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.
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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 www.iraqpledge.org , or www.declarationofpeace.org