|Mid-Missouri Fellowship of
The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) is a group composed of people from many faiths, and no particular faith --
all coming together to support nonviolence and justice.
Offering people of conscience an action response to a morally-impaired U.S. foreign policy.
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Washington DC Freedom Plaza-- Missouri presence Oct. 6-9
From Jeff Stack, Mid-MO FOR Coordinator
A call this summer by many prominent national peace and social justice activist leaders to travel to Washington in October to help “Stop the Machine! Create a New World!,” resonated with many of us in Missouri. One of the five of us who traveled there from Missouri, Jean Blackwood of Columbia, encapsulated well the collective experience we had:
“What was happening in Washington DC was far more than protest, far more than an effort to topple the current system. It was a living, breathing example of a new system being born, a system based on trust, smiles, sharing, patience, hugs, energy, creativity, and a willingness to make decisions by consensus, however slow and awkward that might be. There was a feeling in the air that we were here not only to change it, but to truly be the change we wanted to see.” She adds, “And after my days there, I am more hopeful about this possibility than ever before in my life.”
We had attended many rallies, vigils and other demonstrations over the past few decades. The US empire in the mean time has greatly expanded, becoming even more brazen in unilateral actions; corporations and banks, along with the ultra-rich residents of the world have dramatically increased their wealth, while impoverished global residents have only become poorer. Life-- human particularly-- on the planet is becoming ever more precarious with a corporate-greed driven resource grab guiding governmental policy. Someone (I don’t remember who) pointed out to me years ago, that soldiers willingly risk life, limb and mental stability to wage war. People truly concerned about peace with justice, he noted, similarly need to take greater risk, in a nonviolent spirit, to foment change….
That thought prodded me to journey east. Jean, Miguel Rodriquez and I traveled from Columbia, Cynthia “Echo” Tarpeian from Hermann and Herb Petty drove from near Stanberry in northwest Missouri. (He graciously allowed us to travel in his station wagon, after making a few repairs to make it roadworthy). We collectively sought to join, at least for a few days, the beginning of an occupation in Freedom Plaza, inspired by the resistance of sisters and brothers in Egypt, Tunisia and Madison WI.
The encampment had the feel of a hopeful village with a few thousand residents coming from throughout the country. There were scores of conversations among folks: activists, homeless citizens, passersby and law-enforcement officers. The plaza served as a staging area for several marches and creative actions (see below for further reflections on a few of them).
Jean recalls, “There was a large stage with an excellent sound system up front (this only for the four days of the gathering that had the permit initially), where those gathered could be inspired by speakers like (journalist) Chris Hedges and Ralph Nader and (former CIA analyst) Ray McGovern, along with dozens of rappers, bands, spoken word artists, the anti-war troubadour David Rovics, the Raging Grannies and much more. In the evening a Pagan tribe was there to lead us in drumming, songs and the remarkable circle dance, which was both fun and uplifting.
“Assemblies were held morning and evening to deal with issues and we all began to learn how to make decisions by consensus. There were real disagreements exposed, and sometimes some short tempers, but ultimately there was respect and a level of agreement that left everyone free to follow their own consciences.”
It was heartening, after waking briefly at night, to look out across the immediate landscape and see a few hundred folks slumbering in sleeping bags, camping out on the plaza, a few blocks from the White House. The Capitol building stood aglow on the opposite horizon, a mile down Pennsylvania Ave. For more information on the continuing presence there log on to http://october2011.org <http://october2011.org> .
* Missourians were able to travel to Washington DC, thanks to the generous financial donations of Mark Adams, Priscilla Bevins, Ric Doubet, Jeff Doyle, Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, May Belle Osborne, Ruth Schaefer, Jessie and Mallory Van Gerven, plus a generous donation of healthy food from the Clover’s Natural Foods (please patronize their business and the Peace Nook, thanking them for their support of this peace/social justice journey).
