Pentagon 8/6&9/2010

(Joy First’s account of the August 9 arrests follow’s Art Laffin’s reflection)

August 6 Pentagon Witness of Repentance and Hope

by Art Laffin

On the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ,
on the 65th anniversary of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima,
thirty peacemakers witness at the Pentagon
in repentance for the murderous crime of incinerating an entire city.

We witness in sackcloth and ashes at the center of warmaking on our planet,
in prayerful repentance for this colossal act of violence,
in prayerful intercession for the more than 140,00 victims–
who are no more.

We witness in resistance to the nuclear sin,
a sin premeditated and mortal,
a sin still unrepented for,
a sin that continues to threaten the survival of the human family.

As I await arrest with Billy, Crissy, and Nancy,
I reflect on the Bombs’ victims–
the burning children, the charred bodies, the shadows on the rock.
I pray for the survivors who, risen from the dead, cry out for nuclear abolition.

We witness in the hope
that love is stronger than the forces of death,
that a disarmed world can become a reality,
that all nuclear weapons can be abolished–Now!

Dear Jesus,
transfigure our hearts,
transfigure our lives,
so that we can become channels of your peace, mercy and nonviolent love.

(Art Laffin, Bill Frankel-Streit, Nancy Gowan and Chrissy Nesbitt, wearing sackcloth covered with ashes, were arrested near the Pentagon metro entrance where they poured ashes and knelt in silence for thirty minutes holding photos of Hiroshima victims. They were charged with “failure to obey a lawful order” and will face trial on October 22, 2010, in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia).


Do We Live in a Representative Democracy or a Police State?

False Arrests at the Pentagon – August 9, 2010

Joy First Madison, WI

I was arrested at the Pentagon on Nagsaki Day, August 9, 2010 with three other activists in an action organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR) in solidarity with a retreat being held by Dorothy Day and Jonah House Catholic Workers. Those arrested included Malachy Kilbride, Max Obuszewski, James Fairling, and me, Joy First. It was a relatively easy arrest (we were in custody for only 90 minutes), but it was a transformative experience for me. Each time I do an action risking arrest I understand more deeply why I must continue this work, but the arrest on August 9 was particularly enlightening to me as we went through a process with the Pentagon Police that was an egregious affront to our civil liberties.

NCNR organizes actions of nonviolent civil resistance against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a couple of times a year. Our actions involve scenarios where we are following the principles of Gandhi, King, Day and others as we risk arrest speaking truth to power. We do not risk arrest because we want to get arrested. Though we are most often arrested for our actions, we believe we are not breaking the law. Rather we are upholding the law and speaking out against our government’s crimes against humanity. Therefore we always plead not guilty and take our cases to court to continue our witness.

As I went through the process at the Pentagon, it became clearer to me than ever that our government continues to increasingly overstep its bounds. It is imperative that we as citizens continue to act in resistance to the erosion of our rights. In addition, as the government continues to turn a deaf ear to our cries for peace and justice, it is critical that we continue to press for the kind of world we want to live in. I believe we were falsely arrested at the Pentagon on August 9, 2010. I am concerned that police officers and members of the military have too much power and think they can do anything they want. I have had several experiences with this lately and if it becomes the norm, then we begin to accept it and think this is the way it is and the way it has to be. We may soon feel powerless to challenge it. I am recounting the process we went through at the Pentagon in detail, so that a light can shine on what is happening. We must stop this madness while we still can.

I arrived in DC on Sunday August 8 in time to go to a planning meeting at St. Stephen’s church. This meeting was a part of a retreat organized by Dorothy Day House and Jonah House. We had dinner together, and then there was a presentation by Frida Berrigan on how the people and land are being destroyed as we continue to try to expand our nuclear capabilities. Planning for the action at the Pentagon on Monday morning followed. After Max laid out the scenario, four people agreed that they wanted to risk arrest the next day, including Max, Malachy, and me from NCNR. A young man named James also said he would like to join us.

The group from Dorothy Day and Jonah House convened at about 7:15 am Monday morning at the Pentagon for a vigil. There is a small grassy area near the entrance to the Pentagon subway station that is designated a free speech zone. As Pentagon employees go to work they pass by about 30-40 feet from this zone, approaching the guard shack to present their ids and enter the Pentagon complex.

Monday August 9 was Nagasaki Day, commemorating the 65th year since US atomic weapons destroyed Nagasaki and killed over 74,000 innocent people. As part of the vigil, they were holding signs reminding those going into the Pentagon of the death and destruction on that day.

Max, Malachy, James and I met at a food court in Pentagon City at 8:30 am, and together we took the subway to the Pentagon station, arriving a few minutes before 9:00 am. We wondered if the Pentagon police knew we were coming and were trying to make it more difficult for us. The “up” escalator was not working and we had climb about three stories to get there. As we approached the top where we would be going up against the empire, my legs started feeling like jelly, my stomach was queasy, and there was a tightness in my chest. Physically, it was a struggle to make it to the top of the stairs. Most people who arrive at the Pentagon subway station are Pentagon employees, but there are also a smattering of tourists to see the memorial and other public areas and so we didn’t think we would look out of place as we approached.

When we got to the top of the stairs, there was a line of police right there. Usually, you can walk to the guard shack about a half a block away before you are stopped. Apparently they knew we were coming and they were waiting for us. There were several police officers with 3 foot rifles. I felt really uncomfortable seeing the guns, but then I looked at our friends vigiling in the free speech area and felt better.

A Pentagon police officer asked us what we were doing and we explained that we had sent a letter to Secretary Gates about meeting with him or a representative. We said we had grave concerns about what the Pentagon is doing as the biggest polluter/destroyer of Mother Earth on the planet. We said we were concerned about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the innocent people who were suffering and dying as a result of these wars. We explained that we had mailed a letter and not gotten an answer so we needed to come to the Pentagon in person to address these issues. People are dying and so it was urgent and we could not wait for a reply. We were told that we could not meet with anybody and we would have to leave. We explained that we were citizens asking for a meeting with a government official about these important matters and we couldn’t leave.

They asked for our identification. I realized that I had forgotten to bring my id with me and told them. The officer tried to tell us that it was illegal to be out without any identification. This is a crazy and scary notion. We are living in a police state if we are required to have id on us at all times to be checked by the police whenever they want to. We had not committed any crime and it was out of line for them to ask for our id at that point. Malachy objected to this and a superior officer came over and acknowledged that we do not have to be carrying a drivers license, but we have to provide the information if we are asked by a police officer. I’m not even sure if that is true.

Eventually two men in slick dark suits and sunglasses came out to talk to us. They flashed their badges and said they were criminal investigators with Pentagon police. After asking us a number of questions, Malachy questioned why they were there and what they were investigating as no crime had been committed. In trying to cover up why they were there, they claimed they had been misinformed and thought we wanted to talk to them about a criminal matter. Malachy took this opportunity to state that actually we would like to sit down and talk to them about the crimes being committed by our government. We could bring in evidence and expert witnesses and they could investigate the war crimes of the Pentagon.

Max continued to explain that we wanted to talk to someone about what is happening with the wars, and with the destruction of the planet caused by the military. The investigators told us that we did not get an answer to our letter because the officials in the Pentagon chose not to talk to us. I said again that we are citizens who have the right to talk to our government officials about these important matters. I said that we are obligated under Nuremberg to hold our government accountable when they are breaking the law. I told them that they, and everyone here spreading my arms to indicate others officers, Pentagon employees etc., are obligated under Nuremberg to uphold the law.

Two other officers came out carrying duffels and asked to see a copy of the letter. They had some little machines that scanned the letters for any kind of explosives or biological matter we may have put on the letters. In the meantime, the regular Pentagon Police officers who had been there since we arrived remained there waiting, including those with the very large rifles.

The criminal investigators asked us if we were with the “protesters” in the free speech zone. We acknowledge that they were our friends and we often worked together, but they were not protesting, they were vigiling, and we were acting independently of them. We were not there as part of the vigil. Rather, we were there as citizens requesting a meeting with someone from Secretary Gates office who is part of the policy-making team. They asked us if we were violent and if we were going to hurt ourselves and/or others. We assured them that we were part of a peaceful movement following the principles of Gandhi, King, Day and others.

