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Camera Crews Threatened With Arrest for Filming Peace Demonstration

After Downing Street | February 1, 2007
Jeeni Criscenzo

Monday morning - the cold wind nipping at the few exposed square inches of my face reminded me that some higher power must have intercepted on our behalf last Saturday when half a million people had encircled the Capitol complex during a perfectly-timed respite from the frigid temperatures and wind that book ended the event. Surely the Gods were smiling on the peace movement. As I walked the dozen blocks from my hotel, I thought about the campaign I'd waged in the prior 18 months to be elected as one of the representatives I would be meeting with this day, and wondered if, in the end, I would be more effective as a activist citizen than an elected official. Essentially I was still working for the same thing, only now my job was to convince those who had been chosen by the people to serve us, to carry out the promises I'd made as a candidate.

I was met in the Rayburn building (the first of three office buildings lined up on one side of the Capitol for Representatives' offices) down in the basement cafeteria. Over oatmeal, eggs and coffee and fruit, hundreds of peace-activists-turned-lobbyists-for-a-day were planning their strategies. Included in the bustle were seventeen folks from the San Diego area. We had appointments with all five of the representatives (or their staff) for the San Diego area, scheduled throughout the day. We planned to visit them collectively with the constituents for each specific district being the spokespersons for that meeting. Our first visit was with the Chief of Staff for Duncan Hunter.

Hunter was off in New Hampshire stumping for his presidential campaign. His office décor defined him as a man making too much of an effort to flaunt his testosterone. A deer head and other dead trophies adorned the walls along with photos of Hunter and his triumphant hunting buddies. I didn't see one of him with Cheney. Hunter's COS was a pleasant young woman who didn't seem to be familiar with the bills we were talking about, and wasn't taking many notes. Someone asked if she would be the one actually acting as our representative while Hunter is our stumping on the campaign trail. Either way. I don't think we accomplished much other than to initiate what we intend to be an ongoing effort to lobby for peace.

We'd heard that at noon there was going to be a peace vigil at the reflecting pool just opposite the cafeteria in the Rayburn building. Our group walked into the atrium area where beyond a glass wall and doors the vigil was already in progress. Scattered on the frozen surface of the pool were hundreds of roses. On the far side of the pool a large black banner with the word WAR appeared to be draped over some shrubbery. Someone was reading out names and with each name someone was ringing a bell and tossing a white rose on the pool which slid gracefully across the surface. It was a beautiful ceremony and unquestionably worth braving the cold. As we donned our coats and scarves and gloves and headed out the door, we were suddenly blocked by a policeman.

“Whoa! That's it, nobody's going out there! This is a police action. Stay where you are!” he called out. His interruption was so unexpected, that my first thought was that there had been a terrorist threat against the Capitol. It really took me a while to comprehend that the peaceful vigil outside the door was the problem. Some of our group had already gone through the door before we were stopped and were now looking back at us in confusion. Dave Wiley of San Diego Vets for Peace tried to explain to the officer that there was nothing to worry about, this was just a peaceful vigil. Anyone in their right mind could see nothing threatening was happening. But the officer, who was now joined by others, insisted that we could not go outside until it was determined what was going on .

As some of the people outside who had been part of the vigil came in to get warm they were informed they could not return outside. The look on most people was disbelief. More police showed up with riot shields (to protect themselves from the roses? Or maybe the truth?”) and rushed outside to do their riot police thing. Dave explained to the officer still blocking our exit that the symbolism of the white roses stemmed from the White Rose Society, a group that resisted the Nazis in World War II. Their theme was, “We will not be silent.” Apparently that was also the name of the group staging the vigil. The officer stated that these people were demonstrating without a permit. “We're pretty good about giving folks permission to do these things, but they never told us about this. They are not permitted to do this.” Our pleas that this was “The People's House” made no difference to him.

Things were still pretty much under control at this point. There were several TV crews and photographers out by the pool and I felt certain that under the scrutiny of the press, the police would determine that the action was not threatening and allow it to continue. I would learn later that the vigil was nearly complete and could have easily finished unnoticed if the police hadn't stepped in. But step in they did. The Lieutenant (Hurl?) came rushing in from outside and ordered the officer to clear the area as if something terrible was about to happen. He also ushered in the media people who had been told that they would be arrested if they continued to film. So much for my hope that the media presence would keep things rational.

Some of the people who were outside came back into the Atrium looking very confused. It WAS confusing trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. But the police action was now in full swing. We were ordered to leave or be arrested. Behind us was a double staircase with a connecting bridge. We moved up to the bridge and onto the stairs and stopped. Facing the window to the pool we began to chant “The World is Watching”. We could see through the door that one man had been handcuffed. Then another. Things were going on beyond our view and that of the press. A spontaneous chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” broke out and in the open atrium the echo amplified our voices. It was amazing! Meanwhile, I would learn later, people continued to read names out at the pool. And as each person was arrested, someone else would pick up the reading until they were also handcuffed. In all six women and three men were arrested and led without resistance through the atrium. Our chorus evolved to “We Shall Overcome.” As each person was led through the door we cheered them on. I was astonished to see the last woman led away in handcuffs -- she was Lela McNutt of Veterans for Peace and one of the six women I was rooming with for the week.

