The Courage of Their Convictions: Confronting Criminal Trespass with the Iowa Occupation Project

It was a crime for the United States to invade Iraq and it’s a crime to continue waging a brutal war for oil…I refuse to offer my children or anyone else’s children as fodder for the war machine.

— Rosemary Persaud, mother and activist, prior to sentencing for “criminal trespass” at the Linn County Courthouse, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, July 6, 2007

We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do.
— Howard Zinn, March 2007

OUR CANDIDATE HAS A PLAN TO END THE WAR

With next January’s Iowa presidential caucuses looming ever closer, Iowa’s cities, and towns are crawling with Democratic campaign activists. Most of these staffers claim to be strongly against the U.S. war on Iraq. It’s important, they tell you — and they’re right by my estimation – that the Republican Party not continue to hold the nation and world’s most powerful office after January 27th 2007.

Among other things, they want Iowans to believe that a vote for their candidate in January and again in November 2008 is a vote against the war. Sounding a bit like the Richard Nixon campaign in 1968, they tell Iowans that their candidate has a plan to wind the war down and bring the troops home… soon. Too many Iowans and Americans have died, their candidates say, in George W. Bush’s “mistaken” and “stupid” war to “liberate” the Iraqi people.

These activists, many of them progressive young adults, get movement salaries, paid offices, and valuable work experience that looks good on a law- or graduate-school application. They get a chance to feel like they are part of something big as the national media focuses with increasing sharpness on their candidates’ bid to scale the heights of national and global power. Ever-careful not to offend potential voters, they are doing their best to sound uncontroversial while advancing their standard-bearer as the man or woman to heal the nation’s deepening wounds at home and abroad.

STRATEGIZING IN THE FACE OF A CRIME IS WRONG

Meanwhile a different activist tradition lives on below the dominant media radar screen in Iowa. Another and considerably less well-funded cadre of Iowa activists is not backed by the opulent financial and corporate (including military-industrial) interests that back pseudo-progressive corporate-imperial populists like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It is not especially concerned with the nation’s quadrennial, plutocratic and candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky). It is focused on confronting high-state criminality in the here and now. It is not especially impressed by the liberal, pro-labor John Edwards, the corporate militarist Hillary or the mendacious, mush-mouthed centrist Obama. It believes that eighteen months or one more day is too long for the United States to continue its deadly and illegal occupation of Iraq.

Contrary to the public positions of the leading Democratic candidates, it understands that the invasion of Iraq has nothing to do with protecting Americans at home or spreading freedom and democracy abroad. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” it knows, is a brazen imperialist crime — not merely a strategic “mistake” (as Hillary-Obama regularly describe “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) — reflecting Washington’s determination to deepen its control of strategic Middle Eastern oil resources. The occupation, it recognizes, is fundamentally opposed to democracy and lessens Americans’ security by inciting new terrorist attacks.

The second cadre understands that that the occupation is a richly bipartisan transgression, launched and continued with significant and indispensable support from the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, it rightly suspects, has as much interest in ending the Iraq War before the November 2008 elections as George W. Bush had in capturing Osama bin-Laden after 9/11.

The second cadre agrees with impeachment advocate and former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega that political “strategizing in the face of an ongoing crime is wrong” (de la Vega 2006, p. 19). While Democratic leaders position themselves for the 2008 elections — cautiously keeping impeachment “off the table” (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and taking their time initiating investigations into the Bush administration’s fraudulent case for invasion — members of the second Iowa activist cadre are determined to contest the occupation now. They refuse to behave like the neighbors of Kitty Genovese — the woman who was viciously assaulted, stabbed three times, and finally killed on the way to her Queens, New York home one terrible night in 1964. Thirty-eight neighbors heard or watched Ms. Genovese’s ordeal, but no one called the police until the attack was essentially over (de la Vega 2006, p.18).

NO FREE PASS TO THE DEMOCRATS

The second cadre insists on holding politicians of both dominant U.S. political parties accountable for the crimes being committed in and against Iraq. It agrees with Howard Zinn that the Democrats’ recurrently proposed “timetables for withdrawal” are “morally reprehensible in the case of a brutal occupation: would you give a thug who invaded your house, smashed everything in sight, and terrorized your children a timetable for withdrawal?… It’s as if,” Zinn notes, “before the Civil War, abolitionists agreed to postpone the emancipation of the slaves for a year, or two years, or five years, and coupled this with an appropriation of funds to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.”

“When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators,” Zinn adds, “it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them” (Zinn 2007).

CONVICTION OVER ECONOMIC ADVANCE

Most members of the second Iowa-activist cadre, many of them young adults, receive no financial compensation for their efforts. They do occasionally garner fines and criminal arrest and conviction records for acting on their beliefs. Their actions receive marginal coverage in at best local media and carry no long-term employment value beyond and marginal, poorly funded antiwar Left, where salaries tend toward minimum wage. If anything their activism works against their future economic chances.

