Saturday, May 26, 2007

May in D.C. with Codepink

By Barbara Hilton

Tuesday afternoon we started out at a Homeland Security Hearing chaired by Mr. Thompson, discussing preparedness for the rapidly-approaching 2007 Hurricane Season. Questions asked included "Is FEMA adequately coordinating with others to prepare?" Hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through November 30. This hearing was on May 15th. Lots of statements were made using familiar catch-phrases like "looking outside the box" and "cutting red tape." We decided to move on.

Next was a hearing chaired by Senator Leahy who echoed what I had said earlier that morning at the National Press Club (see earlier Blog re Gonzales at the National Press Club). To wit, Gonzales has acted inappropriately and used the Justice Department dishonorably. That was satisfying.

The next hearing was the Committee on Veteran Affairs. The phrase that stuck with me there was "No amount of money is ever enough."

Wednesday morning Desiree and I started out lobbying in the basement of the Hart Senate Office Building. We were dressed in our pinks, shirts, buttons, tiaras, scarves, with pink tape all over us with the numbers of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians who had died since the start of the occupation. We were there to intercept Senators as they went to board the Congressional trolley taking them to Congress to vote on the Reid-Feingold Amendment to the Supplemental. In between Senators, we worked the crowd.

When we first arrived, I tried out my new "friendly" skills with the Capitol Police that were stationed down there. One of the surprises I had on coming to DC and working with Codepink was the complex relationship between these opposing parties. I expected the natural tension and antagonism between the police and the activists to be fixed and firm. I had seen videos of other actions and some arrests. I was expecting to be intimidated and to give them the cold shoulder in return. Instead, almost all Codepink activists try to be friendly and engage the officers of the Capitol Police, recognizing that they are just doing their jobs. Many of them, in turn, respect what Codepink is doing, are equally friendly and often give them a bit of slack. So I approached the two policemen stationed in the basement and extending my hand, introduced myself. "And your name is?" I asked. Frank and Brian introduced themselves.

In the rotunda area of the basement of the Hart Building there is a beautiful full-size replica of the statue on top of Congress. This is the Statue of Freedom, and is referred to as an allegorical female figure. To quote from information about the statue: it "is a classical female figure of Freedom wearing flowing draperies. Her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sheathed sword;" Note her aggressive nature! "her left holds a laurel wreath of victory" And here we are still looking for that victory! "and the shield of the United States with thirteen stripes. Her helmet is encircled by stars and features a crest composed of an eagle's head, feathers, and talons, a reference to the costume of Native Americans." We all know how well-treated the Native Americans were by early colonists. "A brooch inscribed "U.S." secures her fringed robes. The bronze statue stands 19 feet 6 inches tall and weighs approximately 15,000 pounds." I went off to explore this statue.

Soon, Capitol Hill Police Officer Frank called me over. I went, thinking to continue the friendly thing. He chatted me up a bit, asked me where I was from, did I get paid to do this, and similar intrusive kinds of things and then told me to stand on the opposite side of the rotunda away from the statue. Feeling annoyed, I left and conferred with Desiree. Desiree is an 'old hat' at this stuff. When I told her Frank said we had to move, she replied, "He didn't tell me that."

So I sauntered over to the designated "lobbying" space that Frank had sent me to, alone. I soon opened up the pages of the Washington Post from that morning that I had brought with me. The front page headline read: Faces of the Fallen. Beneath this were a full newspaper page of 1"x 1" photographs of American soldiers killed in Iraq. When opened, the next two pages were filled as well. I decided to use this as a visual to help get my message across.

Not only Senators use this basement space, but those touring through Capitol Hill start their tours in this rotunda. Group after group came walking into this space led by one or another of the Congressional Aides depending upon what state the tour groups came from. Needless to say, I had a captive audience.

I eased myself over toward the Statue of Freedom and eventually stood in front and a bit to the side of it and read my paper. As groups came in and individuals noticed the headline, I looked them in the eye and opened the paper to the two-page spread. It was very effective.

Soon old-friend Frank was standing in front of me. "Don't you think it's disrespectful of you to stand by the statue like this while people are trying to take a picture of it? They don't want a picture of you!" I replied that I didn't feel that I was being disrespectful at all, no one had asked me to move. If they had, I would happily have done so. "How do you know they aren't taking pictures of me?" I asked him. "Why would they want to take a picture of you?" he responded.

Now I started getting upset. "Move away from here," he said. "No, why should I?" I replied. "I have just as much right to be here as anyone else. I'm a citizen of this country. I came here all the way from New Hampshire. I can stand where I want!" Frank said something about not getting so upset and I said that he should stop trying to intimidate me. He denied trying to intimidate me and asked me not to cry. I asked him "Why, did my crying bother him?" "Yes," he said, "it did." Well then he should be nicer to me, I said. He reiterated that I had better move if people wanted to take a picture of the statue and walked back to his post.

Over the next two hours, countless numbers of people passed through that hall and many asked if they could take my picture. Each and every time I first shouted out "Frank, Frank, over here!" and signaled to him to look and see the tourists taking my picture. It was extremely satisfying. After the fifth or sixth time, Frank called back "Okay, okay, you win!"

A lot of children came through. Many were very interested in what I was doing and the photographs of the fallen soldiers. Occasionally their accompanying adults were not so happy.
They tried to imply that what I was doing was somehow shameful. I reminded them that this was what democracy was all about. A civics lesson was had by all.

One group of multi-ethnic people were dressed in such a way that I knew they were from other countries, so I asked them where they were from. Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc. the group called out. They asked me what the pictures were of and I told them. I also told them I was so sorry about what my government was doing in the world to them, their people and their respective countries. Several of them were almost in tears as well.

On occasion, someone would respond hostilely to my action. One man said that we had to stay in Iraq until we won! I asked him if he could tell me what winning would look like? What did that mean to him? He couldn't.

After a couple of hours, it was clear that the Reid-Feingold Amendment was going to go down. We took our disappointed selves to the cafeteria to regroup and plan our afternoon action. Fully fueled by the food and each other, we spent the afternoon visiting the offices of Democratic Senators who had voted against the Amendment earlier that morning. We split into groups to reach as many of them as we could manage. When available, we talked with staffers about why they chose to vote that way. We offered them our perspective on the need to end the war and bring the troops home now. As long as this war is waging, Codepink will be waging peace on the Hill.

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