Monday, July 09, 2007

Welcome To The Occupation: Sit-Ins at Senator's Offices, Part 1

Welcome To The Occupation: Sit-Ins at Senator's Offices, Part 1

"This sucks!" said Lara Elborno, walking out of the Wells-Fargo building in downtown Cedar Rapids at about 5:30 on a Friday afternoon. "It's so anticlimactic!" Lara's Friday night plans had suddenly changed. She'd announced at a 1:00 rally "I'm so excited to get arrested with all you guys!" and minutes earlier she'd been in custody, jauntily flashing a peace sign at her supporters.  But now she wasn't going to get to spend the night in jail.

Elborno and eighteen others had prepared for arrest as part of an "extra-legal lobbying" effort -- otherwise known as a sit-in -- at the Cedar Rapids offices of Iowa Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin. But in the end, the only person who went to jail was not among the nineteen who had expected to.

On Monday, July 9, five peace activists go on trial in Des Moines for a February sit-in at Senator Chuck Grassley's Des Moines office.  The trial is expected to last three days.  Eleven actvists conducted a simultaneous event at Grassley's Cedar Rapids office.  On Friday, July 6, they were sentenced to fines for tresspassing.  Some of the same activists responded by moving that very afternoon to re-occupy the Grassley Cedar Rapids office, and also to occupy Senator Tom Harkin's Cedar Rapids office.  This three-part series, running the three days of the Des Moines trial, looks at the drama, planning and logistics of such a civil disobedience event.

A prolonged sit-in is a lot like a long airplane flight: hours of relative boredom punctuated by seconds of fear.  And sometimes, storms make you change your flight plan to reach your destination.

"Round 2 of the occupation project," as facilitator Jeff Leys of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) termed it, started with a 1 PM rallying of the troops at the Five Seasons monument in downtown Cedar Rapids. The statue is roughly halfway between the Grassley office in the Federal Courthouse and the Harkin office in the Wells-Fargo bank building.

Plan A was to simultaneously sit in at both offices beginning at 1:30 p.m. The official demand was to speak to the senators and ask them to pledge to immediately defund the Iraq war. Arlo Guthrie would have probably said "which wasn't very likely and we didn't expect it," but Brian Terrell chose to be optimistic. "We plan to be let in, if anyone blocks the doors it will be the police and marshals, not us."

The backup plan - well, the main plan, really - was to stay in the offices until an answer was forthcoming. Then, at 5 p.m. when the office closed, they'd try to stay, and the choreography of arrest would likely follow.

The night before the protests, the people risking arrest, and several supporters, attended a training session at Iowa City's Peace Center in the historic Old Brick church. Jeff Leys said that between February 5 and April 17, the Occupation Project targeted 39 congressional offices, both Democratic and Republican in an effort of "extra-legal lobbying." Some efforts were in unexpected places, Leys said: "We may have been the first civil disobedience in Fairbanks, Alaska since statehood."

Of the 39 targeted members, 14 switched from voting for the Iraq supplemental bill last year to voting against it this year. "We're certainly not taking full credit," said Leys, "but it was a factor."

"I've been a practitioner of direct action since 1977," said Frank Cordero of Des Moines, Iowa's best known civil disobedient. "Most of the times when I do direct action it's not very practical or effective. It's just laying the seed work, looking to breakthrough some consciousness. But there's a handful of times when civil disobedience can have an immediate impact -- and this is one of those rare times."

With Bush seeking another $145 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through September 2008, the Occupation Project campaign is gearing up once again. In most areas the project is beginning in August, but the Cedar Rapids event was timed to coincide with the July 6 sentencing of 11 people who had occupied Grassley's office in February.

"The important things won't be discussed in Iowa without folks like us acting," said Brian Terrell, one of those risking arrest. He'd been arrested in the February action at Grassley's office "They told me 'We don't talk about policy issues in our field offices'" he said. "It was more than cold; it was absolutely rude." Terrell was scheduled to be sentenced for trespassing in that protest Friday morning, and planned to mark the occasion be returning to Grassley's office that afternoon.

Renee Espeland of Des Moines is active with the Iowa Peace Network and was also risking arrest. She read from VCNV's statement of nonviolence.

We will act fairly and honestly with people regardless of the situation or the role they play. We will remain calm and aware at all times. We will prepare ourselves emotionally, mentally and spiritually before we act, and will recognize our opposition is to a system of violence and militarism, not to individual members of the system.

"Does anyone have any trouble with that?" asked Cordaro, getting a silent response. "We're kind of serious about this."

Leys led the group in role playing and said there is no hierarchy between those risking arrest vs. the support people. "It's foolish to risk arrest without those people doing the solidarity work." Support people not risking arrest were needed for many other roles: taking notes during the action, communicating with the office staff and police, bail money and rides from jail, news releases and photos, and "just taking care of each other during and after the action."

Practicing getting arrested.

The role-playing time frame was dramatically compressed from the next day's hours of waiting, and there were chuckles as people volunteered for various roles. The office staff roles were filled quickly, but there was a pause before anyone offered to play police. The pretend police were briefed and soon took to their roles - not as dramatically as Milgram's prison guards, but shouting "oh! My back!" as they dragged off protesters.

"'Fascist' is the dumbest thing to say to a cop," critiqued Cordaro as soon as role-play was concluded, as one person had dropped that F-bomb. "That's just an invitation for trouble, so I'm glad you said it now. That would have consequences for the other people involved."

"These police are human beings with families," said Gloria Williams of Iowa City. "They're not the problem - they're just an instrument of the system."

"If there's ten cops there, more than likely seven of them are against the war," said Goodner.

"Did you discuss going limp ahead of time?" asked Cordaro. "The most important thing is not to surprise each other. Also, they can add a resisting arrest charge if you do. When I started this, they didn't do that, but that's been legislated now."

In an undertaking like an all-afternoon protest, flexibility is important. The protesters had received word that Grassley's office was only going to allow one person at a time into the building, so Plan A was modified. Mona Shaw of Iowa City was designated as the first person to go up, "because no one else said they'd do it," she said.

The other members of the Grassley group would then proceed to stand at the one public door to the Federal Courthouse and ask to be allowed up, and the Harkin group would stay as supporters. If other members of the public needed to get in, the protesters would politely ask them to go to the back of the line - in effect, blocking the door. "We'll wait patiently, like it's a line for movie tickets," said Terrell. "We are not the obstruction - we are doing what we are supposed to be doing legally and morally."

Nevertheless, the group expected arrests to quickly ensue. After the Grassley group was arrested, the Harkin group would then proceed to the Harkin office, where they expected a warmer welcome.

The group risking arrest, at the rally before the sit-ins.

"We're just as serious about Harkin," said Brian Terrell, "but the people there are more benign and friendly. They're not taking the hard line that Grassley and the Feds are." He said there was a designated "free speech zone," which the protesters quickly dubbed "the grassy knoll," where the federal marshals wanted protesters to stay. Terrell found this unacceptable: "We have serious grievances to address with Senator Grassley, and we have a First Amendment right to go up to the office."

The difference may have been political, or it may have been driven by the different locations of the offices. The Federal Courthouse houses several federal departments and has all the accompanying post-9/11 security. But the private Wells-Fargo bank building has no more security than a typical office building.

Shaw addressed the crowd holding a photo of Kampha Sourivong of Iowa City, who was killed in Iraq last September. Shaw, whose sister serves in the Navy, said, "People don't recover from the broken hearts of war."

David Goodner said he'd attended a town meeting that morning in West Branch and asked Grassley about ending the war and about impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Grassley told Goodner that he wanted to wait until Gen. Petraeus' report in September before deciding what to do next on the war.

"They're all set up," said Goodner five minutes before zero hour, noting the paddy wagon, two police cars and ambulance across the street at the federal courthouse.

Rally emcee Wendy Barth pointed to the Iowa flag and noted the motto Our Liberties We Prize And Our Rights We Will Maintain. "That's exactly what it means to be an Iowan."

Tomorrow in Part 2: the scene at the Federal Courthouse, site of Grassley's office.

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