There we were on a brisk February 5th, in the Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement (I.C.E.) office of the Chicago Federal Building, in handcuffs and still singing! Over the police walkie-talkies we could hear that our comrades remained in Senator Obama's office. Now we would spend the rest of the day in jail. As far as we were concerned, we put on a good show. It was well worth a little jail time to bear witness against the ongoing funding of the war in Iraq.
Our actions, in both Chicago Senators' offices, helped to kick-off the nationwide Occupation Project. The Occupation Project is a campaign of sustained nonviolent civil disobedience to end the Iraq war. It is specifically focused on urging all U.S. Senators and Representatives to vote against the upcoming "emergency supplemental" spending bill. This additional $93 billion of "emergency" funding would be used to buy equipment to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the so-called War on Terror in 2008. It represents one more step President Bush is taking to appropriate as much money as possible for military spending and thus decrease spending on social programs here at home.
Activists around the U.S. are challenging this spending, through the Occupation Project, by engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the offices of Senators and Representatives who do not publicly pledge to vote against additional war funding. Voices for Creative Nonviolence is organizing the Occupation Project campaign. (The group is formerly Voices in the Wilderness.) This campaign is organized around affinity groups. Our affinity group--the St. Francis House affinity group-consists of members of the community living in and surrounding the St. Francis House Catholic Worker in Chicago. For purposes of our actions, we formed two sub-groups--one for the action in Senator Richard Durbin's office and another for the action in Senator Barack Obama's office.
My sub-krewe did the action in Senator Durbin's office. Our action was a memorial service for all of those who've died in the Iraq war, both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. We included all the typical elements of a funeral. Upon entering, one of our members laid on the ground--in front of the receptionist's desk--to be ceremonially enshrouded representing all those who've died with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We covered his shroud with a U.S. soldier hat, pictures of Iraqis, and a little Iraq palm frond of mourning. Our spokesperson handed memorial programs to all the office staffers and anyone who entered the office--all of our affinity group mourners and I.C.E. police officers. We had quite a variety of mourners present--from the 3 year old grandson of a Grandmother for Peace up to several veteran peace activists. We began by reading an Occupation Project statement of purpose. Our service consisted of readings and songs. Between each reading and song, we read names of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis who've died in the Iraq war. After each name, we all sung "In Memory of You." Our readings included "When will we know that enough Americans have Died?" by a woman whose son was K.I.A. in the Iraq war and excerpts from "A Time to Break the Silence" by Martin Luther King, Jr. "When will we know that enough Americans have Died?" was read by the mother of a soldier who was injured in the war in Iraq. This reading compelled an office worker to turn around and listen. We continued our service until the four of us risking arrest were arrested and taken out singing "Amazing Grace."
Meanwhile, our other half, the rest of the St. Francis House-ers, were in Senator Obama's office doing their action. For their action, they chose to share various readings; pictures of Iraqis and the present, war-torn, conditions in Iraq; and a song with everyone in Senator Obama's office. They began by handing out and reading their statement of purpose. One group member then started showing pictures from Iraq while another read a statement encouraging the Senator to vote against the supplemental spending bill. This was then followed with readings of letters of an Iraqi woman and a U.S. soldier concerning the Iraq war. Their next reading was a response to Senator Obama's "Bring the Troops Home" bill. After this, one of the members read "The Sermon on the Mount" from the Bible. This krewe's finale was an old Irish anti-war song. Throughout their readings, Senator Obama's Office Director kept filtering in and out of the reception room to listen and speak with them. From krewe members' accounts of the experience, this seemed to be a more fruitful aspect of their visit. The Senator's Director ultimately had them arrested when they refused to stop disrupting business-as-usual.
One of the most surprising, and amazing, features of our February 5th Project Occupation actions, with both St. Francis House sub-groups, was the police response. By and large, the police were gentle in their handling of us and none of them expressed disagreement with our motives for doing civil disobedience in the Senators' offices. One jailer even expressed support, for what we were doing, as she was booking me one-on-one! This response is, in part, attributable to our tactics and firm adherence to nonviolence as part of the Project Occupation campaign. The tactics of nonviolence we used ranged from encouraging a dialogue with all of those we encountered to not moving any furniture in the Senators' offices to calmly communicating with the police. We were present in the Senators' offices to express dissent with current pro-war budget policies AND also to speak with whoever we encountered about the war in Iraq. Many people--including the police we dealt with--disagree with this war in Iraq. Not one police officer I spoke with defended the Iraq war or the President's said motives for being there. It is no longer only those "wild liberals" that are against this war.
For many of us, including myself, this was our first act of civil disobedience. Since I've been christened a spokesperson for war and peace issues through Project Occupation, the most common question I've faced is "Why civil disobedience? What difference will that make?" In this case of the continued escalation of the Iraq war--despite overwhelming anti-war public sentiment--it seems all the more urgent for people to speak out and pressure all Congress members to vote against the continuance of this war. The biggest difference is, of course, in us--in those doing the activism. In this new role, I've been more dedicated to learning about the history of Iraq and our military involvement there, keeping up with current events, and learning better how to speak out and write about these things. As for changing public opinion, all nonviolent social change is a slow process. By taking an extreme position and being willing to be arrested for our beliefs, I feel we are making it easier for others to speak up against this war and the business-as-usual attitude that lets it continue to escalate. By creating a scene, we are an embarrassment to those politicians who speak one way--against the war--yet continue to promote war in their budget voting. These politicians need to know their constituents are paying attention and that we hold them accountable.
The Occupation Project is an ongoing campaign until the Senators vote on the "emergency supplemental" spending bill sometime in the latter half of April. In the early half of March, possible House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Hearings will happen. By the end of March, the House will almost certainly have voted on the bill. After a recess, the Senate will most likely vote on the bill between April 16th and May 1st. Along with civil disobedience, the Occupation Project is encouraging citizens to utilize all forms of lobbying--phone calls, office visits, and letters to Congress members-- to speak out against this bill.
How to get involved in Project Occupation and/or speak out against the upcoming "emergency supplemental" spending bill:
Suzanne Sheridan is a Gainesville expatriate and a St. Francis House Catholic Worker volunteer in Chicago.
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