By Barbara Hilton
Wednesday morning we were all out the door by 7:30 a.m. on our way over to the final day of the Take Back America Conference. About six of us walked to Union Station and took the metro to Dupont Circle to get there. Others rode in the two available cars. When we arrived we headed over to the Exhibition Hall and got ourselves organized. Hillary was speaking first. We went into the Ballroom early to get good seats. We sat close to the front, with a group to the right of the podium, a group front and center, and a group to the left of the podium. We started passing out our pink flyers which said LEAD US OUT OF IRAQ NOW. We were getting a good response. Most people wanted one.
Not too much later, someone came along and told us all we weren't allowed to have signs in the area that we were sitting in and that we would all have to turn them in or move to the back of the room where signs were permitted. They started collecting all the signs we had handed out. I quickly grabbed a bunch back and stuck them on my seat and sat down. We were warned that if we held them up, we would have to leave. All signs were collected including HILLARY signs, so it was somewhat less painful than it might have been, but so often when I am doing actions, I can't help but wonder what kind of country I live in. It doesn't feel like I have free speech.
The room filled up and Hillary spoke. We called out challenges to her claims when appropriate. At some point the signs started going up and no one came to challenge us, so it wasn't long before there were LEAD US OUT OF IRAQ NOW signs everywhere. Hillary saw them and referred to them in her speech. I had a difficult time when she spoke about her commitment to labor in America and her claims to want to get Corporations out of government considering the role Bill Clinton played in shepherding NAFTA through when he was President.
My roommate, Leslie, said of Hillary's speech. "I listened to her, I liked what she said, but I just wish I could believe her. It would be wonderful to have a woman president, but I don't trust her at all. I had mixed feelings. I wanted to be able to cheer, but I could not do that. I just didn't believe her."
After Clinton left, Dennis Kucinich spoke. He is just so right-on about every issue. I was getting hoarse from shrieking my approval. One woman in front of me had to move away. She said she appreciated my enthusiasm, but it was difficult to be sitting in front of me, could I stop? Well, I do apologize to her, but heck no, I couldn't. She was free to move and she did.
"Dennis is a man with heart, integrity and a beautiful soul. I wish our country could embrace someone with that much soul." said Leslie.
Nancy Pelosi was up next. She seemed nervous. Leslie is one of the people who camped outside her house in California for twelve days. Leslie thought that Nancy was justified in feeling proud of the things she had accomplished, but she was disappointed in her failure to do more to bring the troops home. Nancy was treated to our LEAD US OUT OF IRAQ NOW signs with great frequency.
Next up was a session led by Codepink on the specific ideas that the Progressive Movement could focus on to get the politicians to lead us out of Iraq. It was well-attended and many ideas were offered. One, that Codepink was already using, was to piggy-back onto Michael Moore's message with our own message, WAR IS SICKO! Another was to build support for HR 508 and to push Pelosi to put this on the floor. People discussed many options including short, sweet, sharp ads, like VetVotes.org, uses, pointing out which politicians have betrayed us.
After the morning session of speeches, some of us piled into a car and drove over to the Hill to get to the Press Conference and Forum with Michael Moore about his new film, Sicko. Michael was supposed to speak at the Take Back America Conference, but was unable to get there because of flight delays. We got to the hallway outside of where the Press Conference was to happen just as Michael Moore was strolling down the hall, entourage and media surrounding him. We followed until we were barred from entering and then found the correct entrance to the hearing room. It was very crowded. I managed to get one of the few chairs left, on the aisle in the center of the room right next to all the video cameras. I settled in and started working on my sign: HEALTH CARE NOT WARFARE.
Before the Press Conference started, two doctors spoke from Physicians for a National Health Plan: Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard and co-director of the Harvard Medical School General Internal Medicine Fellowship program, and Dr. Quentin Young, a practicing internist in Hyde Park, a Clinical Professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Illinois Medical Center and Senior Attending Physician at Michael Reese Hospital. Both of these distinguished speakers advocated for universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans.
The discussion turned to John Conyers' House Resolution 676, introduced into Congress Jan. 24, 2007, to provide for comprehensive health insurance coverage for all United States residents. It would expand medicare and deliver national health insurance. This Bill has, at present, 74 cosponsors in the House. Many of these cosponsors later showed up at the Press Conference.
"Health care must become a human right in this country, not a privilege." The government would be the single payer. Every American should get a card at birth or fill out a form at a Doctor's office enabling them to go anywhere they want for health care. Doctors would get paid electronically. There would be no deductibles and no co-pays. It would be a non-profit system. Insurance companies would still have plenty to do. They could cover non-medically necessary things like cosmetic surgery. The premise now is that insurance companies exist to make a profit. They must deny treatment whenever possible. This is not what is needed. Would we set up our police or firefighters in this way?