I think that we are going to see more and more of these acts of civil disobedience. Of all the women in my hotel room, I am the only one who has not been arrested for demonstrating (or anything else). I'd like to keep it that way, but as our rights to speak out continue to be suppressed, and as the media is prevented from reporting on the peace movement (either by threatening them with arrest as was done today, or by deliberately lying about it or refusing to report on it) the need for civil disobedience grows. By stopping this gentle vigil at the Rayburn, our government was fueling the peace movement. If we are serious about stopping the war in Iraq and all other illegal wars, as well as rescuing our nation from the ultimate corporate takeover, then we must all be prepared to engage in non-violent acts of civil disobedience and brave the consequences.

I realized, standing on those steps, singing the words of Dr. King, that the peace movement has turned the corner. We have the numbers and the passion and the commitment to bring about change. I can only pray that we don't have a Kent State in our future. I wanted to ask the police officer, who seemed to be doing his best to follow orders while being sympathetic, what he will do when the day comes that he is ordered to shoot us in the streets.

I learned from Lela later that evening, when she was finally released, that she had been so touched by the vigil when she first arrived there, that she had naively turned to the police officer standing there and exclaimed, “Isn't this beautiful!” Moments later he was commanding them to disburse or face arrest. When someone asked him why he was stopping the event, he stated, “If we let you throw roses in the pool today, someone will throw garbage tomorrow.” Lela, who is a grandmother in her sixties, showed me her raw wrists where she had been not only cuffed, but chained to a wall for several hours. For tossing a white rose in the “People's Pool”!

We left the atrium to go to our next visit, in no mood for what we faced. Brian Bilbray was arrogant and rude. When any of the women in our group tried to speak he interrupted them or, as in my case, clearly redirected his attention to the TV that remained turned on, on the wall behind us. Referring to the march on Saturday, his first words were, “So I guess you folks were here for the hoopla.” HOOPLA??? At least ten more American troops have died in Iraq since masses of American patriots took to the streets last Saturday in cities across the country, and he thinks it's all a party.

Bilbray never answered a question, he deflected questions! He blamed the problems in the Middle East on Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He showed no depth of understanding, only bravado, as he declared that he had won the election by a clear majority. “You people have a right to do what you're doing, but my job is to make the decisions,” he stated. Sound familiar?

As we left his office, I said to Leigh Mahon, who had been a key part of Francine Busby's campaign team, “Imagine how different this experience would have been if the votes had been fairly counted and Francine Busy had won.” She would have served us coffee!” remarked Judy Hess.

After a quick lunch we went to Susan Davis' office. She wasn't in but we met with someone from her staff who seemed much more knowledgeable than Bilbray of the bills by Jim McGovern and Lynn Woolsey which are meant to bring an end to our occupation in Iraq. Davis, a moderate Democrat, has stated that she is against the war, but we didn't leave with the sense that she would co-sponsor either bill. We need to keep reminding her we are watching.

Our next meeting, with my former opponent, Darrell Issa, was actually positive. Since the election I have been working on establishing a respectful line of communication with Issa and he and his staff have responded in kind. I'm not deluding myself into thinking that he will vote to support any of the bills we discussed and he made no pretense to suggest that he would. But we had a good dialogue, and even when people in our group responded emotionally to what he was saying, he listened with respect. Reba, who also lives in the 49th District, gave Issa a pair of baby shoes with the name of an Iraqi child who had died and asked him to keep them on his desk until we ended the war. We'd done the same thing with each of the representatives we met with, but when Issa took them he and Reba connected and I saw his heart in his eyes. Our work for peace takes many paths. We will only succeed when we change enough hearts. Sometimes that means changing public opinion, and sometimes it means touching one person who has the power to actually bring about change. We need to keep working on Issa.

Our last meeting was the dessert – Bob Filner. We sat in a circle and he let us go around, encouraging each person to explain why they were there. He listened and then answered our questions. He reassured us that he was onboard with the peace movement and explained some of the drawbacks to various bills and strategies. Then he offered advice – the advice of someone who has been through this before - someone who was arrested and jailed as a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights movement. He suggested that we get out to the local Rotary Club meetings and start teach-ins in our communities and work to change public opinion.

I'm finishing up this blog in the Chicago Airport between flights on my way home to Oceanside. A young man sat beside me to use the outlet where my laptop is plugged in. I could tell by his appearance that he's in the service. We talked. He's just turning 21. A Marine stationed at Mira Mar. He's been to Iraq twice already. I tell him about the march in DC and our meetings with our Representatives. I thank him for what he's doing and he thanks me. “I hope you can end this, because I really don't want to go back,” he adds. I give him my word that I won't stop until we bring all of our troops home. And I told him that all the people I'm sending this message to make that promise too. Please join us for our next action – Bring Their Buddies Home -- on February 19th. If there isn't one in your area, I can help you organize one. Go to www.BringTheirBuddiesHOme for more information.

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