At that point Max suggested that they had said everything they wanted to say and we had said everything we wanted to say and maybe they could leave now and we could get on with our work. The investigators left us and one of the officers that we had talked to when we first arrived asked us if we were going to leave. We told him that we could not leave because this is a critical matter and as concerned citizens we must talk to someone. The officer said this is our first warning that we will be arrested if we don’t leave. Then within less than a minute he said this is your second warning and then third warning. We were not there to get arrested, but were willing to face arrest to do everything we can to end the wars and end the destruction of Mother Earth. However, it was shocking that we were arrested at that point. We hadn’t broken any law.

We were standing directly at the top of the subway escalator in a public area. We were not doing anything violent. We were not trying to cross the police line to get into the Pentagon. We were not doing anything, but standing in a public area and asking for a meeting with a government official. We believe our constitutional rights were violated and we were falsely arrested.

We were handcuffed, and the officer who handcuffed me was the one who had told us it was illegal to be out and about without an id. I believe as a way to get back at me for challenging him, he gave an extra hard pull and tightened up the cuffs so that it was quite painful. We were transported to a processing station within the Pentagon compound. I was the only woman and so was locked in a cell by myself. I missed my companions who were just next door, but felt like they were a world away.

There was no problem in processing me without my id. I gave them my name, address, birthday, and social security number. I don’t know if they matched my fingerprints or picture with a database or if they just believed that I was who I said I was, but I was processed as quickly as my friends were with their ids. We were charged with failure to obey a lawful order and we have an October 22 court date. We will be asking for discovery, including intelligence reports, and I wonder if they will hand over any intelligence, claim they don’t have any, or they may decide to dismiss the charges.

Over the years NCNR has sent several letters to the Department of Defense, to the Attorney General, to the President, and to others in the government about bring an end to the unjust wars we are waging. We have not gotten a reply from anyone. Our government is continuing to focus on building a powerful empire in spite of the suffering and death they are inflicting on others. They are continuing as the largest polluter and destroyer of our Mother Earth. They apparently feel they don’t have to answer to us, the citizens of this country.

The issue here is not specifically what happened to the four of us. But what happened to the four of us who were arrested on August 9 is symptomatic of a much larger and menacing picture. Our experience is just one example that illustrates that we are living in a climate with a government that is out of control, that is not being held accountable to the people, that thinks the constitution can be ignored, and that believes they have the power to do whatever they want to do to people who are in opposition to their policies. We live in a country that is slipping into a police state where are rights are being eroded everyday and we must challenge this.

When the police start doing this on a regular basis (and there are many other examples of this), it becomes normalized. We begin to think this is the way it has to be and pretty soon we accept it. For me personally, this is the third time in a year that I have had an experience of the police and/or military overstepping their bounds and ignoring our constitutional rights. In August 2009, I was arrested at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. The military officers wanted to hold four of us overnight and when they couldn’t get the federal marshals to come and get us to transport us two hours to the Dane County jail in Madison, the military police took it upon themselves to transport us. This is a clear violation of posse comitatus, an Act that forbids using the military for civilian law enforcement. In October 2009, I was in front of the White House with 22 other citizens asking to meet with someone from the President’s office to talk with them about the need to bring a swift end to the war in Afghanistan. We were not breaking any laws. We were standing peacefully on a public sidewalk and not blocking anything or anyone. Because we were not breaking any law, the US Park Police and DC Metropolitan Police did not arrest us. After being there for a few hours, the uniformed Secret Service came from inside the White House and violently, forcefully swept us away from the front of the White House.

On August 9, 2010 as we stood peacefully in front of the Pentagon asking for a meeting with Secretary Gates, what law were we breaking by standing in this public place? What were we doing that the Pentagon Police told us to leave? We don’t believe that they gave us a lawful order when they told us to leave. And so we have to ask, do we want to live in a representative democracy where we are listened to and can be partners in making decisions, or do we want to live in a police state? How can we challenge this?

I believe it has become more important than ever that we continue to do this work of standing up to the empire and speaking truth to power. I believe that it has become more important that more people are willing to risk arrest to uphold the law and preserve our constitution. Please think about what you can do, and consider joining together with the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance or other groups that are doing nonviolent civil resistance.