thought "Me? They don't mean me, do they?" But as I continued to read the information on the website about their newly acquired five-bedroom house near Capitol Hill, I started to think, "Well maybe they just might be talking to me after all." I filled out the very easy, on-line application and received a phone call within the week from Rae who coordinates the housing schedule. I wanted to come when Congress was in town and in session so that I could be involved in lobbying and sit in on hearings. I scheduled my visit for the end of April. I found an inexpensive round trip airline ticket online through Kayak and then I waited. Over the past few months my armchair activism had taken on a new dimension.

My husband and I had decided to go to D.C. the end of the previous January to be part of the march and lobbying efforts against the Iraq occupation. It was a wonderful experience. Over 100,000 like-minded people were in the D.C. streets that weekend in a march that surrounded the Capitol. CODEPINK had been one of the sponsoring organizations with their "Walk in Their Shoes" project. Set up on the Capitol Mall was a massive pile of shoes of all sizes and styles representing the tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens who had been killed since the start of the U.S. invasion. It was a very moving testament. On that Monday morning, as our New Hampshire coalition met in the Congressional cafeteria over breakfast to review our lobbying plans for the day, Codepink activists were there distributing these shoes to a group from each state. We were given four pair of shoesËœone pair to be presented to each of our Senators and Congressional Representatives. At the end of each lobbying session one of our contingent passed these on, asking that they be displayed somewhere in the office as a reminder of what collateral damage really means. This small action was enormously powerful.

When my husband and I returned home from D.C., I became more involved in the activities of my local peace community. I also kept up with the most current information about the actions of the politicians and the peace coalitions in D.C. As the end of April approached I sent an email off to CODEPINK through their website with some questions about my visit and received in return an email about the house, the living arrangements, the wish list, what I should bring and who I could contact if I needed any further information. Over the next few days I checked the 10-day weather forecast for D.C., googled and copied a map of the Codepink House neighborhood and packed my bags.

My flight left Boston mid-morning and arrived at DCA Airport in Washington, D.C. early afternoon. The airport was well marked and easy to navigate. I decided to take the metro into the city and found this to be inexpensive ($1.35) and quick. Once I arrived at Union Station I
easily walked the five blocks over and two blocks down to the Codepink house.
I knew I was there by the "Impeach Him" sign in the front yard and the big pink "Welcome" sign on the outer door. The inner door was open so I walked on in. Rae was there to meet me and show me around. Rae and I talked abut Codepink‚s history, she showed me a
slideshow of Codepink actions that she had on her computer, told me a little about how she had come to be involved, and gave me a house tour.

Feeling a bit tired from my travels, I decided to stay at the house rather than try to meet up with the other activists on the Hill so late in the day. I asked if there was anything I could do and had no problems filling my time. I did some data entry for Rae and helped Sonia by sorting and straightening the props in the basement "peace room." As the afternoon progressed, more and more people arrived, many returing from a day of action and hearings on Capitol Hill. I met Ann and Gael as they watched and discussed a video of a previous days action. I met Tighe as he was busy building window boxes from an old chest of drawers.
Desiree came home, filled me in on the inner workings of the house, including the two sign-in books, the chore chart, the per-diem donation basket, the weekly action schedule, then showed me to my room and started cooking dinner. I unpacked, got my stuff organized and went back downstairs. People were coming and going. I met another Ann, Medea, Lori and Liz and listened as they talked about the events of the afternoon hearings on the Hill.
I helped Des prepare for dinner. Many people had left to go to an event in Baltimore so only a few of us stayed to eat. Other people popped in and sat down to join us. I found this to be the norm in the house the entire time I was there.

After dinner people congregated in the living room with the TV tuned to one or another of the news stations and simultaneous laptops clicking away all around. The news events of the day were familiar to everyone and more often than not, Codepink ended up in one or another report of what was going on. It was clear to me that I was now right where I wanted to be, right
where the action is. I have been here close to a week now. I leave the day after tomorrow. During my stay I have experienced an amazing array of emotions. I came to D.C. with a very open mind, not knowing what this experience would be like at all. I listened a lot, I asked a lot of questions, I tried to get to know the other women. And I was richly rewarded. The women and men I met here are from many different backgrounds, have many different strengths and weaknesses, have differing amounts of activist experience, from very little, like me, to, as Ann said to me that first evening, some of the most experienced activists in the country, if not the world.

When I mentioned my trepidation and fear of being arrested, I was told to only do what I was comfortable doing. If I just wanted to go along and observe without participating that was just fine. Later that first evening a group of women sat in the living room planning the next days action. There was to be a hearing chaired by Henry Waxman about whether to subpoena Condoleeza Rice, Andrew Card and Karl Rove. It was time for the "Pink Police."
Codepink has a room full of costumes, banners and props for many different actions. Issuing subpoenas was police work and we were up for it. The pink police uniforms were pulled out, security badges firmly affixed, the word "sheriff " applied to each shirt pocket and a subpoena stuffed inside. The tops of the uniform caps were modified to bear the names
of those to be subpoenaed within a big circle and a line was drawn through each.

When the time came in the hearing and the House cameras were on us, we would lower our heads and make these visible. Signs are often not permitted in the hearings, but clothes are mandatory and writing on clothes is a big part of the action. Feeling timid, I had decided to follow Ann's earlier advice and go uncostumed to the hearing. But by the next morning I was excited to be a part of the plan, dressed up as one of the pink police and off I went.
As the day wore on and action followed action, I became more and more emboldened. By late afternoon I was chasing Representatives down the halls with a constant stream of dialogue about our need to stop the funding and bring the troops home now. Most politely tolerated me, a very few said they were doing all they could, one told me, with hostility, that I was
way out of line. By morning that one miserable voice had haunted me over and over until I
began to think that "yes, maybe I was out of line. " What exactly was this kind of street theater supposed to be accomplishing anyhow?

I found Maggie downstairs the next morning and shared some of my new anxieties. But within the hour I had my answers when we watched Medea's appearance on Amy Goodman's program "Democracy Now." After welcoming Medea as co-founder of Codepink, Amy went on to ask her to explain what it is that Codepink is doing in the halls of Congress. Medea responded, "These hearings that are going on every day, Amy, they used to be very staid gatherings, where you‚d have the K street lobbyists and you'd have the staff aides and maybe a sprinkling of tourists. Now, you have Codepink lining up early in the morning to get into each of the hearings and turning them into really public affairs. We try to
participate in them. We certainly participate with our messages on our bodies. When we can get away with it, we participate with signs. And we often get carried away when we hear them saying things we don't like and get up and say something, sometimes get kicked out, sometimes get arrested, sometimes get tolerated. But we've really turned them into public gatherings,
which I think they should be."

Medea’s interview reminded me that I had come to D.C. to be heard. I have felt that my beliefs are not being represented by my government and the consequences are devastating to our Country and the entire world. She went on to note that things are changing in Washington because groups like Codepink are keeping the pressure on. Over the course of the week we went to the Halls of Congress every weekday, sitting in on hearings, delivering invitations, taking part in actions, letting the presence of our highly visible pink selves make the necessary statements. In the evenings there were frequently visitors to the Codepink house. One evening while I was there, Elizabeth Kucinic h sat on the sofa and
discussed ideas about the current Iranian crisis with Codepink activists and an Iranian who was head of a cultural outreach program. Another evening an Iraqi Parlimentarian was our guest for a potluck supper. Other D.C. and visiting activists, media, and politicians frequently came by enriching the dialogue that often went on late into the night. The majority of the time I have been here, I have felt extraordinarily comfortable among all of these people. Occasionally it felt more difficult to be a part of things simply because I was such a temporary
visitor to this world. Other times, I have felt so totally involved and committed that I don't want to go home. I can see how others have come to decide that being here and doing this is the most important work that they can do.

I have learned so much from everyone's different styles and approaches. I have tried many new things and felt empowered at the same time that I knew I was empowering others. I have also felt very small and worried that what I had to contribute wouldn't ever be enough. But I put it out there and almost always what I had to give was well-received. I will be going home on Tuesday, but I know I will be back. I have made a slew of new acquaintances, been energized by some of the most knowledgeable activists in the peace community, been given a chance to sit in and contribute to their on-going efforts toward a more just and
saner world. The Codepink House couldn't have been more welcoming. I feel that whatever I have to give, whatever strengths are within me, here is a place that wants and needs it. I hope that you too will accept their invitation and come on down to D.C.

*Note: Since this blog was written, Barbara has returned to DC for another week of action with CODEPINK! Click here to read Part II of her journey with CODEPINK in a new blog!

No comments: