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Staged Arrests Round Off Weekend of Anti-war Protests in DC
The New Standard
By Benjamin Dangl
A weekend of actions against the US occupation of Iraq culminated in the mass arrest of nearly 400 protesters who tried to deliver messages -- literal and symbolic -- to the White House.
Washington, DC, Sep 27 - Hundreds of activists participated in a staged act of collective civil disobedience in front of the White House on Monday to protest the ongoing occupation of Iraq. The event closed a weekend of anti-war demonstrations, lobbying, teach-ins and concerts. US Park Police reported approximately 370 arrests at the event and charged participants with demonstrating without a permit.
Around 1 p.m. on Monday, activists attempted to deliver one million reasons to end the war in Iraq from people all over the world to the White House. The delivery included notes such as "You can't win minds with shock and awe" and "The war is making the US less safe contrary to the administration's claims." The messages had been collected through the website of the activist group Code Pink.
Once, as expected, the guards at the White House gates refused the delivery, the planned civil disobedience began. Hundreds of activists marched to the sidewalk directly in front of the White House to initiate their unpermitted action. Many began to tie pieces of paper to the iron fence that surrounds the premises, each displaying the name of an American or Iraqi killed in the war.
Police immediately asked everyone to leave the sidewalk, and ushered those who complied behind a police barricade. Chants broke out as the police continued to order the group to disperse, such as "Arrest Bush! Arrest Cheney!" and "Noble cause, my ass, G.W. Bush is running out of gas!"
Thousands of supporters watched on their side of the barricade, jeering police and offering cries of solidarity to those still refusing to move. More police arrived with plastic handcuffs and vans. In a swarm of cameras and shaking fists, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who made headlines with her summer protest at Bush's ranch, was the first to be arrested.
Men and women of diverse ages and ethnicities, veterans, students, grandparents and clergy participated in the protest. They regularly sang songs and chanted. Police distributed water among the group and arrested many of the elderly activists first.
Reasons for protesting varied. Many participants had children killed in Iraq or Afghanistan and were demanding answers from President Bush. Others said that all other routes for social change had been exhausted.
"When you vote, when you communicate with elected officials, when you protest, when you cannot deny things such as the Downing Street Memo – what else is there to do?" said Nancy York from Fort Collins, referring to a British document many consider a smoking gun proving Washington manipulated the case for invading Iraq. "Nothing we're doing has been enough. We have to go to greater extents against the war," said the peace activist and environmentalist from Colorado as she waited on the sidewalk to be arrested.
Beatrice Saldivar, whose nephew, Sergeant Daniel Torres, was killed in Iraq in February, said, "I was in Crawford, Texas for 26 days, asking Bush to meet with us so I could ask him why our children are dying in Iraq." While sitting on a police barricade and waving a photo of her nephew high above her head she said, "The government keeps recycling our soldiers in Iraq. There is no noble cause."
Activist Gail Murphy explained that she "can't sleep at night" for worry over the violence in Iraq.
It took over three hours for police to complete the arrests. Sergeant Scott Fear of the US Park Police said approximately 370 people were arrested total and all of the activists were charged with demonstrating without a permit, with the exception of one person who was charged with crossing a police line. "Anyone could've left," Fear explained to The NewStandard on Monday. "We gave them three warnings."
He said the arrestees would get a fifty-dollar fine and would all be released by later in the evening.
At 2:44 p.m. a young man in a pink shirt threw his backpack over the White House fence, then jumped over the fence himself. He was immediately thrown to the ground, handcuffed and hauled away by six armed security officers who had been spread out across the lawn. His name and motivation for the act were not known by press time.
Sgt. Fear said, "The secret service dealt with the person who jumped over the fence. I think he'll be tried with unlawful entry."
Many of the participants had organized themselves into "affinity groups" before the event in order to support each other behind bars, a relatively new twist on a tactic usually meant for teamwork prior to or in order to avoid arrest.
United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ), an anti-war coalition, organized the civil disobedience through its website, allowing people to sign up for the action with their phone numbers, emails and names in order to facilitate networking among groups before and after they arrived in Washington DC. UFPJ organizers set up workshops on legal issues and nonviolent action on Sunday and Monday for those who registered.
The coalition asked people to register so the group could offer participants legal support after being arrested. Jo, an organizer from Los Angeles with the activist group and UFPJ coalition affiliate, Code Pink, said anyone could have participated in the action, even if they had not registered. "People can do what they want, this is a peace weekend. All kinds of interrelated groups are participating in this."
UFPJ had contacted the police to alert them of their plans for civil disobedience. "When you do a nonviolent action it's important to not be confrontational, so you want to be in a relationship with the cops," said Jodi, an organizer with Code Pink. "The cops said they understood that if we're peaceful, they'll be peaceful."
But not everyone shares Jodi's willingness to commune with the police. An activist who referred to himself as "Twin" said he did not participate in the civil disobedience in part because he did not like that UFPJ negotiated with the police before the action. "The focus of the action is so the media can see them. It comes off as a commercial event," he said.
In the park across the street from the White House, an activist called Pasco was also critical of Monday's events. Pasco, who said he is helping open a homeless shelter in Omaha, Nebraska, told TNS those practicing civil disobedience should have directly confronted the institutions they were protesting, instead of simply sitting on the sidewalk.
Bill Dobbs, a spokesperson for UFPJ, said: "Monday's events were designed to project and amplify what we were doing here over the weekend. The civil disobedience is to bring the eyes of the world right to the gates of the White House."