By Joy First
The voices of the people are not being heard as we are increasingly denied access to our government officials. For many, we have wanted to believe that we live in some kind of representative democracy where we can express our views to those we elect and it will make a difference, but that is not the case.
A study published in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics found the majority of the American public has a “minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” compared to the wealthy.
Our first-hand experience confirmed the results of this study when we were locked out of Representative Paul Ryan’s office and then the White House in an action organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR) as part of the week of actions of Campaign Nonviolence. Campaign Nonviolence is a new, long-term movement to mainstream nonviolence and to foster a culture of peace free from war, poverty, climate crisis, and the epidemic of violence. The action NCNR organized was titled “Sowing Seeds of Hope: From Congress to the White House”.
On the morning of September 22, 2015 a group of about 10 people met in the cafeteria of the Longworth House office building. We discussed our plans for the day and then made our way to Representative Paul Ryan’s office. The congressman from Wisconsin is a shining example of what is wrong with Congress today. He has presented a budget proposal that would significantly increase defense spending while cutting costs to necessary services for our brothers and sisters who have the least.
In the first part of September, we mailed a letter to Ryan asking for a meeting on September 22 to discuss the issues of war, poverty, and the climate crisis. With a copy of that letter in hand we approached his office and noticed the sign outside the door said, “Welcome. Come In.” This was a metal sign permanently attached on the wall beside the door of every congressperson in the building. However, taped to the door was a temporary sign that read, “Entry restricted to those with an appointment.” We tried to open the door, but it was locked.
We were shocked that the door was locked. Ellen Taylor, a member of Code Pink who has been visiting members of Congress for years, said that this was the first time she had ever been locked out of a congressional office. We had posted information about going to Ryan’s office on a number of websites and so they knew we were coming, and obviously they were not interested in meeting with us.
After knocking, a young woman opened the door about 6 inches and asked us what we wanted. She was obviously nervous about interacting with us. I was also nervous as I always feel anxious going up against the biggest empire in the history of the world. She told us we couldn’t come in and that they had meetings scheduled all day. We let her know that we had written a letter asking for a meeting on September 22. Her response was that we could call and schedule a meeting for another day, but many of us were there from out of town and this would not be feasible.
After going back and forth for several minutes it was clear we would not be granted entry to the office. She accepted a copy of the letter we had sent, along with pictures of drone victims and articles criticizing the Ryan budget. One of the members of our group reminded her that she was young and that participating in a system that shut us out of our government was wrong, and she should think about what she was doing.
After she closed the door we taped pictures of drone victims, signs about Ryan, and articles to the door and the wall around the door. We also left packets of seeds with the message that we are attempting to sow seeds of hope to bring about real change.
We decided to see what kind of a reception we would get from another Wisconsin representative and so we went to Mark Pocan’s office. When we got there the door to the office was shut, but we opened it and freely walked in. We were greeted by a receptionist and asked what we wanted. We told her what we were doing and gave her a copy of the letter. We were listened to and offered water and chips.
It was time to move on and we took public transportation to Edward Murrow Park, a few blocks from the White House. More than 100 people were gathered at the park for a short rally. As those of us risking arrest gathered in a circle to discuss final plans for the action, I was happy to note that we had about 18 people who were going to be risking arrest. It was appropriate to have our rally in Edward Murrow Park. He was a journalist who spoke out against the abuses of our government in the 1950s.
After we listened to a few speakers at the park we processed along Pennsylvania Ave. to the White House. At the White House we heard from more speakers. We were inspired as we heard more about the issues that had brought us together. Max summarized the topics in the press release, noting the speakers talked about Islamophobia, nuclear weaponry, fossil fuels, global inequality, corporate control of governments, climate chaos and the attack on polar bears, killer drone strikes and other issues in which our government is complicit.
Those risking arrest gathered together again at the White House. We were going to attempt to deliver a letter we had mailed to Obama at the guard gate. This letter outlined our concerns with war, poverty, climate crisis, and structural violence, and requested a meeting on September 22.
Eighteen of us walked together to the guard gate. We had decided that if/when the guards refused to grant us a meeting, we would sit down in solidarity with all of those suffering around the world as a result of our government’s policies. We would sit for an hour and then we would reassess the situation.
It is important to note that we were not going there to try to get arrested. We were engaging in nonviolent civil resistance. Our government is breaking the law, and we are acting in resistance to that law-breaking. We are not breaking the law by going to members of our government and calling for them to stop breaking the law. We know that we are engaging in something where we may be risking being arrested, but we are not trying to get arrested and we do not believe we are breaking any laws by doing what we are doing.
After dialogue with the Secret Service at the gate, it was clear that they were not going to facilitate a meeting with someone in a position of authority. They told us that we needed to ask for a meeting in advance. We reminded them that they we had mailed a letter asking for a meeting, and furthermore, we had sent a similar letter a year ago and have yet to get a response to that letter. What are we supposed to do? How can we meet with someone in a policy-making position? Again, we were being locked out of any kind of dialogue about important issues.
