Winter Soldiers Confront the White House: Mass Arrests as They Put Their Bodies on the Line for Peace

Winter Soldiers Confront the White House: Mass Arrests as They Put Their Bodies on the Line for Peace

On Thursday, December 16, the term “winter soldier” took on special meaning. Blanketed by snow flurries and enduring freezing temperatures, several hundred military veterans and peace activists gathered in the nation’s capital to stage a dramatic political protest. As they have done many times since George W. Bush announced the military attack of Afghanistan in 2001, concerned citizens from across the country traveled to Washington, calling for an end to US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as drone attacks on Pakistan and Yemen.

Since 2001, I have joined thousands of Americans to raise our voices against the wars at peace actions in Washington, DC, including marches from the White House to the Capitol, vigils at the White House and civil disobedience in the streets and in the halls of Congress. This event felt different. Responding to a call from the leaders of Stop These Wars(1) – a new coalition of Veterans for Peace and other activists – participants came together in a large-scale performance of civil resistance. A group of veterans under the leadership of Veterans for Peace members Tarak Kauff, Will Covert and Elaine Brower, mother of a Marine who has served three tours of duty in Iraq, sponsored the event with the explicit purpose of putting their bodies on the line. Many participants were Vietnam War veterans; others ranged from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in their 20s and 30s to World War II vets in their 80s and older. They were predominately white; men outnumbered women by at least three to one. After a short rally in Lafayette Park, they formed a single-file procession, walking across Pennsylvania Avenue to the solemn beat of a drum. As they reached the police barricade (erected to prevent them from chaining themselves to the gate, a plan they announced on their web site), the activists stood shoulder to shoulder, their bodies forming a human link across the “picture postcard” tableau in front of the White House.

Veterans for Peace activist and event organizer Will Covert, reading the Veterans for Peace Statement of Purpose and Pledge of Nonviolence at the rally in Lafayette Park, Dec. 16, 2010.

Veterans for Peace activist and event organizer Will Covert, reading the Veterans for Peace Statement of Purpose and Pledge of Nonviolence at the rally in Lafayette Park, Dec. 16, 2010. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

The powerful symbolism of the event focused on reclaiming public space, dissenters lining the fence that separates the presidency from the populace. For several minutes, activists, sang and chanted the customary peace songs and slogans; all the while, the park police seemed calm and relatively unconcerned. Then, suddenly, one of the veterans breached the waist-high barricade, lurching toward the White House fence and calling others to join him. Within moments, all 131 activists jumped over or maneuvered around the barricade, staking their claim to the fence. The visual effect was stunning and eerie, particularly in the falling snow. Some activists secured their wrists to the fence with metal handcuffs. Former Veterans for Peace President Elliott Adams affixed a metal, u-shaped, bicycle lock around his neck and fastened it to a post. He explained, “We’re trying to stop these stupid wars. We’ve (Veterans have) been in the wars, we fought the wars and now know they’re stupid. They’re bad for the nation, they’re bad for the people, they’re bad for the economy and they are only good for the filthy rich. And, it’s time we quit killing people of other nations and killing our own children just to make a few people rich.”(2) Veteran Bill Homans (aka Watermelon Slim) echoed an action he took in 1972, when he chained himself to the captain’s cabin of the USS Constitution to protest the Vietnam War. With the help of a fellow veteran, Homans fastened himself to a lamppost near the White House fence with a thick metal chain.

Journalist and author Chris Hedges speaking at the rally in Lafayette Park, Dec. 16, 2010.

Journalist and author Chris Hedges speaking at the rally in Lafayette Park, Dec. 16, 2010. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

The park police brought in eight officers on horseback, four on either side of the crowd, presumably to intimidate. They also tried to contain the action by placing metal barricades not only in front of the fence, but also vertically across Pennsylvania Avenue, narrowing the accessible area to a small section of the street directly in front of the White House. As they moved in to make arrests, they used yellow caution tape (with the words “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS”), preventing supporters, especially those with cameras, from closely observing or documenting the arrest process. They parked large buses and vehicles along the curb on the far side of the street, blocking the view of onlookers, who were forced onto the sidewalk of Lafayette Park. Few were able to see the action up close. A handful of journalists and others managed to hold their places on the sidelines; several were harassed by the police as they attempted to document the arrests. One by one, the police detained the activists, securing their wrists behind their backs with plastic ties. If they refused to walk to the buses awaiting them, two police officers dragged resisters across Pennsylvania Avenue. Many activists, men and women alike, declined to walk of their own free will and accepted the consequences. The process could have been carried out much more quickly, but it took nearly four hours for police to complete the final arrest. Those remaining at the fence for the duration were wet from the snowfall and extremely cold, reinforcing the clear message from the authorities: if you exercise civil resistance of this kind, we will make it extremely uncomfortable for you.

