Friday, June 15, 2007

An Afternoon Without Senator Lieberman

Kit Kimberly

All our careful planning and work to open a dialogue with Senator Liebermanseemingly came to naught today when we arrived at his office to find our meeting cancelled. Well, that's not strictly true, as someone had calledMedea early in the day to tell her that, "We heard you're not coming for a meeting but to do a sit-in and a hunger strike."

Medea asked where they got that information.

"I'm reading it here on your website," the aide told her.

"Look at the date," said our fearless leader, conciliatorily. "That wasMonday. You scheduled the meeting, we left, and we're coming back for themeeting today."

Silence on the phone, then, "Just a minute." She then came back to say,"The meeting is still cancelled."

But many of us did not get this news. Mila and I, who met on the street on our way to the Hart Building, had not gotten the word. Others, also, were there at the designated meeting point outside the Second Street entrance to the Hart Building. Although they knew about the cancellation, Iranian-Americans Ross Pourzal, director of the Iranian group against US military interventionin Iran (CASMI) and Iranian peace advocate Marjan Shalla , were there as well. Medea gathered us together and suggested we stick with our original plan: A peaceful, diplomatic attempt to open dialogue with someone with whom we had a conflict on relations with Iran—just, in fact, the kind of tactful position we want someone likeSenator Lieberman (and other brave members of congress) to take towardsIran.

Inside the building were Liz, Desiree, Diana, Susan and hunger-striker Leslie, dressed in a beautiful, shimmering pink gown. Leslie is my roommate in the Pink House, so I know she has not been sleeping well—between lack of food and lack of sleep, she seemed quite fragile. We gave her lots of hugs and encouragement before heading up to the 7th floor.

There, Liz and I gathered signatures of media members Kathleen, Barry andAlex from WhyNotNews and Adrian Shanker from Faith In Public Life. We looked around for Matt Small from the Associated Press or Ryan Grim from Politico—then Medea told us that someone from the AP had called theSenator's office and been told there "was no meeting." Peace activists lined the hall on both sides, all the way from the elevators to Mr.Lieberman's office—at least 60 people were there for an action calledtogether the night before. Marjan had brought tapestries and linens as gifts from Iran for the Senator; Desiree had one of Leslie's photos of the beautiful Iranian children she met on her Citizen Diplomacy visit in a pinkframe, signed [heart] CodePink. We crowded into the office like well-disciplined sardines, with Medea, Leslie, Ross Pourzal and Robert Nieman, director of Just Foreign Policy, at the front asking why our meeting was cancelled. Kathleen and Barry's cameras whizzed as Lieberman's staff looked uncomfortably at each other and us (Igotta say, though, that front desk woman is competent and never lost hercool. She must have a tough job, defending that citadel).

Capitol police, only nominal when we first arrived, multiplied quickly.Word soon came that we were being asked to leave; if we did not leavevoluntarily, we would be arrested. We CodePinkers had already discussedthis possibility; Leslie was prepared to be arrested and go to jail—although five days into her hunger strike and sleep deprived, her fragility was a worry.

This fragility soon became the strength of the afternoon, however, as the Senator's Chief of Staff Clarine Riddle came out and asked us to leave. Leslie, speaking clearly but with great passion, said that she had come to confront the Senator about his remarks on using military force in Iran."These are the most warm, lovely, friendly people I have ever met," she told Ms. Riddle; her chin trembled and her voice broke. "Senator Lieberman's rhetoric is unbelievable. This is a nation that has not attacked anyone inmore than 200 years. How can the Senator even say such a thing?" Leslie's pain and sincerity were palpably, wrenchingly honest; even Ms. Riddle wasobviously moved by her words.

"I'm sure they are wonderful, they are beautiful children," the Chief of Staff began, unable to avoid the photos in front of her, "but you do not have an appointment with the Senator …" Around the room, calls of "Why not?" and "We did have one … what happened?" broke out. Sighing, the woman at the front desk picked up her phone and the police began to move in and speak.

Before they could finish issuing the warning, however, Medea spoke up and asked, "Would it be possible for just three of us—Leslie and two others—to meet with senior staff? Do you think that could be arranged?"

Ms Riddle nearly nodded, then said, "We can consider that option; but untilthen all of you have to move outside." Slowly but efficiently, we eased our way out of the office and lined back up against the walls. Capitol Police stood along the other end of the hall and watched us carefully, but there was no tension in the air. Medea went to the middle of the crowd and called the teach-in together. Individuals with knowledge or experience of Iran or the issues were invited to speak. Many did.

Several young Iranian-Americans—one who had only first visited the country of her ancestors a short while before—spoke about the love of Iranian youths for US freedoms and opportunities. Like Leslie, they pointed out the relative youth of Iran: 70% of the country is younger than 30; and how to attack their country would shock and bewilder them. Others addressed the fact that bombing Iran would not make the Middle East,the US, or the world any safer. To increase violence and warfare would decrease Iranian stability, and Middle Eastern stability in general. CodePink Training and Logistics Coordinator Rae Abileah spoke about how further war in the Middle East would only further threaten, not secure, Israel'sstability.

Mike Zmolek spoke about the report from Physicians for Social Responsibility that estimates the damage from a nuclear attack on Iran. His fact sheet cites plans for as many as 400 nuclear weapons against specific Iranian locations. The strikes would cause exponentially more damage than those on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing up to 4 million people immediately, with nearly 11 million suffering extreme effects from fallout, including "radiation sickness, future excess cancer deaths, genetic abnormalities … high rates of stillbirths, miscarriages, malignancies and hypothyroidism"—and the planned strikes would also destroy nearly all the local medical facilities.

One by one, many people took the floor—WhyNot captured most of it on film—to talk about how illogical and pointless a military on Iran would be. I took a deep breath and talked about my former student of academic English, Lalahvash, a young Iranian woman getting her PhD biochemistry in Australia.Then I pointed out that the only people who were benefiting from these wars were those who make the weapons and the private contractors. I suggested that as voters and citizens, we need to start investigating why these elected representatives take such irrational stands, and how closely they must be tied to the defense industry.

The discussions were heartfelt and informative, and continued until there was movement behind the Senator's door. After some initial shuffling,Leslie, Ross and Robert emerged from the inner sanctum. Their announcement was, generally, good news. Although, Ross noted, the staff members did argue in circles, they seemed genuinely interested and willing to take their findings back to Senator Lieberman. Leslie in particular seemed relieved and felt that they had listened. "They were open," she nodded, herself-possession restored. "I think we made an impact."

After some group photos and an inspiring close by Medea, we headed out—down to Busboys and Poets where Ralph Nader was speaking. Leslie felt encouraged enough by the meeting to break her hunger strike; and we spent the evening dissecting our success in the society of friends. As Medea said, "Sometimes, not getting the meeting is even better."


Yvonne said...

Keep up the great work, guys! I am sad to hear the Senator cancelled the meeting, as I am from CT and was a fan of his. I hope he changes his mind!

JimPreston said...

Thanks for the great post Kit!! I'm so sorry I wasn't there, but I am very proud of all of you. Give my best to the whole Pink House.

Dr. Cheryl said...

Leslie, I am so proud of you, and proud to know you. I'm also proud of all 60+ of those who insisted on having a "meeting" even if there wasn't a meeting after all, except for the 3 who talked their way in. I'm happy there was some progress and Leslie's hunger strike apparently has ended, too, it's a terribly difficult thing to do.

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