Many people ask, "How will you pay for it?" Under single payer, costs are reduced because of a reduction in paperwork. We have money now, but it goes to CEOs and for-profit companies.
The Press Conference got under way, led by John Conyers, head of the House Judiciary Committee, a man who has frequently had Codepink thrown out of hearings or barred all together so I was timid about raising my sign. I kept it down low in front of me. Many members of the Progressive Caucus were on hand and spoke at the Press Conference about the necessity of having universal, single-payer, government-sponsored, not-for-profit health care in this country. As more people expressed their desire for this, I became more emboldened and soon my sign was up and over my head. Several of the Representatives saw it and spoke out the message.
Keith Ellison, the U.S. Congress' first Moslem Representative from Minnesota said, "A loving nation should care for its people." "It is a question of national priorities."
Others spoke just as fervently. "We, the people, not me, the people!" "There is too much greed here. This industry needs to be regulated like a public utility."
After the Press Conference, a forum began, where Michael Moore showed parts of his film and several of the main characters testified about their situations. These people were not uninsured. In fact, they were fully insured. But one woman lost her husband to cancer because of repeated denials of treatment. The other woman lost her 18-month-old daughter because the emergency room where she was taken would not treat her. They didn't accept her plan.
When the forum ended, we headed over to Union Station Theatre where a preview screening was to take place for invited guests only. The invitations had gone out in the Washington Post earlier that morning, inviting, by name, every single health care lobbyist on Capitol Hill. There are four health industry-related lobbyists for every single Congressperson and Senator in the Capitol.
We grabbed a cab and when we arrived at the entrance to the theatre, there was Michael and his entourage chatting with the press. We followed them, as if we belonged, into the almost-empty theatre and sat down close to the front. When Michael asked if everyone there was a lobbyist, I said we were not. He asked how we had gotten in and I said we had followed him. He then apologized, but said that he needed us to leave and that we could see the movie in one of the other screening rooms. We exited the theatre and hung out in the hallway until we received clarification. There were no other screening rooms showing the film. It was soon made clear that Michael wanted the press to see how few lobbyist had been willing to show up and see the film. We were told that they would show it for us later that evening at 7:00 pm.
There is a standing tradition in the Codepink House, that every Wednesday evening there is a potluck supper. I hadn't made anything to bring, so I stopped and got some already-prepared food and headed back to the house. There were lots of people and lots of things going on when I arrived. There was to be a special guest this evening, Tilly, a woman who had been working for an NGO in Afghanistan. When people heard about the movie screening, many chose to go. So we ate hurriedly and walked the five blocks back to Union Station. Again, the theatre was almost empty. We were having a private showing. Someone bought some popcorn and we settled in.
I must tell you, that you have got to see Sicko, if for any reason you were considering not going. It was amazingly powerful. I won't say more right now. We owe a great debt to Michael Moore. Hopefully, people will pay attention and the dialogue in this country will shift. Don't forget to contact your Congressperson and ask them to co-sponsor HR 676.
Back at the house, Tilly began a conversation about her experiences in Afghanistan. I wasn't feeling very well, so missed a lot of her talk. But from what I heard, things are very difficult for the women in Afghanistan, especially those in the rural areas where life is still medieval. They have very few options. Conversation continued long after I went off to bed.
On Thursday morning, everyone was up early and dressed to go to the Hill. We were met downstairs by three men who made up a German film crew doing a documentary on the peace movement and working on a segment about Codepink. They had been at the house the previous day and done some interviewing and filming, but today they were going to follow us as we worked on Capitol Hill. It was difficult to get going. I'm sure I've said it before, but getting all the women to leave at once is like herding cats.
Finally enough people were together for us to represent a sizable force and we left the Codepink House with cameras rolling. As we walked through our beautiful neighborhood to Capitol Hill, we sang our Codepink songs. We garnered honks and peace signs along the way. We created song verses as we went. As we passed a playground with young mothers and their tots, we sang to the tune of "When the saints come marching in," When every child, has a place to play!
We walked slower than I have ever seen Codepinkers walk. I kept finding myself a good half a block in front of the others, only to turn around and wait. When Medea, who usually walks faster than anyone I have ever known, caught up, she pleasantly reminded me that this stroll was for the cameras. As it was, they were racing ahead to catch a glimpse of us as we passed each new camera angle that they set up.
We walked pass the Supreme Court and passed scores of high school kids who were part of the National Young Leaders Conference. Each time we passed one of them we gave them the peace sign, told them to work for peace, and to "hurry up," we desperately needed new leaders. Many returned the peace sign, others high-fived us. The cameras rolled.
