By Alli McCracken
“Assault? Who- or what- did I assault??” I asked the police officer incredulously as I sat in his office at the police station, handcuffed to the wall. “Well, looks like it was Leon Panetta himself,” the officer responded as he flipped through a pile of paperwork.
Me? A 22-year-old mild-mannered peace activist, assaulted the Secretary of Defense? I had simply tried to tell him how I felt about the wars. On the morning of October 13th about 25 activists who are occupying Washington DC, as part of the nationwide occupations, went on a field trip to Congress. We wanted to attend the House Armed Services Committee hearing where Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, and Martin Dempsy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying about “lessons learned by the Department of Defense over the preceding decade” and “how those lessons might be applied in the future in light of anticipated reductions in defense spending.” After all, these hearings are open to the public. And shouldn’t we have a say in where our money is being spent?
As a peace activist with the group CODEPINK for the past 10 months, I have done my fair share of sending letters and emails and delivering petitions to our government representatives, asking them to stop pouring trillions of our taxpayer dollars into the endless cycle of death, destruction and reconstruction halfway across the world. There are so many critical things that we could spend that money on here in America, such as education, healthcare, helping the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the veterans.
The activists who I have been camping out with in Freedom Plaza since October 6th share the same sentiments. That morning about 25 of us, sporting social justice slogans on pins, hats and shirts, got to the hearing several hours early so we could be first on line to get in. It didn’t take long for the Capitol Police to appear. They began to congregate around us, and several of them were already holding the flexi-cuffs they use now in lieu of traditional handcuffs (they’re recyclable, so I learned).
A Congressional staffer came out into the hallway and barked at us: no demonstrating, no protesting, no outbursts, no signs. Not even before the Chairman of the Committee hits the gavel, marking the start of the hearing. We were surprised that we couldn’t even hold up our signs before the hearing began, as we are usually able to do. “So you’re taking away what little shred we have of free speech in these pubic hearings?” asked Medea Benjamin, a CODEPINK cofounder who has been to many a hearing. “I thought this was a democracy!” The staffer ignored her and walked away.
We were even more upset when we learned that the room was already stacked with seats reserved for staffers, and that only 15 members of the public would be allowed in. So much for a “public hearing.”
Soon they started letting people into the hearing room- but only 5 at a time, and the police escorted us in under a careful eye as if we were unruly children. They told us any form of demonstrating would result in immediate ejection from the hearing and possible arrest. One man asked, “You mean even if I do this?” and held both his arms up, making peace signs with his fingers. Absolutely, the police responded. We laughed at the absurdity.
A few minutes after all the Congresspeople had slowly made their way to their seats, Panetta and Dempsey entered the room flanked by several staffers. Media cameras crowded around them at the witness table as they sat down, about 15 feet away from me.
Quickly I sprung up out of my seat, pulling out my homemade sign that read: FUND MY EDUCATION, NOT YOUR WARS. I had been in Congressional hearings many times, and I had never come so close to risking arrest, but I was determined to get my message out. “Secretary Panetta, when are we going to stop funding war and start rebuilding America? We have been at war for almost half my life and guys my age have PTSD. My generation deserves better!” I continued to shout as Capitol Hill police dragged me out the door.
Outside were about 15 people who were not let into the hearing and together we chanted the Occupy Wall Street slogan, “We! Are! The 99 percent!!”
The next person to speak out inside the hearing was Michael Patterson, from Anchorage, Alaska, who has been sleeping out in McPherson Square in DC for 8 days and nights. Michael is a 21-year-old vet who was an interrogator in Iraq- at the age of 18! He has been extremely affected by what he saw there and as soon as Panetta started speaking, Michael denounced U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. “You are murdering people. I’ve seen it. You are murdering people,” he shouted as the police tackled him.
Michael was overcome with emotion and as a result his disruption was the most intense- and hopefully the most effective. Some reports mention that members of Congress seemed startled by his message. When asked about his motivation for this action, Michael responded, “Certain elements of the American government are accomplices in genocide. These wars have caused the death of up to a million Iraqis, an unknown number of Afghans, and thousands of US soldiers. They have ruined the lives of millions. The truth is out there and people are just choosing apathy. It’s time to hold those accountable for what they have done and when the time comes, the excuse ‘I was just following orders’ will not be acceptable.”
After Michael, six other individuals stood up during the hearing and expressed how they felt about these wars, whether by holding up peace signs silently, or speaking softly, or shouting and holding up a sign. After each person was arrested, the rest clapped in support, and the other activists still waiting in the hall chanted continuously calling for an end to the wars.
The eight of us were rounded up outside the building, then hauled off in a paddy wagon to the police station, where I spent over 6 hours being processed and narrowly avoided spending the night in jail. They gave us all citations, and everyone was charged with disrupting Congress, except for me. I was charged with simple assault of Leon Panetta.
It’s funny more than anything, because I was nowhere near Secretary Panetta during my outburst. It turns out that my charge, “simple assault”, is a crime that causes “a victim to fear violence”. It is a sad day when a government official feels endangered by a citizen practicing her freedom of speech. Is our highest military official after the President frightened by a young woman with a sign calling for our funds to be spent on education, not war?
A little while after the activists were thrown out of the hearing room, Representative Pingree put Secretary Panetta on the spot. She wanted to know what he thought about the protests inside the hearing, since they reflect the views of the majority of people throughout the country who want to see an end to the wars. He responded by acknowledging our frustration after 10 years of war and talking about the timelines set up to withdraw the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fact that the Secretary of Defense was forced to acknowledge and respond to our concerns is in itself a victory. The strength our messages carried did not just come from us, or the people in the hallway supporting us, but from people rising up all over the country- and it is clear that our government officials are starting to feel the heat.
Since the story of the seven arrests hit the news, I have received a surprising amount of support from friends and strangers. Several of the messages are actually from active members of the military who told me our actions inspired them to seriously think about what they are doing overseas. A few mentioned that it sparked discussion among the people they are serving with. For the most part, they were struck by people’s willingness to risk arrest for something they believe so passionately about.
We are part of the growing Occupy movement sweeping the country, and we are becoming much stronger than the sum of our parts. Drawing strength in numbers, both seasoned and new activists are feeling an incredible sense of empowerment and are taking more risks- including arrestable offenses- so that our voices will be heard. We are determined that our policy makers listen to the sentiment of the people, as expressed in the chants that were echoing in the hallway: We are the 99 percent and we say no to all these wars!!!