Monday, January 29, 2007

Congressional Lobbying Day: a glance behind Washington's curtain

Up at 6:45 and wrote some notes.

No breakfast. I would eat something once I reached the Capitol. Catherine and I went downtown together. (Though we got separated on the trains. I squeezed into a crowded car then turned to see the door close behind me and she was outside. We reconnected at the next transfer station.) Emerged at the South Capitol Metro station.

Deborah was quite worried about me. For good reason: I was wearing a sport coat with a light sweater underneath. No winter overcoat like all the Washingtonians. It was freezing on the exposed Capitol Hill, a powerful wind gusting out of the west. What a difference from Saturday!

Found our way to the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria at 9:00. A bagel and coffee for breakfast. A few others from Lynn Woolsey’s district were already there. They gathered a couple tables together to allow us to work as a group. The cafeteria staff was not so happy about it. Soon, the cafeteria was flooded with activists, many sporting pink accessories.

Inside the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria, a crowd in pink

California Sixth Congressional District constituents prepare for a meeting with their Representative. My role is clear today: take notes (and I’ll try to take photos.)

CODEPINK member Diane Lopez of Sonoma, California holds shoes representing an Iragi child killed in the War

Outside Lynn Woolsey's office: let's fund peace not war

An unruly crowd arrives at Representative Lynn Woolsey's office in the Rayburn House Office building

Donna Norton signs in at Lynn Woolsey's office

Jennifer Goedke, Legislative Director for Lynnn Woolsey

About 25 of us crowded into House Office #2263. After a few minutes, Lynn Wolsey emerged from another room and appeared pleasantly surprised by the “full house”.

Lynn Woolsey reacts as she enters her crowded office

Seeing that at least two in our group were videotaping, I realized the video would provide better documentation than any notes I might take, so I focused my energy on snapshots. Consequently, I only retained fragments of the conversation. Once settled into her chair, surrounded by constituents, Woolsey acknowledged the press really hadn’t covered Saturday’s march.

Getting to know some of her constituents

When presented with our letter of appreciation, she said “we’ll know if I deserve this when we get out of Iraq.” She acknowledged being the luckiest person, working for all of us. When asked how we all might help her anti-war campaign, she asked us to “see that the local newspapers have this (letter).”

Chari Davidson, of Santa Rosa, reads a letter of support which she composed and the group signed. (October 22, 2009: Sadly, I learned that Chari passed away this past Sunday, October 18th, after a brief battle with pneumonia.)

Lynn Woolsey holds letter of support for her progressive stand against the War in Iraq. It is signed by those in our group.

Toby Blomé of CODEPINK presents a pair of shoes representing an Iraqi child lost in the war, with the request that Woolsey keep them on her desk until the War is ended. Woolsey responded "let's put them on the door!"

Regarding the President’s $100B supplemental funding bill for Iraq, which will soon be debated in Congress, she said “there’s enough (money) in the pipeline to do everything in the ‘surge’ without the supplemental $100 billion.” She wants to tell Congress, “you vote for this, you own it (the war). For 1-1/2 years at least. We will be marching into Iran.”

Much of the discussion revolved around H.R. 508, the "Bring the Troops Home and Iraq Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2007". It's the bill she is co-sponsoring with Representatives Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee. It outlines a plan for time-measured withdrawal from Iraq and return of Iraq control to their own government and military. The core of her Bill is based on another from James McGovern of Massachusetts. “It’s not just me. 'The Triad' (the nickname for Woolsey, Waters and Lee) is stronger than any of us. It’s a force to be reckoned with.” She said accusations that the Bill “doesn’t have any teeth” are wrong.

Her plan: have our forces out in six months, followed by a two-year commitment to work internationally to restore Iraq. “When we leave, other countries will weigh in.”

Jack Murtha, who is coming at de-escalation from another direction tells her “keep it up, Woolsey!”

“I make it safe for him,” she added.

