Saturday, September 29, 2007

WILLITS, CA, RESIDENT MADGE STRONG GOES TO WASHINGTON D.C.

By Madge Strong

After 2-1/2 years of helping organize CodePink (Women for Peace) activities in Willits, I decided it was time to bring the message directly to Washington D.C., where our government makes the decisions that affect our future. I arrived Thursday, Sept. 27 evening, staying with my cousin and his wife. Their son is currently in Iraq, serving in a war that they oppose. So far, he is OK.

Day 1: Fri. Sept. 28

Peace Encampment, Sen. Feinstein’s Office

Friday morning I showed up at the CodePink house. I was immediately swept up in the activities for that day, rushing to the peace encampment at the foot of the Capital for a Peace Mass. From there a group of four CodePink activists from California went to Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office, where we presented to one of her staff a "Hall of Shame" award for her recent vote in favor of the Kyle-Lieberman resolution that beats the war drums by demonizing Iran. Capitol police tracked our coming-and-going from the building with their walky-talkies: “CodePink is just leaving Sen. Feinstein’s office,” and escorted us to the door. One of them asked kindly about a CodePinker who had been arrested earlier that week.

Global Warming Demonstration

Our delegation then joined a group of about 200 in front of the State Dept., organized by Friends of the Earth calling for urgent measures to combat global warming - in contrast to the Bush Administration's foot-dragging and ineffective lip service. One of the speakers there had been fasting for 25 days to bring attention to this crucial issue. One person dressed as a polar bear (despite the warm day), illustrating their impending extinction; the arctic ice pack has already shrunk by 40%.

Breasts, Not Bombs

Our next stop was a stretch for me and several CodePink colleagues: we met Mendocino actress/activist Sherry Glaser in front of the White House for a "Breasts, Not Bombs" action. Sherry explained to a few passers-by that a woman's breasts are natural and nurturing, not indecent, but the killing, torture, and illegal wars of the Administration truly are indecent. To my surprise, baring of breasts is not illegal in D.C.! Nonetheless, two policemen came, after Sherry and her friend Sheba had shed their shirts, to discourage the "inappropriate display." Eventually, a crowd gathered and several news people were filming, as three other women (and a man!) joined the action; two of us passed out literature and took documentary video. As I explained to curious on-lookers, I was too inhibited to go bare, but certainly agreed that extreme measures - and acts of courage by ordinary citizens - are required to call attention to the obscenity of this war.

Democracy for Burma Demonstration

We took a taxi from the White House to the Burmese Embassy, where we joined a group of Buddhist monks and many students, protesting the killing and persecution going on in Burma by the military junta with China's backing. The crowd swelled to about 200 by the time we marched and chanted to the Chinese Embassy, led by the monks.

My cousin picked me up back at the CodePink house (a 4-story row house that accommodates about 20 people at a time), and I passed on the evening event featuring people from "Sicko," supporting universal health care. I was exhausted, but felt rewarded by a busy first day in the capitol!

DAY 2 – Sat. Sept. 29

Rally & March for Peace

After my whirlwind first day of demonstrations, my second day in D.C. was similarly exciting and exhausting. On Saturday, Sept. 29 I participated as part of CodePink in a rally and march sponsored by the Troops Out Now Coalition, culminating a week-long Peace Encampment at the capitol. Dozens of groups were represented during the 3-hour rally, as the crowd grew to several thousands (much smaller than the Sept. 15th ANSWER Coalition event but still impressive).

I got to experience the unique style of CodePink. For starters, there's the fashion statement: not just pink, but boas, 3-layer umbrellas, capes, etc. The idea is to have fun as well as get attention; it works!

Then, when Medea Benjamin (CodePink co-founder) and retired Colonel Ann Wright spoke on-stage at the rally, they rounded up about a dozen of us to climb the ladder and stand with them. Medea and Ann are fantastic spokespeople, passionate and articulate, but there's no ego about it. We all stand together.

And finally, during the march, the CodePink contingent of about 30 didn't just walk the two mile route through government central D.C.; we improvised actions as we went, chanting "Funds for Education, Not for Occupation" at the entrance to the Dept. of Education, and - at the Voice of America building - we chanted "The voice of America: Let's End the Occupation!"

DAY 3 - Sunday, I enjoyed sight-seeing with my cousins - and rested.

DAY 4 - Monday Oct. 1st

Pres. Bush at Ft. Myers

I arrived at CodePink house just in time to go out the door for another "action." We had word that Pres. Bush would be attending the retirement party for Gen. Pace at Fort Myers, so eight of us piled into two cars, with banners, bull horns, a Bush mask, and other paraphernalia.

Five of us were dropped off at one entrance, where we waved our message to dozens of VIPs entering the base. The others hit the jackpot, greeting Bush's motorcade as it arrived at the other entrance. So they fetched us and all 8 of us, plus two more who joined us there, continued demonstrating against the war to hundreds of cars passing by. We also gathered a total of 10 police cars (2 cops each) plus 4 motorcycle cops sent to "control" us. One person wore the Bush mask and prison garb, four were holding banners ("Don't Buy Bush's War"), and Ann Wright and Medea Benjamin took turns on the bull horns, directing a plea to the military personnel on the other side of the heavily-armed gate not to support this illegal war. We got quite a few thumbs-ups and peace signs from passing motorists for over an hour.

The wait paid off, as we saw the color guard escort Bush back to the motorcade. We chanted "George Bush: War Criminal." Four copters and four jets flew low overhead. Street traffic was closed, and then the parade of about 20 motorcycles, many armored SUVs, and at least four limousines passed about 50 feet from us. Someone said they could see Bush blandly smiling at us. Considering how they normally keep all protesters out of Bush's sight, this felt like quite a coup!

Meeting with Sen. Feinstein’s Aides

My next stop for the day was Senator Feinstein's office, where I met with two of her legislative assistants, Joel McFadden and Richard Harper, Jr., for a half-hour. I expressed my concern over her support of the Kyle-Lieberman "sense of the Senate" resolution which essentially joins the drum-beat of war-mongering against Iran. They defended her position by noting that more explicit language implying permission to use force was removed before she would support it. They also assured me that Sen. Feinstein absolutely believes diplomacy should be the first priority. Unfortunately, this administration doesn't seem so diplomacy-minded. In view of this - and Feinstein's misplaced faith in the Administration back in the Fall 2002 run-up to the Iraq war, I strongly urged that Congress tie the President's hands rather than sit on their own hands. Finally, I of course urged that we get the troops out of Iraq now. They were polite listeners and said they would pass along my concerns to the Senator. Perhaps that makes a bigger dent than the 30,000 emails she gets each week.

On my return to the CodePink house (I had decided to stay there for my last two nights in DC), we greeted three Japanese peace activists who had just arrived, direct from Osaka. They're my roommates, so I helped them settle, we all ate dinner together and received many gifts from them to CodePink.

DAY 5 - Tuesday, Oct. 2

Blackwater Hearing

My last full day in Washington D.C. had three main events. After breakfast with the CodePink house residents, which now included the three peace activists from Japan, most of us headed to the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, where they were conducting a hearing on private security contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would be questioning Erik Prince, CEO of Blackwater.

We were in line almost an hour early, but it was a small hearing room and the guards said that, except for people with authorized press passes, only the first 25 people would get in. They advised us to watch the hearing on closed circuit TV in an overflow room down the hall. Since the hearing had not yet started, though, we waited there. It was interesting to meet other people in line, but as the minutes dragged, I suggested to Amber that we sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee." (Amber is a CodePinker from Santa Cruz staying at the house, and we had enjoyed singing together the day before at Fort Myers.) We got through the song
once before a guard rushed over and sternly advised us we would be arrested if we didn't stop immediately. Ah, sweet land of liberty!

We went to the overflow room when the hearing began with a powerful statement from its chair, Henry Waxman. He said, "For every taxpayer dollar spent on federal programs, over 40 cents now goes to private contractors. Our government now outsources even the oversight of the outsourcing." He noted that Blackwater, founded in 1997, went from just $200,000 in government contracts in 2000 to over $1 billion since then; more than half of those were awarded without full competition. The questions for this hearing, he said, are: Is Blackwater helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq? Are we holding such private military contractors accountable? And what are the costs?

Waxman advised the committee that the Sept. 16 shooting in which at least 11 Iraqis were killed would not be the subject of any detailed questions today, due to requests from the Justice Department in view of the FBI's current investigation of the matter. He noted, however, that the September 16 event "is just the latest in a series of troubling Blackwater incidents." There have been at least 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater forces since 2005; in most of these, Blackwater forces fired first. In addition, 122 Blackwater employees - one out of seven of the company's current workforce in Iraq - have been terminated for improper conduct.

Waxman brought up the case of a drunken Blackwater contractor who shot the guard of the Iraqi Vice President on Dec. 24, 2006. In the U.S., the contractor would have been arrested and charged. If a U.S. soldier had killed an Iraqi guard, he would face a court martial. But this Blackwater employee simply lost his job and was whisked out of Iraq within 36 hours. Adding insult to injury, the State Department advised Blackwater how much to pay the murdered man's family to "make the problem go away." The first suggestion of $250,000 was reduced to $15,000 because, as internal emails said, Iraqis would try to get themselves killed for such a large payout. (Prince later said they had actually paid the family $20,000.) It's hard not to conclude, said Waxman, that "the State Department is acting as Blackwater's enabler."

I won't detail all the questions and answers as the hearing went on for hours, but a few statements stand out. One line of questioning concerned the Nov. 27, 2004, airplane crash in Afghanistan in which the inexperienced Blackwater pilots not only did not follow standard procedures but were, as clearly evidenced by the cockpit recording, acting like cowboys on a joyride. (Three U.S. servicemen died in the crash.) Erik Prince's comments were, "Accidents happen," and there have been thousands of safe flights since then. Blackwater was not sanctioned, because the Air Force found that the accident was pilot error, not corporate error.

Another set of questions focused on accountability. Prince stated that Blackwater is subject to the Military Code of Justice, but some Congresspeople doubted that, since they are hired by the State Department and are civilians. Prince said all the company can do (regarding their employees' wrong-doing) is fire them; it is up to the Justice Department if any investigation or criminal charges are required. Apparently no case has yet tested what law Blackwater is actually subject to. One certainty is that it is not Iraqi law.

What did CodePink do to express our outrage at this mercenary force running amok and making the U.S. even more hated by the Iraqi people? Only one of our group had made it into the hearing room; he was forcibly removed when he "disrupted" the proceeding with a loud objection. In the hall and overflow room, one CodePink woman wore a princess-like outfit, with a crown that said "Prince Be Gone!" Several wore cloth signs on their backs saying "Blackwater = Mercenaries." As the hearing ended and Erik Prince was quickly escorted out, our group chanted "war criminal" until capitol police warned that one more outburst would result in our arrest. Let freedom ring.

Meeting with Rep. Mike Thompson

I left for part of the hearing to meet with my Congressman, Mike Thompson, and his legislative assistant Tracy Varghese. I had made the appointment days earlier and since then had been rehearsing in my mind what I wanted to say. I decided to focus on the reasons for and importance of impeaching Vice President Cheney. First, I thanked him for his Fall 2002 vote against the Iraq invasion and his sincere efforts to end the war. Thompson is clearly proud of his record, saying something to the effect of "I was against the war before any of you got active." He said the only time he's voted for any funds for the war was when it had a timeline for withdrawal attached (troops to be out by March 2008), which he thinks looks pretty good now. He resents the heat he's gotten for that and some of his other votes.

As I steered to the subject of impeachment, he stated his position that it would be strategically unwise. He did not seem to disagree with the ample grounds for impeaching Cheney (starting a war based on lies, outing a CIA agent, condoning torture and spying, war profiteering, etc.), nor that the Constitution calls for impeachment in cases of abuse of power. In fact, he stated that, if charges of impeachment were to come to a vote on the floor of the House (which would then require a trial in the Senate), he would vote for it. That was good news to me!

But he did not support such an action because, he said, "it would play right into the hands of the GOP," it would stop progress on other important legislation, and would not have enough votes to be successful. I disagreed that it would stop other progress, as very little can be accomplished anyway, between filibusters and vetoes. I pointed out that he often voted as a matter of principle for legislation that didn't have enough votes, and holding this Administration accountable for flouting laws and endangering our security warrants such a principled stand. Moreover, I believe it would be good strategically: instead of letting the Administration control the debate, impeachment hearings would bring media and public attention to the repeated lies, blunders, and criminal behavior of Cheney (not to mention others in the Administration).

Finally, I do not condone what I see as the Democratic strategy of running out the clock, hoping this unpopular Administration and war brings the Democrats a bigger victory in Nov. 2008. (He interjected that he believes such a victory would enable salutary changes in policy.) One problem I see with that argument is that the damage may be difficult to reverse: Democrats or Republicans aside, protecting our Constitution and rights should come first. Another big concern I have is that Cheney and his cronies, already shown to be ruthless, will stop at nothing to retain their power. That could include dirty electoral tricks, terrorist attacks, and/or starting another war (already in the works). This is just too dangerous!

Thompson, who seems to enjoy some verbal sparring, had begun glancing at the clock. He said we would have to agree to disagree, as he reiterated his opposition to bringing impeachment hearings. I thanked him and his aide for their time (almost a half-hour) and hoped he would keep aware of these concerns. With that, we adjourned and I returned to the Blackwater hearing.

Jena 6 Rally

My third action for the day was attending a rally in support of the Jena 6 - the black high school students arrested for a schoolyard brawl in this small Louisiana town after racial tensions had erupted following white students putting a noose in a tree, an unveiled threat to keep blacks away. The all-white jury had handed down an outrageous sentence for the first youth, overturned on appeal, yet he was still in jail, almost a year after the incident. At the rally, I joined 100-150 others, including our three polite Japanese visitors, calling for dropping all charges. It is sometimes discouraging to see that we are still fighting so many of the same injustices, decade after decade.

I returned to the CodePink house with the Japanese women, for dinner, conversation, and watching TV coverage of the day's events.

Leaving Day – Oct. 3

The next morning, Medea and Ann flew to Buffalo, New York, to test whether Canada would let them in (due to their FBI record of arrests for peace activities); Canada would not. Meanwhile, reluctantly, I was leaving DC.

Gold-Star Parent Carlos Arredondo

I got a ride to the train station with Carlos Arredondo. I hadn't realized, when I'd met him earlier in my visit, that he was the father of Alex, who died in Iraq at the tender age of 20, that Carlos has brought his son's symbolic coffin to peace marches, that he was the one who was beaten up by pro-war counter-demonstrators on Sept. 15th. Carlos said he's been spat on and insulted, but he cannot help but commemorate his son by working tirelessly for an end to this insane war, knowing what it has taken from him and from tens of thousands of other families – both in the U.S. and in Iraq. We shared some tears as he gave me a copy of his son's letter from Iraq.

With a full heart, I boarded the train and went north to visit with dear friends in New York State. I felt that I'd done more in one week than I'd done in months or even years back home, that I was not alone along-side many passionate, courageous peace-makers. I don't know what it will take to make a dent in the seemingly cold-hearted halls of Congress and the tunnel vision of Beltway politics, but I believe all our acts, small or large, make a difference. Like Carlos, I know I cannot be silent.

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