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Ramping Up the Call to Action: Mothers Tell Congress to End the War Now
On May 14, 2007, hundreds of women, and some men who supported them, gathered in Washington, DC, for the "Mother of a March," scheduled for the Monday after Mother's Day. Cindy Sheehan, and a group of mothers who have sons and daughters in Iraq, led a crowd of activists across downtown DC and to the Capitol Building, where they blocked a main intersection and brought traffic to a standstill for over an hour. There was a fascinating showdown between the police and the activists, civil disobedience, and arrests. Sheehan called on participants to move out of their comfort zone and to put their bodies on the line in calling for an end to the war.
The mainstream media paid very little attention, but on May 13 and 14 mothers took to the streets of Washington, demanding an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and calling for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. Tired of presidential excuses and congressional procrastination--after every public opinion poll and the November elections clearly demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of the American public want to end the war--hundreds of women, and scores of men who came to support them, created chaos in the nation's capital.
On the morning of Mother's Day, Sunday, May 13th, Code Pink and other peace workers infiltrated a military exhibition on the National Mall. A testosterone-driven display of weaponry, tanks and aircraft, chemical warfare suits, and exhibits about various military “intelligence” agencies, combined with overt recruiting efforts, created a particularly bizarre environment on Mother's Day. Families strolled through the exhibits as if they were visiting a carnival, laughing and smiling while their children were handed toy hand grenades or were encouraged to try on gas masks, pick up hand-held missile launchers, and have their faces painted in camouflage. Covering their bright pink outfits and keeping fabric banners hidden until they got inside, women activists quickly climbed up on tanks and aircraft on display, unfurling banners that read: “Mothers Say No to War!” and chanting peace slogans at astonished military personnel and visitors. Park Police and soldiers soon climbed after them, trying to remove the women in pink from the top of equipment and from the display area, without success. While one group diverted their attention, other cluster of women scrambled onto different tanks or moved across the display grounds, calling out to onlookers to rethink the glamorized exhibition of militarism and violence. Resisting containment and arrest, Code Pink members moved around the outdoor exhibit on the Mall and were finally escorted out by the police, chanting in military cadence as they left: “One, two, three, four. Mothers Say No to War. Five, six, seven, eight. Teach Our Children Not to Hate.” After their eviction, they continued outside the exhibit, displaying peace banners and distributing flyers to the public.
That afternoon, Code Pink also sponsored their annual Mother's Day peace rally in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Several hundred women, many with their children and families, came to the park to participate in the colorful and jubilant festival. Honoring the original intention of the holiday designated by Julia Howe, whose Mother's Day Proclamation called for women to denounce militarism and war, the celebration included music, art, and games, in addition to speakers who shared information about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. One young woman came dressed in a pink crown and full-length, evening grown covered with pink sequins. Across her torso, the words on her sash announced: “I Miss America.” The festival culminated with a short parade in front of the White House, a lively procession of children and mothers holding banners and posters. They posed in front of the White House for photos, and then participants ceremonially tied hundreds of pink ribbons, decorated with names of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers killed in the war and the text of the Mother's Day Proclamation by Julia Howe, onto the White House fence. The bright pink totems fluttered in the breeze, creating a visual and gendered contrast to the stark, wrought-iron fence around the White House. Shortly thereafter security guards removed all the ribbons, names of the deceased, and poems-and threw them in the trash.
The following day peace activists marched defiantly through the streets, without permission, stopping traffic and interrupting business as usual in downtown DC. Their actions signaled a symbolic reclamation of public space, a refusal to recognize authorities who continue to ignore the voices of the people, as well as a determination to redefine the power and the political dimensions of maternal love in a time of war. Starting from Lafayette Park and the White House, moving down 15th Street, across Pennsylvania Avenue, and onward to Independence Avenue and Capitol Plaza Southeast, they followed peace activist Cindy Sheehan as she led the “Mother of a March” on Monday, May 14, calling on mothers from across the country to put their bodies on the line. The goal was to get the message to Congress that U.S. military involvement in Iraq must end. The mothers' march also signaled the beginning of the Summer 2007 SWARM Campaign, designed to unleash a flurry of citizen lobbyists who will pressure Congress for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq (see http://www.grassrootsamerica4us.org).
Rather than drawing crowds of people together on a weekend--a strategy that is convenient for participants but not as effective in reaching Congress--Sheehan scheduled the action on the Monday following Mother's Day, when Congressional leaders would see the disruption of business around the Capitol. Organizers secured permits for the initial rally in Lafayette Park but not for the march through downtown. First, there was a noontime rally featuring an array of performers and speakers, among them Cindy Sheehan, military mother Tina Richards, U.S. Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Reverend Lennox Yearwood, attorney and civil rights leader Dr. E. Faye Williams, and peace activist Michael Berg, whose son Nick, a civilian telecommunications contractor, was captured and beheaded by Iraqi insurgents in 2004. Afterward, approximately 250 people marched through the streets of the nation's capital, stopping traffic and drawing attention as they went. Before the action began, Sheehan told the crowd, “It's not enough to be philosophically or intellectually against this [war]; you have to be physically against it, also. I know it's a hardship to be here on a Monday, but we have all made that commitment. . . . It's time for everybody in America to sacrifice something for peace. . . . I called for this March on a Monday, because all of us have been here marching on a Saturday. And what do we do? We march, and we read each other's signs, then we go home, and nothing ever happens. Well, today we're going to shut this city down! . . . We're here to say to Congress: give us our country back!”
