D.C. - By a vote of 348-71, the U.S. House of Representatives
voted March 16 to spend US$67,000,000,000 more for open-ended
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that a growing
majority of the people they represent believe the war is wrong.
In an eleventh
hour effort on March 15 to appeal to the conscience of the Speaker
of the House, Dennis Hastert, six peace activists took their case
to his office on Capitol Hill where they read the names of U.S.
soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the war, and negotiated
with Hastert's staff for a meeting with the Illinois congressman.
The six were
part of a 34-day campaign named "The Winter of Our Discontent"
organized by Voices for Creative Nonviolence (Voices). The campaign
includes 34 days of fasting, civil disobedience, Capitol Hill
vigils and lobbying, to demand the U.S. end the occupation and
its economic and military warfare against the Iraqi people.
Please Come In
at the entrance to Hastert's office in the Cannon House Office
Building reads, "Welcome, Please Come In." Led by Voices member,
Ed Kinane, the group entered the Speaker's office and introduced
themselves. They told his staff that four of them had been in
Iraq to witness the effects of economic sanctions, Shock and Awe,
the invasion, and the occupation. In some detail, they explained
why they hoped the Speaker would vote against the legislation
he would bring to the House floor the next day. At one point,
Mike Ferner stated, "I know there is not much chance that he will,
but I hope the Speaker will change the course of history and vote
against another US$67 billion for this war."
minutes, Hastert's receptionist told the Voices group their comments
were appreciated, but with other people waiting and without an
appointment they would have to leave. Within minutes, one, then
three, Capitol Police arrived. Another member of the group, Jeff
Leys, explained they had learnt just days before that the spending
bill would be considered by the Appropriations Committee and voted
onto the House floor. "That's why there is no time to ask for
an appointment," he said.
Leys, Ed Kinane, Mike Hersh, Cynthia Banas and Mike Ferner (photo:
Hastert's staff would hear none of it, however, and ordered the
group to leave. Leys and Cynthia Banas refused. Said
Banas, afterwards, "I just couldn't leave. To leave that office
would have been a betrayal of everything I learnt from the people
in Iraq. They are my brothers and sisters."
and Banas remaining in Hastert's office, the other four campaigners
exited, the door slamming behind them.
In the hall,
Kinane solemnly began reading names: three Iraqis and then three
U.S. soldiers. With each, Lorie Blanding rang a small bell and
pronounced, "dead." She soon changed that to "killed," later explaining
that she felt it was more appropriate.
politicians and visitors passed by the scene in the hallway. A
growing knot of besuited, frowning lobbyists formed. Kinane later
said he had hoped "some of the people walking by us would give
some thought to what we were doing," but as Voices' videographer
Scott Blackburn's footage showed, few did.
Hastert's office, Leys reported, a Capitol Police officer and
a more senior member of the Speaker's staff left to confer behind
a closed door. Ten minutes later the officer emerged to tell the
two activists the word from the Speaker's office was
that arrests should not be made.
door, Leys and Banas knelt down to emphasize their insistence.
Looking at Leys' size, the three officers then on the scene seemed
in no hurry to carry him out. "I told them I would voluntarily
get up and go with them if I was under arrest, but not if I wasn't."
Ferner, Ed Kinane, and Lorie Blanding read the names of the war
dead (photo: Scott Blackburn)
For over an hour, the Voices members in the hallway continued
reading names and ringing the bell. Mike Hersh, with AfterDowningStreet.org,
and Karen Bradley, with Democracy Cell, were the only two reporters
on the scene despite the fact that the Voices team had emailed
and faxed dozens of news releases early that morning and hand-delivered
statements to every news agency on 12 floors of the National Press
no one in the office of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative
would agree to swear out a complaint against Leys and Banas, and
the two campaigners decided to leave of their own accord.
team decided to call it a day and retired to a nearby coffee shop
to summarize their experiences over the preceding hours.
on the lack of any significant response from passersby outside
Hastert's office, Blanding said that "The setting you're in reminds
you of how you fit into society, and the Capitol silences people.
It's hard to know, but I think some of the people walking by us
in the hall were stirred by what we were doing and just were censoring
that, "We ended up negotiating in there. That's the way it's gonna
end in Iraq, too. After all these young kids die, that's what
we're gonna do - negotiate."
activist concluded by focusing on the gravity of the group's mission.
"I never thought I'd see my country invade another nation like
Hitler did when I was young. What we're doing now in Iraq is a
crime, and we are all part of it - even more so than the Germans.
They said they didn't know what Hitler had planned, and we know.
We have no excuses."
telephoned Hastert's office late that afternoon, asking for a
comment in response to the action. The staff person who answered
said the request would have to be referred to the their press
responded in the press office said he would only identify himself
by first name. Blackburn asked, "This is the Speaker's press office
and you can't tell me your last name?"
"I can't tell you that. We aren't allowed to make any statements
on the record. I'll have to give you to Ron Bonjen."
left on Ron Bonjen's voice mail was not returned.
Mike Ferner and Scott Blackburn are part of the Winter of Our
Discontent campaign sponsored by Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
Mike Ferner traveled to Iraq with "Voices" just prior to the U.S.
invasion and again a year later. His book, Inside the Red Zone:
A Veteran For Peace
Reports from Iraq (Praeger) is due out in August.
Click here for other articles by Mike Ferner:
Seven Arrested At White House Protest Against Iraq War
There Are Lives In The Balance
Getting Jailed For Peace