Another US$67 billion has been approved for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan last week. Peace protestors are horrified by the level of apathy in government. As one said: "I never thought I'd see my country invade another nation like Hitler did when I was young. What we're doing now in Iraq is a crime, and we are all part of it - even more so than the Germans. They said they didn't know what Hitler had planned, and we know. We have no excuses." Mike Ferner and Scott Blackburn report.

Washington D.C. - By a vote of 348-71, the U.S. House of Representatives voted March 16 to spend US$67,000,000,000 more for open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that a growing majority of the people they represent believe the war is wrong.

In an eleventh hour effort on March 15 to appeal to the conscience of the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, six peace activists took their case to his office on Capitol Hill where they read the names of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the war, and negotiated with Hastert's staff for a meeting with the Illinois congressman.

The six were part of a 34-day campaign named "The Winter of Our Discontent" organized by Voices for Creative Nonviolence (Voices). The campaign includes 34 days of fasting, civil disobedience, Capitol Hill vigils and lobbying, to demand the U.S. end the occupation and its economic and military warfare against the Iraqi people.

Welcome, Please Come In

A plaque at the entrance to Hastert's office in the Cannon House Office Building reads, "Welcome, Please Come In." Led by Voices member, Ed Kinane, the group entered the Speaker's office and introduced themselves. They told his staff that four of them had been in Iraq to witness the effects of economic sanctions, Shock and Awe, the invasion, and the occupation. In some detail, they explained why they hoped the Speaker would vote against the legislation he would bring to the House floor the next day. At one point, Mike Ferner stated, "I know there is not much chance that he will, but I hope the Speaker will change the course of history and vote against another US$67 billion for this war."

After several minutes, Hastert's receptionist told the Voices group their comments were appreciated, but with other people waiting and without an appointment they would have to leave. Within minutes, one, then three, Capitol Police arrived. Another member of the group, Jeff Leys, explained they had learnt just days before that the spending bill would be considered by the Appropriations Committee and voted onto the House floor. "That's why there is no time to ask for an appointment," he said.

Jeff Leys, Ed Kinane, Mike Hersh, Cynthia Banas and Mike Ferner (photo: Scott Blackburn)

Police and Hastert's staff would hear none of it, however, and ordered the group to leave. Leys and Cynthia Banas refused. Said Banas, afterwards, "I just couldn't leave. To leave that office would have been a betrayal of everything I learnt from the people in Iraq. They are my brothers and sisters."

The Door Slams

With Leys and Banas remaining in Hastert's office, the other four campaigners exited, the door slamming behind them.

In the hall, Kinane solemnly began reading names: three Iraqis and then three U.S. soldiers. With each, Lorie Blanding rang a small bell and pronounced, "dead." She soon changed that to "killed," later explaining that she felt it was more appropriate.

Dozens of politicians and visitors passed by the scene in the hallway. A growing knot of besuited, frowning lobbyists formed. Kinane later said he had hoped "some of the people walking by us would give some thought to what we were doing," but as Voices' videographer Scott Blackburn's footage showed, few did.

Back inside Hastert's office, Leys reported, a Capitol Police officer and a more senior member of the Speaker's staff left to confer behind a closed door. Ten minutes later the officer emerged to tell the two activists the word from the Speaker's office was that arrests should not be made.

Behind the door, Leys and Banas knelt down to emphasize their insistence. Looking at Leys' size, the three officers then on the scene seemed in no hurry to carry him out. "I told them I would voluntarily get up and go with them if I was under arrest, but not if I wasn't."

Mike Ferner, Ed Kinane, and Lorie Blanding read the names of the war dead (photo: Scott Blackburn)

For over an hour, the Voices members in the hallway continued reading names and ringing the bell. Mike Hersh, with, and Karen Bradley, with Democracy Cell, were the only two reporters on the scene despite the fact that the Voices team had emailed and faxed dozens of news releases early that morning and hand-delivered statements to every news agency on 12 floors of the National Press Building.

Eventually, no one in the office of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative would agree to swear out a complaint against Leys and Banas, and the two campaigners decided to leave of their own accord.

The Voices team decided to call it a day and retired to a nearby coffee shop to summarize their experiences over the preceding hours.

Remarking on the lack of any significant response from passersby outside Hastert's office, Blanding said that "The setting you're in reminds you of how you fit into society, and the Capitol silences people. It's hard to know, but I think some of the people walking by us in the hall were stirred by what we were doing and just were censoring themselves."

Banas stated that, "We ended up negotiating in there. That's the way it's gonna end in Iraq, too. After all these young kids die, that's what we're gonna do - negotiate."

The 76-year-old activist concluded by focusing on the gravity of the group's mission. "I never thought I'd see my country invade another nation like Hitler did when I was young. What we're doing now in Iraq is a crime, and we are all part of it - even more so than the Germans. They said they didn't know what Hitler had planned, and we know. We have no excuses."

Blackburn telephoned Hastert's office late that afternoon, asking for a comment in response to the action. The staff person who answered said the request would have to be referred to the their press office.

"Larry" who responded in the press office said he would only identify himself by first name. Blackburn asked, "This is the Speaker's press office and you can't tell me your last name?"

Larry replied "I can't tell you that. We aren't allowed to make any statements on the record. I'll have to give you to Ron Bonjen."

The call left on Ron Bonjen's voice mail was not returned.

Note: Mike Ferner and Scott Blackburn are part of the Winter of Our Discontent campaign sponsored by Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Mike Ferner traveled to Iraq with "Voices" just prior to the U.S. invasion and again a year later. His book, Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq (Praeger) is due out in August.

Click here for other articles by Mike Ferner:
Seven Arrested At White House Protest Against Iraq War
There Are Lives In The Balance
Getting Jailed For Peace

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