There is cause for optimism about social change and as strong a populous imperative in years, to move our society forward in crafting the world we want to see-- thanks to the hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens who have now gathered in some 1500 locations in 89 countries, spurred on by the Occupy Wall Street action. Planning for the Freedom Plaza occupation preceded the OWS. It began a week after the New York City action, initiated by AdBusters. The OWS-inspired Wash. DC occupation in McPherson Square, a half-mile away and the Stop the Machine presence soon became mutually supported, kindred actions. Jean notes, “There was communication with the nearby Occupy DC group, which consisted of mostly younger folks. Many people traveled back and forth between the two encampments regularly.”
She describes the layout on the Plaza “so you can get a feel for how cooperation made it all function beautifully. There was a medical tent staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses and set up with basics supplies including, to my relief, sunscreen. There was a legal tent staffed with people who could advise you about what to expect and how to handle yourself if you were willing to risk arrest. There was an information booth where you could learn what events were being planned for the day - though things often got off-schedule and in each other’s way, as might be expected. There were various groups set up around the Plaza to share information or displays, like the realistic drones on one corner. There were signs, signs and more signs, which accompanied huge banners on the assorted marches that would wind there way through the city day after day.
“Last but not least was the Food Not Bombs shelter where that gang of tireless people came up with miraculous amounts of food and water for the protesters, day after day. And it was good! We were also helped by donations of pizza from people around the country and a local pizza shop that offered a special deal for the Plaza community. We were given delicious bagels with primo cream cheese spreads, plus boxes of coffee by a local shop called Bus Boys and Poets.
“I flew into Washington DC on Oct. 5,” notes Jean, “alone, feeling stressed by the big city and the need to find my way across it on an unfamiliar Metro. With some kind guidance from the guys downstairs who explained the working of the Metro ticket machines, I successfully got myself to the neighborhood of St. Stephens Episcopal Church where other protesters helped me to find the church itself.” This was far from an isolated example, she notes. ”I guess you can see a pattern emerging here. The kindness of strangers stayed with me throughout my amazing four days on Freedom Plaza and I took every opportunity to return it.”
She continues, “My own effort there, aside from learning and growing, was mainly marching. I marched with a large group to the US Chamber of Commerce building where dozens of clever protesters applied for jobs in response to the large "JOBS" banner they displayed out front. There were speeches and chants and we got the attention of those inside and outside the building and, in fact, shut the place down for a while.”
“When drones fly, children die: Stop the Wars NOW!” a few hundred of us chanted steadily as we marched on Oct. 7, past the White House and later assembled at the office of General Atomics, a corporation which has developed this weapon. Jean and a half dozen others carried symbolic dead baby dolls to remind all of the human cost of US aggression.
Participants carried three large banners, including one declaring "DRONES: making enemies faster than we can kill them." A New York activist noted large replicas that were wheeled about during the protests were 1/5th the size of a Reaper drone with a 66-foot wingspan (produced by Nick Mottern with Consumer for Peace, a group from upstate New York). These anonymous, impersonal machines, one speaker noted, make it “easier to enter war.”
Debra Sweet, emcee of the protest and director of World Can't Wait wrote for OpEdNews that, as marchers reached the White House, “we paused, partly by plan, and partly because again, we had to. Here lives the Commander in Chief who sent more troops than the Bush regime ever did to Afghanistan, and who has used drones eight times as much as Bush did, spreading the drone war to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and even recently, Iraq. I had to tell those gathered that the slang term used by pilots of the unmanned drones -- who sit at video monitors half way across the globe -- for their targets, is ‘squirters.’"
Sweet wrote, “Spontaneously, dozens of people went up to the door of the building, and went in. Some held the doors open, and fairly soon, they were ejected, roughly by security guards. DC police blocked the doors, but too late, we had taken the steps. We held a one hour rally on the steps” essentially shutting down the business.
Jean adds, “Passionate speeches were offered on the company doorsteps by Ray McGovern and Sweet… We offered chants to reach those inside and for blocks around. Everyone joined in abhorrence of the killing of the innocent by drones and the extra-judicial murder of suspected terrorists around the world, including (recently, U.S.) citizens. Obama was condemned as a war criminal (in part) because of his expansion of the use of drones during his administration. I should mention, I guess, that Mr. Obama did not receive many kind words from anyone involved in this occupation. It was definitely not a Democratic Party gathering.”
Another “march was with a group also opposing the drones by rallying outside the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum,” she continues. “This was an action you might have heard about on the news because a right-wing reporter had infiltrated the group and when some of our group at the front of the march entered the museum and dropped a banner and carried signs inside, this provocateur deliberately pushed a private security guard to start trouble. The guards pulled out their pepper spray, and as I was told later, began just spraying it around randomly at everyone present. A number of our people were hit by the spray, one girl was detained… Many of us were only arriving at the museum after most of this was over with, as it was a very long march.
“All of your Missouri delegation had joined in doing street theatre (with the Redwing group) so some of us were dressed as ugly, pitiful creatures following along the street behind an over-sized fat cat billionaire, bowing and scraping and promising we'd do anything to keep our jobs, or begging him for some trickle down (crumbs as compensation). When the crowd had calmed down after the pepper spray incident we presented an abbreviated version of our puppet play and were well received.”
Several of us joined in one final march, to the White House, initiated by Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) and supported by Veterans For Peace, among other veteran groups. The groups called for a beer summit with the president, following in the spirit of the gathering convened a few years ago by the President between Harvard professor and author Henry Gates who was arrested by police officer James Crowley during an incident at the professor’s home. MFSO hoped that Obama would meet with veteran families to discuss PTSD, repeated deployments of soldiers into war zones and other neglected issues, which they felt needed to be addressed.
“This gathering,” Jean added, however “was also thrown off kilter by a rogue actor, a disturbed Vet, possibly with PTSD, who had said earlier he wanted to make a symbolic protest by throwing his shoe over the White House fence, then accepting arrest. Once there, unfortunately, he threw his shoe right at a White House guard instead. His arrest ensued” for about 45 minutes. The police, it seemed “were probably hoping we would all go away. Instead we listened to impromptu speeches by representatives of the various groups.” A new group of young vets called March Forward is working at building GI resistance, getting more disillusioned young men and women to refuse to fight these endless, pointless wars. They feel they are the ones most seriously able to end the wars. I might add that the whole Plaza was very blessed with veterans for peace from all the national organizations.
Each evening speakers and musicians shared their poignant visions and talents. Among those speaking were women members of Afghan Youth for Peace and peace activists from Bahrain. One Bahraini physician showed me pictures on his cell phone of what indeed did appear to be as he said, a few hundred thousand people protesting the government and its brutal crackdown on dissent during his nation’s continuing Arab Summer.
Two men, former soldiers in Iraq, addressed those gathered, provided for me some of the most inspiring perspectives of our time in Washington. Mike Prysner is a co-founder of March Forward!, a group of military personnel and veterans affiliated with the ANSWER coalition. At the age of 19, he spent a year in Iraq, starting with the invasion in March 2003. His insights and those of other returning veterans (as peace-group leaders have realized for years) do add credibility and a critical voice, essential to help compel the general public an end to these wars.
Like many of us, he felt deeply encouraged that this occupation and others marked “the beginning of a new movement in the United States.” His experiences in the war on Iraq showed him the military served solely as “thugs for big business.” And at what human cost? Six thousand soldiers have been killed, tens of thousands have been wounded; seeing a fellow soldier or civilian killed will traumatize hundreds of thousands, if not a million troops, a quarter of all in combat will have PTSD. And the government’s response? Health care, particularly mental health support is woefully inadequate, “criminal, abysmal.” Far more US soldiers, returning from the war zones, he noted, are killing themselves than the number dying in combat.
The suffering of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, he soberly noted, “is infinitely worse.” 1.3 million people in those countries killed: “none deserved to die.” Millions have been displaced. “This is much more than a mistake. It is one of the great atrocities of the modern era.”