When we arrived at the Rayburn Building, we went through Security and we headed to our first hearing of the day on Guantanamo Bay. Many of us had brought some sort of orange jumpsuit or shirt with a slogan against torture on it. Others had black hoods. We all donned these once we were inside the hearing. This was very difficult to listen to. There was a Bush Administration spokesperson discussing the necessity of keeping Guantanamo Bay open and the justification for having it in the first place. He tried to say that the Geneva Conventions don't fit the situation because they were designed for standing armies.
Steny Hoyer then made a brief appearance before the committee and said "It's time to close Guantanamo Bay." I have not been a big fan of Steny Hoyer's recently, but I appreciated him this morning. Here are some snippets taken from my notes at this hearing: "The most powerful nation must also be the most powerful in its commitment to human rights; recognizing that if a civilization is to be what we want it to be it will follow the rule of law; we can't detain them for four years without letting them know why they are being held; indict or release.
The next speaker was a french woman who was a special envoy to Guantanamo reporting to the committee. She spent much time studying this issue. She said that the camp was a major problem for Americans in the eyes of the world.; it was the basis for anti-American sentiment including in friendly countries.
Others who testified said that they continued to be puzzled by why the U.S. was so secretive at Guantanamo Bay. Why weren't due process and international standards of treatment applied? Why did the U.S. do things the way that they did? Now there is a concern that the U.S. doesn't know what to do with these detainees.
When the subject of Human Rights came up, one of my Codepink sisters who was sitting next to me wrote me a note: "Have you seen the HBO Documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib? It is unbelievable, shocking what was done to innocent Iraqis--we really care about human rights!"
My Codepink sister, Liz, orange jump-suited and black-hooded, had managed to seat herself right next to the witness table. She held a sign that said "Close Gitmo Now!" John Bellinger, the Legal Advisor for the State Department was the witness. He was asked a question by one of the committee members and Liz says, sotto voce, "Tell the truth." And later another question from a committee member: "Why are you holding them? They can be detained for the rest of their lives?" and Liz interjects "Shameful!"
Our German film crew was in the hearing, filming Codepink and the proceedings. Someone got a call reminding them of the House Judiciary hearing on the Firings of U.S. Attorneys scheduled to start at noon and everyone headed out for another room on another floor.
Entering this room for a hearing chaired by John Conyers, Codepinkers sat down, mindful to avoid the seats with the"Reserved" signs, and began to write out their own signs on pink cloth. In no time they were approached by a Capitol Hill police officer telling them that they were going to have to leave or they would be arrested. They asked "Why?" and he responded that he couldn't tell them the charge, but there would be no further warning. They were escorted out of the room. I had left the previous hearing early and now went in search of the others to rejoin the group only to find them standing in the halls on either side of a thirty foot 'no-walk zone.'
This is all about "pink profiling" which has become common on the Hill. Now that Codepink is recognized everywhere, they have become targets for frightened politicians who don't want the publicity that Codepink generates and have been refused entry or ejected from public hearings solely on the basis of their political stance. This, to me, seems a violation of our individual civil rights. Each member of Codepink is a citizen activist from one of our fifty states who has taken the time out of her life to pay attention to the goings-on in Congress, the peoples'house. Each one of us represents hundreds, if not thousands, of others who have not be able to make this kind of trip. That we should be refused entry to these proceedings on constantly shifting and ill-defined, nebulous grounds which change each day is of serious concern.
Standing in the halls feeling outraged, I watched and waited. Different Codepinkers attempted to cross the hall, where anyone else not part of Codepink was clearly allowed to walk, and were rebuffed and rethreatened with arrest. Whenever someone Medea knew went by, she called out to them. "Do you see what's happening here?" "Congressman, could I walk across the hall with you?" The film cameras were rolling. I took many pictures with my own camera.
We decided to head up to John Conyers' office and put in a complaint. When we arrived, the office staff were welcoming and friendly. They clearly had an ongoing relationship with Codepink.We waited until we were able to speak to Cynthia Martin, his Legislative Director. She came out with a big, beautiful smile on her face and charmingly calmed our ruffled feathers. She said that she would talk to Mr. Conyers. One of his office staff that I had seen the previous day at the Michael Moore event, walked past in a beautiful pink tie. That was enough to get several Codepinkers pleading with him to allow a picture to be taken. He was posed between Medea and I and cameras clicked.
Moments later we heard noise in the halls and our attention was redirected outside of the office. Liz had stopped in at her own Congressman's office as we passed it in the hall on our way to John Conyers' office. Now she was being threatened by Capitol Hill police. She was clearly upset that they were not allowing her to join the rest of us.
It seems that Liz, who was still wearing her orange jumpsuit from the Guantanamo hearing, had frightened someone in her Congressman's office and the police had been called. Liz claimed that she had merely gone in to request a tour of the Capitol, had not done anything threatening, had not even raised her voice above her normal speaking voice. The police tried to keep Liz apart and vulnerable, but she was soon surrounded by her Codepink sisters who refused to leave until she could go with them.