Warren Linney of Santa Rosa, California thanks Woolsey for introducing House Reolution 508, and asks her to support John Conyer's bill to pursue articles of impeachment if evidence shows President Bush might have acted criminally.

Of the several bills being promoted, she said “if it’s not perfect, I’ll still support it.” The point being, we need to start moving in a much different direction.

A number of us urged making changes in this Administration, through impeachment if necessary. Her response: “it’s not going to start with impeachment. That will muck everything up.”

There will be investigations. “I have no qualms they’ll be serious...John Conyers will be number one on impeachment.”

Regarding our saber-rattling at Iran, Woolsey said there's a petition in committee to force the President to seek Congressional approval before taking any military action against Iran. To get it out of committee, 218 House Memebers must sign a discharge petition.

With regard to Nancy Pelosi, Woolsey said "the Speaker works for everybody." The committee heads must keep up the pressure on her. On the Senate side, Bernie Sanders is about to draft a companion bill. She encouraged us to write him and “suggest to him that it’s a good idea.” (Unless you're in a Senator's constituency, you shouldn't voice "demands".)

California Senator Diane Feinstein, a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, supports the Biden-Hagel Resolution (statement of opposition to the "surge".) It should be put to a vote shortly.

Just in this brief discussion, one begins to get a sense of how complicated and cumbersome this government is, and how practical legislators must be in their approach. Despite her very progressive stand, I have the sense that Lynn Woolsey has become a very realistic politician (which is not a cynical observation.)

Steve Dyer of Cotati, California presents a copy of Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace or Apartheid signed by all of us. Some feel Representative Woolsey's position is still too-strongly pro-Israel.

CODEPINK member Celeste Durrum of Petaluma, California presents gifts from United for Peace and Justice

Light reading: Addicted to War

Donna Norton of Progressive Democrats of America counsels Lynn Woolsey. (Donna later published "The Sonoma County Report On DC March and Lobby Day".)

Leaving Woolsey’s office, the next group was gathered in the corridor, including some young people wearing British "Bobby"-type helmets. I immediately recognized the fellow who was challenging security guards outside the Senate Office Building on Saturday and who disrupted the plenary session yesterday (the CIA operative?)

I was curious about his agenda, but rather than confront him directly and perhaps shut down the source of information, I approached an associate of his and asked about their organization.

The young man I spoke with explained they are members of the Backbone Campaign based in Vashon, Washington, and some were also associated with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He said the man I was curious about is a local member.

He handed me an information packet. The Backbone Campaign is connected with the group Progressive Government, which seems to be an ill-defined progressive movement (and I’m thinking “just what we need another organization!”) They use “high-impact” art to help convey the message. Their "Bush Chain Gang" and the "Spine Puppet” appeared in Saturday’s march. (I later learned this so-called “Backbone Patrol” was to deliver Woolsey an award for her progressive stand against the Iraq War.)

I wandered the Rayburn House Office Building, fascinated by the realization that you can just walk these passageways among all these important government representatives, poking your nose into offices at will. (But I guess they’re “our” representatives after all!) Alaska Representative Don Young’s office door was open, displaying an enormous grizzly bear skin behind the reception desk. I just had to have a closer look.

Welcome to the office of Alaska Respresentative Don Young, environmental guardian

I asked a couple of his interns (both from Australia, I think) if I could take a picture. No problem. They even invited me in to see some of Mr. Young’s other trophies. I suspect the opportunity and thrill of a six-month internship in Washington probably provides a pretty rosy picture of those they serve. Hanging on a door to a side office, a metal sculpture reads “ANWR” and shows a caribou, oil derrick and pipeline. The clear message: drilling the Artic National Wildlife Refuge is perfectly consistent with wildlife protection (as is his “big-game” hunting.) We’re not going to drill ourselves to energy independence, Mr. Young.

Inside Alaska Representative Don Young's office, his position on the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is clear: drill it!

Don Young, big game hunter

I headed over to the Hart Senate Office Building on my own. Skirted around the east side of the Capitol, but due to a large visitors’ center construction project was unable to get within 100 yards of the building.

Veterans for Peace bus outside the Hart Senate Office Building

I had heard CODEPINK would be staging an “action” in the Hart Building at 12:30. Our meeting with Senator Boxer’s staff would be in the same area, so I figured I’d show up early enough to support the CODEPINK ladies. People were already starting to mill about the Atrium, and I caught fragments of numerous short, secretive exchanges.

There was a rumor of mischief. Co-conspirators and CODEPINK women Sonia of Washington, D. C. and Medea Benjamin of Bay Area, co-founder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange. (Thanks, Celeste.)

Capitol Police, from their positions on the ground and second floors were looking around. It seemed they were anticipating something. From the wanderings of pink-clad visitors, it was clear that "recon operations" were underway. And members of the “Iraq Veterans Against the War” appeared complicit.

Iraq Veterans Against the War joined forces today with CODEPINK

The Atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building, where visitors from California were scheduled to meet with the staff of Senators Boxer and Feinstein

The Iraq War death toll: 3,080 Americans and (according to a recent Johns Hopkins University study) an estimated 650,000 Iraqis

Then the CODEPINK women clustered around some duffel bags lying on the Atrium's marble floor. The bags contained children’s shoes. The cameras moved in. The demonstration began.

Each pair of shoes represents an Iraqi child killed in the War. The names and hometowns are read aloud by CODEPINK members.

A tag attached to each pair of shoes listed the name of an Iraqi child killed in this war. Picking up a pair of shoes, the demonstrators took turns reading the names, their voices reverberating throughout the Atrium. The is a part of CODEPINK’s “Walk in Their Shoes” project. The police began to scramble as banners unfurled over upper floor railings. As the police moved in, chants of “stop funding the war” filled the Atrium.

CODEPINK begins the "action"

Medea's voice echoes through the Hart Senate Office Building

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK


CODEPINK activists encircled the Hart Senate Office Building Atrium on all floors

What's this?

"Stop Funding the War"

The police were not amused. "No sense of humor." They converged, some coming in from outside, heavily-dressed against the cold. Barriers were erected to delineate and contain the group on the ground floor. Up above, officers struggled to gather up the banners, while CODEPINK activists and sympathizers exuberantly interfered. Medea Benjamin began to lead a chain of chanting protesters, snaking around the Atrium. A Capitol Police officer announced the demonstration was now deemed “unlawful” and warned of possible arrest.

Police reign in the outrageous outburst

CODEPINK women struggle to get one more word in

Medea leads the chanting "stop funding the war"

While photographing, I joined the chanting. “There’s nowhere I have to be. So what if I’m arrested?” I stepped inside the police perimeter. “These police officers don’t look very happy.” I stepped outside the ring, mixing with media personnel and spectators. I considered being arrested: “free room and board.” I stepped inside the barrier. The police stood by holding boxes of plastic handcuffs, awaiting orders. They appeared more annoyed than concerned with this outburst. “Those plastic ‘bracelets’ don’t look comfortable.” I moved outside the perimeter.

Capitol Police captain gives three warnings that this demonstration has been determined to be unlawful

After three warnings, the Capitol Police move in. Those "Diamond Grip" bracelets don't look too comfortable...

Gael Murphy, co-founder of CODEPINK, speaking to U. S. Capitol Police officer at Hart Building, banner-dropping action. (Thanks to Celeste Durrum for this info.)

One last banner unfurls

At least four warnings were given over the bullhorn, then Medea raised her hands and broke off the demonstration, though chanting continued as we appeared to cooperate and disperse. The Atrium was shut down. As we moved on to our originally-planned meetings, police were chatting amongst themselves, discussing “what just happened?”. I passed two police talking together. One was holding an open duffel bag that was apparently used to smuggle in a banner. Astonished by how it passed security, he exclaimed "did you see how fucking big it was???"

Californians gathered in Senator Boxer's office. After a few minutes, staffer Sean Moore came in. He apparently received permission to move our group back out to the Atrium, where perhaps 75 constituents gathered around him.

Gathering in Senator Boxer's office

In Senator Boxer's office

Because our group was so large, staffers for both Senators Boxer and Feinstein agreed to meet us in the Hart Senate Office Building Atrium. Here, Sean Moore, Senator Boxer's staffer addresses us. (Thanks, Mike.)

Shahla and Dr. Javad Razani, members of "Gold Star Families Speak Out", talk of their son, Army Specialist Omead Razani, who was 19 when he was killed in Habbaniya, Iraq.

Sean Moore listens to "Gold Star" parents tell of the loss of their son in Iraq

The agenda was organized in such a way that really didn’t offer Sean much chance to speak. Certainly, none of the typical platitudes were going to be tolerated by this group. Speakers had been identified in advance, and primarily we were there to deliver a message. At the fringe of the group, I was unable to hear much of what was taking place, but it didn’t concern me, as numerous video cameras were recording the meeting. I moved about taking photographs.

The most powerful message was delivered by “Gold Star Parents” who had lost their son to the senseless war in Iraq. Their quiet message was delivered from a place of humility and utter devastation. And there is nowhere to hide when you face that kind of reality.

The meeting was followed with a short critique by participants. We remained in the Atrium for our next meeting. Senator Feinstein’s staffers Joel McFadden and Richard Harper joined us and the “program” was repeated. This time the message was a bit harsher, as Feinstein’s position on the war is not acceptable. (And there are currently allegations that through her Armed Service Committee position, she has influence over the awarding of military contracts that benefit her husband’s business ventures.) There was much less of a dialog in this meeting. It was more like “tell your boss we’re not going to stand for this crap any more.”

Rae Abileah, CODEPINK's local groups coordinator, addresses Senator Feinstein's staff. On her left, activists Chari Davidson and David Barrows look on. (Thanks, Celeste.)

Senator Diane Feinstein's staffers Joel McFadden and Richard Harper meet with us in the Atrium. (Thanks to Mike Hayes for the names.)

The women of CODEPINK

This concluded the weekend’s schedule of activities. Suddenly, it was all over. I realized I was hungry. I wandered down to the cafeteria, where I heard our Senators enjoy remarkably low-priced meals. It was too late. I did find a small snack bar though and bought a cup of soup and a soda. I looked around, noting apparent guest being hosted by (mostly) men in nice suits. Being from beyond the “Beltway”, I feel remote from the dealings of Washington. It is a club for insiders. Some people spend nearly their entire lives learning the machinations of this government. How can I even begin to have a sense of it?

The United States Supreme Court building

Returned to the Rayburn Building where I hoped to connect with others for a “debrief”, but failed to find any groups. It was time to get back to Deborah’s, as I had offered too take her and Catherine out for dinner tonight.

Deborah suggested we try Ethiopian food, and had two local restaurants from which to choose. She decided we should go to Meshkerem, in the Columbia Road neighborhood, an interesting concentration of nightlife in an otherwise sleepy suburb. (I even got to drive the "revolutionary-mobile".)

Catherine, Deborah and I at Meshkerem Ethiopian Restaurant, in D.C.'s Columbia Road neighborhood

My first experience of Ethiopian food. We shared from a “community platter" a sampler of full-flavored and unpretentious treats, that reminded me both of Indian and Mediterranean cuisines. The presentation encouraged informality and fun. Of course, I had to try the Ethiopian “Bati” beer, a fresh lager. We had as much fun as three subversives can have while discussing dysfunctional Administrations and conspiracy theories.

Catherine with Ethiopian indira, a pancake-like bread

Deborah's Camry

Deborah's "Paschie" chews on George's cowboy boot

No comments: