NATIONAL ARCHIVES BUILDING OCCUPIED AGAIN BY VETERANS FOR PEACE
by Mike Ferner
“I could see your banners three blocks away,” the young man said excitedly. “And since I knew they were hanging on the Archives building, I wondered if it might be some kind of free speech exhibit so I had to come over and see.”
The National Archives Building does indeed house originals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights which specifically guarantees freedom of speech. But this was no Archives-sponsored exhibit. It was the real thing.
“UPHOLD THE CONSTITUTION. ARREST BUSH AND CHENEY – WAR CRIMINALS,” and “We WILL NOT BE SILENT” bellowed two enormous banners hung on a 90-foot scaffold by six members of Veterans For Peace, one member of Military Families Speak Out, and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War a little after 8 am, Saturday, November 15. They remained perched there until the next day at 4:30pm, when police from Homeland Security ripped down the banners and escorted them off the scaffolding.
The eight had slipped unnoticed around a construction barrier and climbed up the scaffolding, completely unnoticed. It was fairly easy that day to grab the element of surprise since finance ministers and heads of state from around the world were in Washington to propose they could do something about the global financial meltdown. Dozens of official motorcades, each guarded by scores of police, barreled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, whisking officials to morning meetings that seemed to alternate between one end of that avenue and the other.
With so much official attention directed to the speeding motorcades and the blocked off streets in every direction, the VFP campaigners were able to haul several army duffel bags stuffed with ropes, banners, ponchos, water, a powerful p.a. system and a camping toilet up the scaffolding and into position within 30 minutes of their arrival. Shortly thereafter, the six men and two women were ready to drop the first banner declaring Bush and Cheney war criminals. Carefully prepared with guide ropes the night before in a D.C. church, the banner unfurled with little fuss, followed by a similar-sized banner stating, “We will not be silent.”
Photo by Mike Ferner
Before another half hour went by, the public address system broadcast passages of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, as current now as they were 40 years ago when he uttered them.
“…one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.”
King’s booming voice alternated with such songs as “People Have the Power,” by Patti Smith, “Let there be Peace on Earth,” by The Boys Choir of Harlem, “Yell Fire!,” by Michael Franti and Spearhead, and “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” by Phil Ochs.
Three National Archives rent-a-cops appeared just after the first banner unfurled, to tell the group’s ground team they were breaking the law. It took a minute to convince Sgt. Smith that we knew the action was illegal, but for the rest of the morning we never could convince him that what we were doing would have any benefit.
He explained he was all in favor of the First Amendment, but “Can’t everybody go around doing just what they please on federal property.” He expressed concern for the safety of the veterans on the scaffold, led by two former Army paratroopers, and appealed to us to ask the veterans to come down. As no fewer than a dozen sirens from another escorted motorcade nearly drowned him out, he said that if police or fire personnel had to be dispatched to remove the activists, D.C. citizens would suffer because emergency units units were out of service “to take care of protesters.”
Tourists walking along any street bounding the Archives building that day had their attention caught first by the soundtrack defiantly pouring out of the troup’s gutsy little sound system. Streets used to nothing but monotonous traffic noise were awash with speeches and music. Then, pedestrians and motorists saw the banners and many of them were stopped literally in their tracks. Most looked up in amazement and then smiled and offered supportive comments; only a few people expressed their discontent.
At one point a Boy Scout troop came by and one of the vets on the ground crew smiled and said, “You boys can get your democracy badge here if you check this out.” The scoutmaster, visibly unhappy with the display said, “Well, the troops sure aren’t going to like this.” “We are the troops,” the vet responded.
Later that evening, Eve Tetas, a local peace activist came by to ask about the occupation. Her friend, Polly, told us that Eve had been arrested for disturbing the war more times than anybody she knows.
Eventually the conversation got around to whether we’d be able to put this action in the “successful” column. That reminded me of a frequent response I’d given to people expressing thanks for a VFP action, “This isn’t a spectator sport – what can you do?”
My point was that the success of it would be only partially measured by how many people were on the scaffolding or how long they stayed. What would make it monumentally successful would be if people heard about it and decided they, too, could go to Washington for a few days…and then a few more came, until pretty soon there were too many people for the sidewalk and they started spilling into the street, blocking off Constitution Avenue, with Pennsylvania Avenue just a block away.
We never know. We just never know when something like this will turn into a spark and really catch. We just keep doing what we can, and lo and behold, one time something aligns in the stars or catches in peoples’ minds, and what was just another valiant little effort turns into something no one saw coming, something we never expected. “History is full of such things,” I suggested, thinking of my favorite Samuel Adams quote: “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.”
Of course, if people are going to respond to events like this one, they first have to hear about them. And they’ll have to hear about them from our own media, because they’re sure not going to hear it from the corporate press. For example, we sent out more than 100 news releases to the D.C. area news media and made nearly as many calls to announce the Archives occupation. WUSA Channel 9 and the Fox affiliate came out to cover a portion of the event, an NBC news photographer filmed a lengthy segment, and a Washington Post reporter talked with us at some length on the phone. But only Channel 9 aired or published a scrap of coverage.
However, on the bright side, David Swanson at AfterDowningStreet.org, and Cheryl Biren-Wright at OpEd News both did stories that got picked up by dozens of other internet sites, while KPFA, the Pacifica station in California, interviewed one of the campaigners perched on the scaffolding. Tony Teolis and other grassroots videographers and photographers posted many images of the VFP protest on the internet and they are getting around.
Bit by bit we are realizing that since human beings consciously decide to wage war, they can also decide not to wage war and say, “No. Enough. We draw the line here.”
Ferner is the author of “Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq.”
SEE ALSO: Veterans for Peace Occupy National Archives Building http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/veterans_for_peace_occupy_national_archives_building/
Veterans for Peace Lights the Way http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/veterans_for_peace_lights_the_way/
Veterans For Peace delivers 23,000 impeachment petitions to House Judiciary Chair Conyers http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/veterans_for_peace_delivers_23000_impeachment_petitions_to_house_judiciary_/