This was the fifth time in the past week that Liz had been targeted and required to prove her identity. Both Liz and Gael, one of the co-founders of Codepink, have shoulder length blond hair, stand about 5'4" and wear glasses. Gael has a "stay-away" order on Capitol Hill until her hearing is over. Liz is frequently confused with Gael.
Bertha, from NY, became Liz's granny and spoke up to the police asking why they were keeping her granddaughter, what had she done, why were they doing this to her, etc. Half an hour later, after numerous attempts by Liz to call into the office twenty paces away and have them come and talk to her and the police, Liz's story and identity were verified and she was let go. We all started to walk away until we realized that the film crew was now the target of the Capitol police. That was soon sorted out and we all headed to the cafeteria for lunch.
After lunch, we headed to the Senate side of the Hill to go to Lieberman's office. Leslie was with us and still continuing her fast in protest of Lieberman's hawkish remarks about Iran. We were going to make another request for a meeting with the Senator.
On the way to his office, we passed an on-going hearing about the budget and stepped inside. The room was packed. The Senators were discussing an amendment being put forward by Barbara Feinstein to renegotiate the government's contracts with the oil companies for off-shore drilling. The contracts were originally written when oil was $20 a barrel and they were not paying royalties. Oil has also since gone to over $60 a barrel, people are paying record prices at the pump, and the oil companies are making the highest profits in corporate history. The amendment called for a renegotiation of profits so that billions of those oil dollars would go back into the federal budget.
We listened to the discussion and stayed on until the vote was taken. Two Democrats, Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson, voted with the Republicans against the Amendment. We were disgusted!
Our next stop was Lieberman's office where Leslie, one of my roommates at the Codepink House, was checking back to see how her attempt to schedule a meeting with the Senator was going. Leslie had restarted her fasting earlier in the week after Lieberman continued his belligent statements against Iran. We were informed that no decision had been made by the Senator yet and we reminded his staff that Leslie was not eating until he decided to meet with her.
When we stepped outside the office, we decided to take a group picture surrounding his name plaque with Leslie in the center and peace signs prominent. The film crew started shooting as we posed, rearranged ourselves, posed again, getting kinda silly as we went along. Very soon, off to our left, we saw the Capitol Hill police striding purposely toward us three-abreast. They reminded us that we had better move along. We told them we were just taking pictures, but the mood was broken and we set off again.
The next stop was Mary Landrieu's office. We wanted to let her know how disappointed we were in her vote against Diane Feinstein's amendment. We talked with her Chief of Staff for quite a while listening to his reasoning about her vote. He said she had to vote this way because a lot of the Katrina relief money was tied to this bill. There's always some reason, isn't there?
By the time we got back to the Codepink House on Thursday, I was not feeling well. I spent the entire next day in the house, as all around me the action continued, people went off to court for their hearings from previous actions, and others returned to the Hill.
I write about my feeling ill because I want others to know about the care and concern that most of the other women showed toward me. I was offered wonderful advice and a massage by Sylveia, given reiki by Beth, and Laurie went out twice to the drugstore for me. If I couldn't be home in NH with my loving family, this was indeed an okay place to be.
On Saturday I spent the day painting and sewing two banners for Codepink to take to the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. I started at 10:00 a.m. and didn't come up out of the basement peace room until after 6:00 p.m.
Saturday evening some of us drove over to Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House, to join an on-going 24-hour peace vigil against torture that had begun at 7:00 a.m. It was the 10th anniversary of the UN Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors. Lafayette Park was chosen as the site of this year's vigil to officially launch a campaign to Repeal the Military Commissions Act, which survivors of torture have renamed the Torture Law.
It was a very emotional experience. Along with many others in support of their cause. victims and survivors of torture were bearing witness. Over 150 countries in the world currently practice torture. The United States is one of them.
Amy Goodman did an interview on Monday, June 25, 2007 with Sister Dianna Ortiz on Democracy Now! Sister Dianna Ortiz is the founder of TASCC - the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition - the only organization in the United States made up of survivors of torture. In 1989, she was abducted by security forces while working as a missionary among indigenous people in Guatemala. She was taken to a secret prison in the capital center and brutally tortured. She was burned with cigarettes, raped, beaten and forced to torture a woman who was already near death. Sister Ortiz was the main organizer of this weekend's 24-hour vigil in front of the White House.
Here is the link to this interview: http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/06/25/1421222
Sunday was a day to say goodbye to lots of women who were leaving to return home after their week of training here at the Codepink House. By Sunday evening the house was filled once again with impassioned women from all over the country coming to reclaim their government. I will be here for three more days and then I head to Atlanta for the US Social Forum and an entirely new experience. I don't know how soon I will be able to return to D.C., but I know I will be back again.