Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Welcome To The Occupation, Part 2: One Person Can't Assemble

Welcome To The Occupation, Part 2: One Person Can't Assemble

Note: On Friday, July 6, peace activists occupied the Cedar Rapids offices of Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin.  Part one of this three-part story looked at the training and planning for the event.

At 1:30 sharp, Frank Cordaro led the group, singing John Lennon's "Power to the People," to the Federal Courthouse.

Jaywalking was unnecessary to the cause and extra charges are always a risk: "Chris got charged with improper parking last time, and she walked there," Cordaro had told the group at the training. So everyone carefully stopped at the DON'T WALK light on First Avenue. Then the rest of the group held back a few steps while Mona Shaw walked ahead, alone, toward the entrance.

The one public entrance to the Cedar Rapids Federal Courthouse looks like it was a small side door in the pre-9/11 era. It's most noticeable for the handicapped ramp outside and the metal detector inside. Two marshals were already waiting at the door as Mona Shaw walked up the ramp. Three Cedar Rapids police stood on the sidewalk. A passer-by who seemed to be waiting for a ride or bus asked me what was going on.

"It's a protest," I answered. She paused, then said in a tone that wasn't hostile but had a little I-don't-want-any-trouble trepidation, "I think I'll wait across the street."

The risking-arrest group stood at the door as Terrell and Cordaro negotiated with the marshals. "Is the First Amendment just for one person? We're just asking Senator Grassley to do the right thing."

At the Grassy Knoll, the support group began chanting. A few of the old standbys emerged, variations on the "What do we want? ______! When do we want it? NOW!" theme. After about 10 minutes, one protester tried to move around a marshal who moved quickly to block and push back, saying "You guys have every right to be over there," indicating the Grassy Knoll. "But you don't have the right..." was drowned out by the chanters.  The two marshals at the door seemed to have studied the good cop-bad cop routine; the older officer was quieter but firm, while the younger marshal was, shall we say, somewhat snippier.  The image of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door in the civil rights era popped into my head, as I wondered whether it was a fair analogy or just a conditioned response for someone of my generation seeing authority block a door.

Brian Terrell asking the Cedar Rapids police for help getting into the Federal Courthouse.

The protesters started to distinguish between the branches of law enforcement, noting that the Cedar Rapids police were still at the sidewalk. "Whose cops are polite? Cedar Rapids cops are polite?" The cadence of this chant, however, was a bit awkward so it didn't catch on. Terrell appealed to the Cedar Rapids police for assistance: "These federal marshals are breaking the law by preventing is from exercising our rights." One of the local police said, "It's the chief of police's call, not mine."

After a half hour it appeared the initially predicted fast arrest wasn't going to happen. Unfortunately, the public door to the courthouse was on the sunny side of the building on a hot July day. "It looks like we might have to wait a while," Frank Cordaro told me, looking for one of the support people to round up some water. Lara Elborno broke out a bullhorn to lead more chants, dancing in place as she did. She then began reading the Bill of Rights. "The marshals say Mona is assembling by herself," said Brian Terrell, prompting a chant of "One person can't assemble! One person can't assemble!"

The guy in the suit isn't necessarily a secret agent.

"They're securing the building from Grassley's constituents," a man in a suit told me. He'd been hanging near the edge of the crowd by the police, giving the impression that he was some sort of Secret Agent Man, but I did a double take as I realized it was Josh Casteel. He's an Iraq War vet who was one of the eleven who'd been sentenced that morning. He wasn't risking arrest Friday and still had the suit on from the court appearance.

Frank Cordaro

Cordaro called the Harkin group together. "For this action to work, we've got to do both of them," he said. They collectively decided to move over to Harkin's office at 3 p.m. "Hey, you guys, how about if we start reading the 3,000 names," Cordaro suggests, and one of the support people began reading the names of the troops who've died.

At the blocked door, Brian Terrell told me, "Nobody else has tried to come in yet. We don't intend to be intimidating people -- it's unfortunate that the police are creating this scene." One of those police indicates the ambulance nearby. "We've got the paramedics here, we don't want anyone to overheat."

"Is it air conditioned inside?" asked a protester. The younger marshal enjoyed the question: "Oh, yeah. It's nice and cool inside." As the arrest-riskers passed around sunscreen, I took a chance at seeing how the marshals would react to a citizen-journalist seeking access to the scene upstairs. The younger marshal laughed: "A blogger? Nice try, buddy." Brian Terrell tries to plead my case but the marshal has never heard of my news organization.

But within minutes, the tune changed.

Very suddenly, at 2:15, one of the arrest-riskers was let in. But the next was denied. "We're just controlling the bottleneck," explained a marshal as the buzz quickly passed through the group: "Nyssa's in, Megan's in..." Susan Junis was asked to leave her water and octagonal protest stop sign outside.
Once it became clear that everyone who wants in will be allowed in, half the group began to decamp for the three-block trek to the Harkin office.

After the entire arrest-risk group was in, I checked with a marshal on what does and doesn't go into the building. Cordaro offered to watch my laptop, phone, camera and wallet. I returned to the door with my notepad, pen and driver's license.

Several marshals stood at a metal detector and conveyor belt setup and I was asked to remove my belt. It went on the conveyer belt with my pen and paper as my license was handed to another marshal. He stared at it for a while then handed it back to me. I followed the other protesters and press to the left and the stairs.

"People are taking turns, four at a time," said Mona Shaw, sitting in a chair outside Grassley's office. Three law enforcement personnel stood next to a door bearing the sign


"We're here to keep order in the building, that's all," said one officer.

"I was feeling sorry for that staffer," said Shaw. "It's sad, we might disagree about this but we need to be able to talk about it. I talked about my family, and my sister, but she was clearly afraid to be human."

The hallway filled with chatter. One of the marshals asked people to keep the volume down, but Josh Casteel's request for the same seemed to be more effective. "I'm hoping my appearance here will shorten the war," said Lou Helwig, a retired psychologist. "Typically, it takes a radical act to make change." Nyssa Koons sat in the hallway, waiting her turn. "My only interaction so far has been with the marshals." She expected to spend the night in jail, and then plead guilty to trespassing charges in the morning.

So why, after the standoff, did the marshals change their minds and let people in? "No idea," said Wendy Barth. "It was just a posture." Brian Terrell suggested, "The cameras had something to do with it."

"I told them I wasn't going to leave until I saw the other people up here," said Mona Shaw. One person offers the suggestion that after the marshals heard the plan to move half the group to Harkin's office, the crowd would be "more manageable."

Francis-Clare Fischer and her husband, Richard, both of Bernard, Iowa, had been in the Grassley office and talked to the staffer. "She took notes, and I prayed and offered to pray for the senator," said Francis-Clare, a Plain Quaker. "We are called to pound our swords into ploughshares, and I believe that as His child, the Senator would want peace."

By 2:45, the people awaiting arrest and their supporters were setting in for the wait outside the office.

Tomorrow in Part 3, a look at the scene at Sen. Harkin's office.

No comments: