If the bags under U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s eyes have looked heavier than usual recently, it might have something to do with the wake-up brigade camped outside his $5 million mansion.
“Wakey wakey, war criminal! Good morning war criminal! How is your genocide coffee? How many kids did you kill while you were sleeping?” shouted Hazami Barmada at seven a.m. outside Blinken’s residence in McLean, Virginia, on Friday, February 2, along with several others who had spent the cold night in tents by the side of the road.
As she has done nearly every morning since she and other activists began their campout on January 26, Barmada live-streamed what she called the “blinky blinky morning routine,” on her Instagram page.
“We have heard repeatedly from the secret service and from [Blinken’s] personnel that this has started to add a lot of personal pressure to his life, which is actually our intent. Our intent is to make sure that you know Palestinians can’t escape the rain of American bombs that drop on their heads. You shouldn’t be able to walk away and just have a peaceful evening,” Barmada said to half a dozen journalists gathered at a press conference on the side of the road in front of Blinken’s house.
Blinken has met with Israel’s war cabinet on multiple occasions during the ongoing genocidal campaign, while his department and the Biden administration have offered full support to Israel and facilitated shipments of weapons and ammunition to Israel on a daily basis, according to officials. Blinken himself also reportedly asked Al Jazeera to “tone down” its coverage of the war, shortly before Al Jazeera correspondent Wael el Dahdouh’s family was apparently targeted for killing by Israeli forces, following an apparent pattern of Israel targeting journalists, with over 100 killed so far.
The protesters outside his house, numbering several dozen at times, have smattered red paint on the roadway as Blinken leaves or returns home, shouting slogans calling for a ceasefire, or chants more directly accusing Blinken of criminal wrongdoing like “Bloody Blinken” and “Secretary of Genocide.” They make as much noise as possible just before the local county’s regulation against public after-hours noise making kicks in. They also have signs and call on passing drivers to honk in support of Palestine, many of whom oblige despite digital traffic signs put up by police instructing drivers not to do so.
More Direct, Frequent Protest
Barmada and those who join the protest actions she has led are among a group of people living in or near the U.S. capital who have decided that occasional protest marches, no matter how big, are not enough to build pressure to stop the U.S. government’s intimate involvement in Israel’s current genocidal campaign.
Protest marches “mostly happen on the weekends, they mostly happen after hours, they’re mostly just us walking around chanting with no actual engagement. So the protests that I started to do were more direct action, anchored in education. We flyer-ed like mad. We go to farmers markets and Christmas markets, meeting people where they are at,” Barmada said.
They have decided to use more direct forms of protest on a near-daily basis, directly confronting people in power in D.C. Several activists have described these tactics as similar to the ones used to stop the U.S. war in Vietnam and hope they will be as effective as some of those actions were. To date, Barmada and her group have held over 100 actions like staging die-ins at the staff entrances to the White House, the State Department, and the Israeli embassy. Many who join her have, like Barmada, quit their jobs once the genocide started. Others have taken extended time off from their jobs.
In a protest action that received national media attention, Barmada was the lead organizer for a group that interrupted President Joe Biden’s campaign speech over ten times in Manassas, Virginia, at George Mason University on January 23, staggering their interventions so that when one protester was kicked out, another could interrupt again. They also scripted their remarks in advance “to ground the conversation back on Gaza and on the event,” according to Barmada. Barmada was the last to interrupt Biden, and when she did, Biden spoke over her calling her the “woman hollering” and lumped her together with “Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans” — clearly a gross mischaracterization of Barmada’s political alignment, she confirmed.
“What I wanted to make sure of was that this disruption was scripted in a way that made sense to the event, specifically gender. Reproductive health is something that they’re running this whole campaign on. Biden had chances to actually use his political power to advance reproductive health and chose not to,” Barmada told Mondoweiss. “So the idea that using women as entry into the 2024 first [campaign] appearance with Kamala Harris and rally up women, when in Gaza we know that reproductive health is under attack, it was just the perfect timing to talk about it because also more media started talking about reproductive health…after our event.”
“Hazami [Barmada] does things a little bit differently, I think. She pushes the boundaries a little bit more,” Nano, a 26-year-old camping out at Blinken’s house told Mondoweiss. “Just marching isn’t going to change things. It’s raising awareness and making noise, but it’s time we put a little bit of pressure, and I don’t want my tax dollars going to a genocide. I don’t want my people to die.”
“At this point…we’re three or four months into this, you should be aware of what’s going on,” Nano added. “It’s not about them anymore, I think it’s about us being in the belly of the beast, forcing the U.S. to stop.”
Direct Action on the Rise
Barmada’s group isn’t the only one turning to more direct actions to try and stop the ongoing genocide. Palestine Action US, taking a page from the original group with the same name in the UK, launched in October after the recent genocidal campaign against Palestinians began. On November 20, the Merrimack Police Department of New Hampshire arrested three activists with Palestine Action US, Sophie Ross, Calla Walsh, and Bridget Shergalis, for trying to shut down a facility of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military manufacturer. They are facing severe prosecution with charges of up to 37 years in prison, something Palestine Action US and dozens of supporting organizations have called a “draconian demonstration of repression,” classifying the three as potential “political prisoners.” The action of the so-called Merrimack Three was only one of several actions taken by Palestine Action US against Elbit across the country in October and November, though there appear to have been less actions since the arrest of the three.
On the morning of Thursday, February 1, activists from the local DMV (D.C, Maryland, Virginia) chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), led a protest locking arms to block vehicle traffic on five major road intersections around the city near key government buildings. While PYM branches in other major cities in the U.S., like New York, have used similar tactics, Thursday’s protest was the first time it was done in D.C.
“Yesterday was an escalation as part of the ‘Shut it Down for Palestine’ campaign that’s been happening since November. Yesterday specifically the objectives were to prevent the people who work in the State Department, the White House, the Congress, people who are profiting and facilitating and actively participating in the genocide — to prevent them from going to work. Like it’s one day less for them to contribute to the genocide,” Mohamed Ziad, an organizer with the PYM DMV chapter told Mondoweiss on Friday.
Ziad spoke to Mondoweiss outside of the D.C. Superior Court, where he and other activists were waiting for 11 of their fellow protesters to be arraigned. 24 in total had been arrested the day before, but only 11 faced potential charges depending on the outcome of the arraignment. They were eventually charged with “crowding, obstructing or incommoding” under section 22-1307 of D.C. code, which carries potential penalties of a fine and up to 90 days imprisonment if found guilty.
Ziad and about a dozen others waited for the 11 facing arraignment in the cold while sitting on folding chairs and playing Palestinian liberation music on speakers. Many had brought food, Palestinian dishes they kept warm for the arraigned to eat after they got out.
“What we did, we were very specific about blocking traffic of government workers, people who are actively complicit in the ongoing genocide, people whose jobs are to facilitate what’s going on right now,” said Bennet Shoop, who was detained until nearly midnight on Thursday along with four others who were blocking the same intersection with him. “I think that the tactic is important, and it’s something that is not without precedent. In 1971, on May Day, in protest of the Vietnam war, in the biggest mass arrest in U.S. history, people blocked traffic for government workers saying if the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.”
Shoop said that the vast disconnect between officials supporting the war and polling that shows large numbers of Americans support a ceasefire demands vigorous protest tactics.
“We should have a say that if you won’t listen to us, you won’t go to your job, because your actions are not representative of the American people…80 percent of Democratic voters support a ceasefire. There’s no reason for them to continue this other than their imperial interests,” Shoop added.
Repression Escalates With New Protest Tactics
In the case of the PYM DMV chapter’s escalation, protesters report that their tactics were met with police intimidation. Shoop, who was detained during the action, said that after Capitol police cleared away all protesters who weren’t locked together in the road, a police officer from Capitol police whose badge number he wasn’t able to identify, threatened them with serious criminal charges.
He “started saying you need to stop this because none of your people can see you, there’s no eyes on you right now, so what happens is really in our hands. And then they started threatening to escalate charges, saying if we didn’t unlock…the charges you are going to get are the same as if you got into a fistfight with one of my officers,” Shoop reported.
While police detained Shoop and four others at the intersection he was at and later released them the same night, police kept others for arraignment the next day, many of them Palestinians.
“At our intersection, we had all non-Palestinian [protesters]. A lot of the people still being held are people from the Palestinian Youth Movement, so I think that there is a distinct racialized element to it and I think that there is a distinct element to specifically target people who are leaders in this movement,” Shoop told Mondoweiss.
The possibility that discrimination may be at play in official responses to the protest mobilizations against the genocide campaign was highlighted by a recent video that went viral of two women wearing hijabs being denied entry to a campaign event featuring Vice President Kamala Harris in Las Vegas on January 27. But while that video of apparent profiling garnered international media attention, an earlier instance of almost the same scenario has thus far received almost no media coverage: Biden’s January 23 campaign speech in Virginia where Barmada led the interruption protest highlighting the genocidal destruction of women’s reproductive rights in Gaza.
According to Barmada, all the women with hijabs who were with their protest group were denied entry that day, despite having invitations. Her account was confirmed by Mimi Nabulsi, a recent George Mason graduate and former founder of the Students For Justice Palestine George Mason chapter who, separate from Barmada’s protest inside, protested the event outside with dozens of other protesters. Both Barmada and Nabulsi claim that staff made the protesters going inside show their shirts under their winter clothes and denied entry to those wearing protest slogans and pro-Palestine images.
Both also allege that this was due to an infiltration of the protest organizers’ chat groups by someone who may have been hired by the Biden administration. Barmada identified Doug Landry as the person who screened the protesters going into the Biden event, and she claimed that there was a plant from the campaign who was in line with them as they entered the event. Landry is the founder of 50 thirteen, which advertises itself as “a comprehensive visual communications and live event production firm,” that also offers “high-level security services.” Numerous reports have identified Landry as the person tapped to lead Biden’s strategy to “deal with” protesters at campaign events.
“There was an infiltration, so 17 people got denied entry. They knew who they were,” Barmada said, explaining that, through the group chat, someone found the meeting point of the protesters before they went in to Biden’s speech and took photos of them so they could be identified by security and denied entry.
As for their campout at Blinken’s house, the protesters are constantly engaging in micro-negotiations with the police to try and avoid getting kicked out, giving ground on some requests like trying to enforce strict discipline among their group to stay behind the white lines of the roadway. On others, they’ve done their research about their rights and which areas they can stand in, going so far in their research that they discovered Blinken’s front gate is actually a few feet over his property line. Often their interactions with police are friendly, but Mondoweiss witnessed one occasion where a security officer with Blinken’s team made his case to the police to crack down on them. Lawyers for the local county have done their research, too, digging up a law regarding the “tranquility” of the neighborhood.
But so far, authorities haven’t moved to disperse the group. Barmada chalks that up partly to police telling them that they are the nicest group of protesters they have dealt with, but also that it might look like a public relations disaster to clear out peaceful protesters. Mondoweiss sought comment from the State Department on the protesters but did not receive a response. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller did address a question on the issue from the New York Times, noting that Blinken “understands that people care deeply about this issue — so does he.”
Life in “Camp Blinken”
Despite pushback and attempts to shut down the camp, morale remains high. The enthusiasm of the protesters also appears unfazed by the cold, rain which flooded the tents once, or the frighteningly close passing of speeding cars at night, which sends their tents shaking. On the first night, protesters kept someone on night watch in case there were any security threats. They say that neighbors have been “really nice,” with one even joining the protests on several occasions and another donating dinner once. The close quarters in the tents and the lack of public restrooms nearby means that the protesters have also had to become very comfortable with people who were strangers only weeks before.
Nano brings her laptop to camp to keep working remotely. Normally Nano lives with her parents in Baltimore, who have asked her not to stay out late for protests.
“I think they gave up on me now because,” she says, interrupting herself in a fit of warm, infectious laughter. “I’m sleeping in the street in front of Blinken’s house!”
“My third night sleeping here, I woke up to ‘Wakey wakey Blinken!’” she added.
Asked why she joined, Nano said: “We’re in the belly of the beast, and it’s a shame if we don’t do anything about it. We’re put here for a reason. What’s the point if we’re just gonna sit at home and watch the genocide?”
For Nadine Seiler, one of the smaller core group who has slept almost every night at the camp, the protest is a way to make up for lost time on Palestine, which, despite being a social justice activist on issues like Black Lives Matter and abortion rights, she said she hadn’t spoken up on.
“I didn’t know any Palestinians, I didn’t know any Arab people…but once October 7 happened, people started talking about it, I stayed quiet for about two weeks because I have Jewish friends…but once I allowed myself to pick up a history book, as people were telling us [to do], I was like what the hell? How did this get past me?” Seiler told Mondoweiss. “I am out here giving them my support as much as I can because I need to make up. I feel horrible, horrible, horrible that I thought I was into social justice causes and that never came up for me.”
“To hear the atrocities that Israel is allowed to get away with because America wants a strategic partner in the area, [that’s] born out of white supremacy,” Seiler added.
There’s been an outpouring of support for the Blinken campout from the local community, with nearly daily, sometimes multiple times a day, donations of food from local Palestinian and Arab restaurants like Amori Pastries and Bawadi as well as individuals (protesters noted that the owners of Bawadi have lost a family member in the current genocide campaign). While Mondoweiss was interviewing Barmada at the camp, an admirer riding a motorcycle pulled up to give her roses.
Asked how she came to devote her entire life to activism and becoming a protest leader, Barmada spoke of the challenges she’s gone through in recent years, including her father’s sudden paralysis after a stroke as well as almost losing her life twice during a recent pregnancy where she was hospitalized for four months, and her child was born 11 weeks early and had to recover in the neonatal intensive care unit for 74 days.
“When all this started with Palestine, I’ve never been active on Palestine even though I am Palestinian. I work in philanthropy, I work in these spaces where it’s taboo in a way. The politicization of Palestinian identity was not one I was comfortable talking with,” Barmada said. “It’s heartless, talking about things in such a detached and removed way.”
“What happened is I saw the one picture of a woman really early on holding her daughter. She was on her knees and looking down. And I was putting my son to sleep, and I just couldn’t stop crying. I was just holding him saying what would I do if it was my kid? The next morning I just went out on the street and put my body on the ground in front of the Capitol metro,” she said, referring to her first action around mid-October. “It was just me.”
Barmada has since been joined by hundreds of others inspired by her leadership and tactics as the movement for Palestine grows.
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