As we sat there beside the guard gate there was a constant stream of people going in and out. Many of them were mainstream media people. A French delegation also came to the gate and were allowed access. We asked a woman in the French delegation if she would accept our letter and carry it into the White House and she did.
After 45 minutes, it was clear that people simply walked up to the gate, the guards checked their ID and they were allowed entry. Brian suggested that we do the same thing. He suggested we stand in line at the gate and wait our turn to get in. It seems that, as concerned citizens, we should have that right.
Once we formed a line at the gate, the Secret Service police told us that we needed to move or we would be arrested, even though we were on a public sidewalk. At that point, around 2:00 pm, the Secret Service police started arresting us.
Generally, the National Park Police will arrest us in front of the White House because it is a National Park area. I’m not sure why they didn’t, but they may have been getting ready for the Pope’s visit the next day. It seemed the Secret Service police did not have a lot of experience in making arrests. They conducted extremely intrusive body searches on some of the women in full public display. They removed the eyeglasses of all the men. When I was one of the last of the 15 arrested they wanted to take my eyeglasses. I told them I couldn’t see without my eyeglasses and that no one has ever removed my glasses in all the times I have been arrested and they allowed me to keep my glasses. It took us a long time to be get loaded into the van.
We were transported to a DC Metropolitan police station for processing. Those arrested included Don Cunning, Manijeh Saba, Carol Gay, and Mary Ellen Marino all from New Jersey, Kathy Kelly from Illinois, Brian Terrell from Iowa, Phil Runkel and Joy First from Wisconsin, Joe Byrne and Max Obuszewski from Baltimore, Joan Nicholson from Pennsylvania, Malachy Kilbride from Maryland, and Art Laffin, Eve Tetaz and Ellen Taylor from DC.
We spent the next several hours in a cell, with the men and women separated, talking and singing while they took us out one-by-one to get fingerprinted and to get a mug shot. When the officer asked me to sign my citation I asked what I was being charged with. She pointed out that the the paper she asked me to sign said “Blocking Passage”. However others later said the charge was “Disorderly Conduct”. It is not clear what the charge was and we were not given actual citations.
The DC Metropolitan police finished all the processing, but we were still held for another few hours as we watched, through the windows of our cells while the Secret Service police shuffled papers back and forth.
We were finally released at around 9:00 pm. Paul Magno and David Barrows provided wonderful jail support. They were waiting for us with bananas and water. After a closing circle and goodbyes, we all went our separate ways. We have a court date of October 15, but for those of us from out of town, we will send a letter pleading not guilty and saying we want to go to trial.
The next day I found out that at the monthly anti-drone vigil at Volk Field in Wisconsin, the gates to the base were locked when the vigilers arrived. Volk Field is a Wisconsin Air National Guard base where they train pilots to operate the Shadow drones, which are used for surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition. We have been vigiling outside the gates of the base once a month for 3 ½ years and the gates have never been locked. Nine people walked onto the base last month and were arrested. This was the 4th time we have done an action of civil resistance at the base. Apparently, they may be tired of it and want to prevent us from walking onto the base again. It will be interesting to see if they continue to lock the gates when we come next month. About 100-200 cars drive through the gate during the hours we vigil there every month, so in locking the gate they are causing a lot of inconvenience to a lot of people.
Our action in DC was about sowing seeds of hope. Where is hope for this country that locks its citizens out and doesn’t listen to them? Where is hope for this country when the government engages in crimes both at home and abroad?
I think about my grandchildren and what kind of world I want for them and I realize I have to maintain a place of hope in my heart. We can’t give up hope that things can change and we can make a better world. It is so difficult and stressful to go back to DC and risk arrest over and over. I would rather stay home with my family, but as my friend Malachy said, “Once you know, you can’t not know.”
It always feels good to return to my home in the woods in Wisconsin after time in DC. Today I noticed the leaves are starting to change color as fall arrives. It makes me think about the cycles of the seasons, the cycle of life, the cycles in making changes for our world. It reminds me that everything is a circle and from the darkness, the light is born. It gives me hope, but I also know that change won’t occur without real work on our part. As we face the enormous problems of the world today, we can give each other hope as we inspire each other through our actions for change.
And so I hold onto hope for a better world. I know it won’t be easy. I know I may not see any changes resulting from my work, but I also know that I must take action and try to effect change in the world. Taking action can help us hold onto our humanity and it is the only option we have.
So, onward we go.
Joy First, PhD, Mount Horeb, WI, is a long-time peace activist organizing and participating in actions of nonviolent civil resistance against the crimes of our government. She works with the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, Wisconsin Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars and other groups. Joyfirst5@gmail.com