Peace activists begin their procession from Lafayette Park to the White House gates.

Peace activists begin their procession from Lafayette Park to the White House gates. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

Journalists focused their attention on the well-known public figures who participated to support the effort, especially Daniel Ellsberg (former military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War and subject of the recent film “The Most Dangerous Man in America”), Chris Hedges (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and war correspondent) and Ray McGovern (27-year CIA analyst and Army intelligence officer). Ellsberg refuted Obama’s assertion that increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan will help keep Americans safe. He countered, “I regard that last assurance as a lie, as a big lie,” noting that Obama was aware the war was unwinnable in December 2009, when he decided to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. According to Ellsberg, the “surge” strengthened the Taliban and, by extension, al-Qaeda, who responded by bolstering their recruitment. Hedges spoke eloquently about hope and the importance of civil resistance in response to indifference and deception by our country’s leaders:

Hope will not come in trusting in the ultimate goodness of Barack Obama, who, like Herod of old, sold out his people…. Hope will only come now when we physically defy the violence of the state. All who resist, all who are here today, keep hope alive. All who succumb to fear, despair and apathy become an enemy of hope. They become, in their passivity, agents of injustice…. And those who resist with nonviolence are the last thin line of defense between a civil society and its disintegration.(3)

Veterans and peace activists form a line at the barricade in front of the White House fence.

Veterans and peace activists form a line at the barricade in front of the White House fence. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., McGovern cautioned, “If we don’t do activism, democracy is out the door…. We’re going to do all we can to stop the violence being perpetrated in our name. And so, if the making of peace means prison, that’s where you’re going to find us.” Several speakers at the rally in Lafayette Park called for the release of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the young Army soldier suspected of giving secret US documents about the wars to WikiLeaks. They also denounced the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, comparing Internet publication of classified information to The New York Times’ 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg argued, “I think they [Manning and Assange] provided a very valuable service. To call them ‘terrorists’ is not only mistaken, it’s absurd.” Ellsberg noted: since President Obama has a responsibility to launch an investigation of atrocities once they are reported, he “has a very personal reason to be concerned” about the release of documents that reveal the use of torture and unnecessary killings by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Activists move past the barricade to their goal:  the White House fence.

Activists move past the barricade to their goal: the White House fence. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

Ellsberg and Hedges inspired the crowd. However, the most striking feature of this gathering was the leadership provided by activist veterans, as well as their decision to be arrested in large numbers. Recognizing that more benign forms of protest have had little effect, Dr. Margaret Flowers of Physicians for a National Health Program told the crowd, “We’ve tried the traditional tools. We’ve tried others ways of advocating. We’ve tried educating and organizing. And while all of these tools are important, they are not sufficient.” Former Army Sgt. Crystal Colon, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, urged active duty soldiers to refuse to fight: “Civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan are dying on a daily basis. These wars need to end and the only way we’re going to end them is if veterans and soldiers take a stand and say ‘No more!’ We’re not doing this anymore. We’re not fighting these wars. We’re not dying for political greed or corporations.” Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans spoke out about their experiences and why they oppose US military involvement in those nations. One young veteran commented on his experiences, “Helping the people of Iraq was the driving factor for me going there. And then occupying their country and doing consistent raids and pulling their homes apart … and watching the infrastructure degrade, instead of improve, it was kind of a sharp realization that there was nothing that was … benefiting the people, by any means. In fact, consistent night raids, check points and harassment [were] the daily routine for what we were doing to the people of Iraq.”(4)

Peace activists cover the fence, refusing to move or leave.

Peace activists cover the fence, refusing to move or leave. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

March Forward member Zachary Choate, who was deployed to Iraq in 2006, injured by an IED and deployed back to Iraq after rehabilitation in the US, stood at the center of the fence dressed in a military uniform, plus a Palestinian scarf tied around his neck. Carrying an American flag, folded in the triangular formation used at military funerals, Choate explained why he joined the action: “I’ve been out of the military now for two-and-a-half years, and I’ve been speaking out ever since. Today, I just feel that it’s time for me to take a stand, risk arrest, whatever it takes. Why today? I can’t sit idle anymore, I can’t. I can’t sit by anymore and let these atrocities continue.”(5)

Daniel Ellsberg at the White House fence.

Daniel Ellsberg at the White House fence. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

Ironically, while dissidents chained themselves to the fence to decry the wars, President Obama and his staff held a press conference at the White House, commenting that the fighting in Afghanistan “continues to be a very difficult endeavor,” but that the US is “on track to achieve our goals.” When reporters questioned Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the summer 2011 timetable to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, he back peddled: “The president has made clear” that the withdrawal “will be conditions-based.” Regarding how quickly US troops will move out of Afghanistan, Gates responded, “The answer is, we don’t know at this point,” adding that the pace will depend on the progress of Afghan security forces.(6)

Iraq Veteran Zachary Choate, denouncing U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan

Iraq Veteran Zachary Choate, denouncing U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (Photo: Linda Pershing)

The American public doesn’t seem to be buying it. An ABC/Washington Post poll indicates that general dissatisfaction with the Afghanistan war, the longest in US history, has risen by seven points just since July 2010. A record 60 percent of poll respondents believe that the war has not been worth fighting. “The public’s increasingly negative assessment comes after a new strategy, including a surge of US and allied forces, led to the Afghanistan war’s bloodiest year. According to icasualties.org, nearly 500 US soldiers have been killed and 4,481 wounded in 2010, compared with 317 killed and 2,114 wounded in 2009 and 155 killed, 793 wounded in 2008.”(7)

Women joined the action by handcuffing themselves to the fence.

Women joined the action by handcuffing themselves to the fence. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

Police film the activists and arrests while simultaneously blocking the view of observers, who were forced to stand behind large busses and trucks parked in front of Lafayette Park.

Police film the activists and arrests while simultaneously blocking the view of observers, who were forced to stand behind large busses and trucks parked in front of Lafayette Park. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

Mindful of the determination of our nation’s leaders to prolong US militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq, journalist and war correspondent Hedges reminded participants about a central principle of nonviolent activism: civil resistance and the hope it brings often requires risk and a willingness to sacrifice ones own security:

Hope has a cost. Hope is not comfortable or easy. Hope requires personal risk. It is not about the right attitude. Hope is not about peace of mind. Hope is action. Hope is doing something. The more futile, the more useless, the more irrelevant and incomprehensible an act of rebellion is, the vaster and more potent hope becomes.

Police used barricades to keep observers and photographers from getting close to the activists during the arrests.

Police used barricades to keep observers and photographers from getting close to the activists during the arrests. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

As he was cuffed by police at the White House gate, Ellsberg, age 79, commented that this marked his 80th arrest for civil resistance. Not one to “go gentle into that good night”: despite the freezing weather, he used his bare hands to flash two peace signs behind his back. Among the 131 who were arrested, between 40 and 50 activists refused to pay the $100 fine for “failure to obey a lawful order,” choosing instead to appear in court and present their case. Ellsberg encouraged the resisters: “We can say by being here, no longer does this war go on silently with the appearance of universal consent. We withdraw our consent to carry on this war. You must do it over our bodies.”

Park police arrest a member of CodePink and take her to the bus.

Park police arrest a member of CodePink and take her to the bus. (Photo: Linda Pershing)

Event organizers are hopeful that the arrests of the 131 military veterans and activists will spark a growing movement to oppose the government through increasing acts of civil resistance. Ellsberg agreed: “I hope this’ll be the beginning of a wave of civil disobedience, which we haven’t seen and should have seen, with respect from this atrocious war. It’s overtime, but it’s not too late.”(8)

Footnotes:

1. See “Stop the Wars,” retrieved 19 December 2010.
2. You Tube video by robkall, 17 December 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010.
3. For a full version of Chris Hedge’s essay, from which his speech on December 16, 2010. was adopted, see “Real Hope is Doing Something,” Truthdig, 29 November 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010.
4. “‘Hope Is Action’: Hedges and Ellsberg Arrested at White House Protest” (You Tube video), Truthdig, 17 December 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010.
5.You Tube video by ebecker2000. “Veterans for Peace White House Civil Disobedience to End War,” 16 December 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010.
6. Memmott, Mark. “Obama: U.S. Is ‘On Track To Achieve Our Goals’ In Afghanistan,” NPR, 16 December 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010.
7. Phelan, Julie and Gary Langer. “Poll: Assessment of Afghanistan War Sours,” ABC News, 16 December 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010.
8. “Veterans For Peace Protest War Outside White House,” The Real News, 17 December 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010.