And why has the US been waging these wars, now in Afghanistan for over a decade and for more than 20 years Iraq (counting two wars and deadly sanctions)? Prysner recites the US official litany: “to bring democracy, human rights.. to free people from oppressive governments… Soldiers however,” he lamented, “know how they are treated” by the US government— they’re “kicked to the curb.” In addition to and in large part due to the psychological trauma they endure, returning veterans have a 30-percent unemployment rate, while at least 11,000 are homeless, he adds. With such neglect of US warrior, “why in the hell” should the public believe Washington cares “about poor people in Iraq or Afghanistan?”
Plain and simply, Prysner says, “these are imperialist wars.. rich men’s wars” waged for the “bankers and corporations.” US officials “expect us to think that it is just a coincidence that these enemies that we have to defeat just so happen to be in some of the most oil-rich countries on the planet, that have refused to open up their borders to be exploited by Wall Street and plundered by the oil companies?… We know the primary motive” for intervention in these nations “is regional domination, resources not for us but for that 1-percent” of the wealthiest in our world.
“And how do we fight these wars?,” he queried. With vast sums of money robbed from “our pockets,” accumulated through “cutting funding for education… social services…And they need soldiers too.” So Uncle Sam enlists “kids who can’t afford an education (coming) from poor families, (who have been) shut off from social services.” US officials contend, “’We are all in this together,’ (yet) I don’t own any stocks in oil companies.” Soldiers and the general public “have far more in common with the people who are struggling to live in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan than the rich people and the politicians making the decisions (to wage war) in this country.”
“There are two societies in the US,” he stressed, continuing a recurring theme of the occupation, “one that lives in luxury, that doesn’t work, that simply owns everything, who collects dividends, who collects bonus checks and the other US society who has to work for a living, that collects a paycheck, that worries about going bankrupt if our children have to go to a doctor..which goes into debt for lifetime if they get a college education.” On a daily basis, the wealthy society is “waging attacks against we, the other society, the 99-percent. The only way things will change is not by asking for change, (nor) voting for change,” but by “fighting for change.”
“The people of Iraq and Afghanistan are part of that same 99-percent as us,” he added. Very nearly all of us in these countries and elsewhere around the globe are suffering the repercussions of a belligerent US corporate-interest-driven foreign policy. “The only occupation that is in our own interests are not the occupations abroad (but) are the ones taking place around our country.”
Given these realities, “soldiers have the absolute right to refuse to fight” in these wars, asserts Prysner, who proceeded to introduce Danny Birmingham, an Army field artillery specialist and Michigan resident who spent one tour in Iraq. Danny enlisted primarily for the job coming from a family of lower income, but “I thought I’d be helping people there” as well. It was the “first time I saw actual poverty.” For most all Iraqis he saw, there was “no running water, inadequate housing.” Troops did “nothing to help. All we did was build a giant courthouse in Basra,” a city in southern Iraq. Among the troops he encountered in Iraq, “nobody likes what they’re doing.”
Soon after returning to the US, he reported filling out paperwork this past February to establish his conscientious objector (CO) status. He said he’s now unwilling to be a combatant and will refuse to return to Iraq next month with his Ft. Lewis (Washington-state based) army unit.
Both he and Prysner said gatherings like this one give encouragement to resisting soldiers. Birmingham adds, he’s striving to “spread the word” among other troops that they can take a similar stand. “The money’s not worth it,” he insists. “One way this war will end is by service members refusing to fight.”
To sign a petition urging military leaders to honor Danny’s CO request and not re-deploy him log onto http://www.answercoalition.org/march-forward/statements/active-duty-soldier-why-im.html
Jean concludes, “It was hard to leave when I did, knowing that others would remain to face harder days ahead, when arrests would become more frequent and when life on the Plaza might become a lot less pleasant without a microphone, when the rain - or the snow- began to fall, when the police might become a lot less friendly and tolerant, when the numbers of supporters might dwindle (or not?). Mostly it was hard to leave behind the wonderful sense of community that existed there. I hoped then, as I do now, that I can bring back to Columbia some of that sense of community and purpose experienced on Freedom Plaza. The obstacles ahead may be great, but I now know for sure that another way is possible.”
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