At the front of the procession, Sheehan carried a banner reading “Not One More Mother's Child,” along with a line of other mothers who have had sons or daughters in military service in Iraq and who now oppose the war. Participants traveled across the country from as far away as California and Maine. There were generations of women--sisters, aunts, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers. Male peace activists and veterans against the war came to support them. Code Pink co-sponsored the event, their pink posters, t-shirts, feather boas, crowns, and gala costumes splashing vibrant color throughout the crowd. Even male supporters wore pink t-shirts and caps marked with the telltale “Pink Police” insignias. As they paraded through the capital, they chanted, “Hey Congress, what do you say? How many kids gonna die today?” The focus of the event remained on mothers, who called on Congress to end the killing of their children and the children of other mothers, American and Iraqi alike.
As they approached the Justice Department on Pennsylvania Avenue, Sheehan momentarily paused the procession. With megaphone in hand, she announced that they were passing the “Injustice Department” that continues to support Bush and Cheney's illegal war efforts. Noting the crimes of the Bush administration, including the dissolution of habeas corpus, spying on U.S. citizens, the torture of political prisoners, and the firing of U.S. Attorneys because of their political affiliations, Sheehan railed at the hypocrisy of the current administration. Several burly, plain clothes and uniformed security guards quickly appeared at the entrance to the building, arms folded across their chests, looking nervous and annoyed, as the crowd chanted at the powers that be and then moved on.
Parading in front of the Capitol Building and up the hill, the march came to a sudden halt in the middle of the intersection of Independence Avenue and the Capitol Plaza Southeast, in front of the Longworth and Cannon House Office Buildings. There, activists quickly stationed a wheeled cart that supported a flagpole, from which the American flag flew at half-mast (to honor those who have died in the war) and upside down (to signify a nation in distress). Bringing traffic to a complete halt along the Capitol Building, women activists led the group as they formed a moving chain to encircle the intersection, winding the line inward into smaller and smaller circles until they reached the flagpole. In response to the honking of motorists and the growing number of police who rapidly appeared, the marchers shouted, “Stop the funding. Stop the war. Mother's say: not one more!”
When police announced that the marchers were in violation of the law and would be arrested if they did not disband, Sheehan took the bullhorn and faced them, shouting in response to their warning, “George Bush is in violation of the law. Arrest George Bush! Arrest Dick Cheney!” Police grew nervous and tensions rose quickly. Activists refused to comply with the order to vacate the intersection; many called out that the real offenders were the politicians who continue to support the killing. As demonstrators were arrested, their supporters outside the now constricting circle of uniformed officers yelled “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in unison at the police. The peace activists, ranging in age from their early twenties to their seventies or eighties, most of them women, were forcibly removed from the huddle they had formed around the flagpole, their hands cuffed behind them as they were led, carried by force, or dragged to the arrest wagons that appeared on site. Sheehan was one of the first to go. Her sister Dede Miller and Code Pink organizer Diane Wilson were among the last, holding on to one another and the flagpole in the middle of the intersection until the end, unwilling to go down without a struggle. Thirty-three were arrested as hundreds of others stood by to support them, calling out to police officers to arrest the real criminals, instead--the ones in the White House. Mothers who brought their children to the event stood with them, hoping to convey a valuable lesson about the power of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance in movements for social justice. The detainees spent over eight hours in jail, still in handcuffs and without food and water, before they paid a $100 fine or agreed to return to court for sentencing in June, and were then released.
The Mother of a March wasn't as large as organizers hoped it would be. It's difficult to get people to come to Washington on a weekday and to risk arrest. However, it represented an important step forward in Sheehan's thinking and in the evolving strategy of other peace activists and organizers. In recent speeches and online essays, Sheehan has called on people who oppose the war to move out of their safety zones and complacency, to sacrifice comfort and ease in order to bring about change, force public officials to take action, end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and hold Bush and his administration accountable for their lies and crimes against humanity. During two hours of the march, the U.S. death toll in Iraq rose by two, from 3,396 to 3,398, and countless numbers of Iraqis died. The Mother's Day actions in Washington signaled a clarion call to the masses to take up civil disobedience in order to pressure politicians to stop the war.
The author, Linda Pershing, is a peace activist and women's studies professor at California State University San Marcos. She can be contacted at Lpershing [at] csusm.edu