THE “CEDAR RAPIDS 11”

Late last February, as the leading Democratic presidential campaigns set up shop across Iowa, Cedar Rapids Police arrested eleven Iowa activists, including seven University of Iowa (UI) students, for occupying the Cedar Rapids office of U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). During a three-hour sit-in at the downtown Federal Building, the protesters — mostly members of the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee (UIAC) — insisted that Iowa’s senior senator pledge to support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. After the war resisters refused to leave the American peoples’ Federal Building unless Grassley agreed to hear their demands, U.S. Marshals called the Cedar Rapids Police.

Eleven protesters (subsequently dubbed “The Cedar Rapids 11”) were charged with criminal trespass and held in the Linn County jail on $325 bond.

Their action was part of the national Occupation Project, a branch of the Chicago-based Voices for Creative Nonviolence meant to spur nonviolent protests against the war.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Toby Michael told the Iowa City-based Daily Iowan that it was “the only time he’d seen protesters arrested in 23 years working in the Federal Building” (Kerns 2007).

One of the protesters, UI graduate student Joshua Casteel, had received Grassley’s 1998 nomination to attend the prestigious West Point military academy.

“IS NOT A LIFE WORTH MORE THAN A DOLLAR?”

Toby Michael recently got to see protestors arrested at the Cedar Rapids Federal Building for a second time when the Occupation Project held a day-long reunion.
I drove up from Iowa City to join the party.

The festivities began at 9 in the morning last Friday at the Linn County District Associate Court, where 40 or so supporters watched seven of the “Cedar Rapids 11” (CR11) get sentenced for last February’s “criminal trespass.”

Prior to his sentencing, the Des Moines-based Catholic Worker activist and long time civil disobedience practitioner Frank Cordero accused the judge of disciplining the wrong people. The “real criminals,” Cordero noted, are found in Washington, conducting the monumentally illegal occupation of not-so incidentally oil-rich Mesopotamia.

A second “CR11” member, former U.S. Army interrogator and Arabic translator Josh Casteel, reminded the judge that individuals have human rights duties that transcend the laws and policies of nation states. Casteel related his own experience of being ordered to illegally torture Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. He observed that the U.S. occupation of Iraq violates numerous domestic and international laws and argued that civil disobedience in defiance of the invasion was justified by the legal subordination of “civic order” to “the common good.”

A third CR11 member brought some courtroom observers to tears with her passionate call for peace. “As a mother,” Rosemary Persaud Iowa City said, “I have to speak against this war and ALL wars. I have the responsibility to teach my children to be understanding of other people and to find ways to solve problems non-violently. It’s hard to teach your kids these lessons,” Persaud added, “when their culture is violent and when their government is provoking war as a means to an end.”

“I refuse,” Persaud declared, “to offer my children or anyone else’s children as fodder for the war machine.”

Ms. Persaud registered a basic point: “Congress has the power to end this unjust war and illegal occupation. They can stop funding it.”

“The American people want our troops HOME, to live, Ms. Persaud said, “and we want the Iraqi people to live. It was a crime for the United States to invade Iraq and it’s a crime to continue waging a brutal war for oil.”

Persuad told the judge that she had wanted “to ask Senator Grassley, as someone who has spent years of service investigating fraud and waste in government spending, why he sees no waste in human life as this war goes on and on, year after year. Is not a life worth more than a dollar? It seems,” she added, “our Congress has lost its ability and courage to measure what matters and has lost its moral compass.”

Then Iowa City-based CR11 member Timothy Gauger spoke briefly. He praised his fellow activists for engaging in “purely idealistic action” and ended by suggesting that “we do it again sometime soon.”

Seeming half-sympathetic to their cause, the judge on duty let the Cedar Rapids 11 off with $190 in fines apiece. The civil disobedience tradition, he intoned, “comes with consequences.”

A BIPARTISAN OCCUPATION

Guager’s “sometime soon” came three hours later, when forty or so antiwar Iowa Occupation Project (IOP) supporters and activists approached the Cedar Rapids Federal Building for a second effort to confront Grassley about his longstanding support of the bloody Iraq invasion.

Federal marshals initially refused to allow more than one IOP member into Grassley’s office, forcing the rest to wait outside in stifling July heat. Reminded by activists that the U.S. Constitution upholds free speech and the right of assembly for “We the People,” not “We the Person,” the authorities later granted admission to Grassley’s office to a handful of other citizen occupiers.

While he was present in eastern Iowa last Friday, Grassley was unavailable to the antiwar activists either in person or by phone. Refusing to leave without at least speaking to their Republican War Senator, the activists were forcibly removed, arrested and released with new criminal trespass citations.

This time, however, the Occupation Project was not content to challenge Republican trespass alone. After installing citizen-occupiers in Grassley’s office, most of the activist contingent headed to the nearby office of liberal Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.

The reasons for this addition are not mysterious. Late last spring, Harkin, who voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq in October 2002 (as did Hillary Clinton and, much to his public regret, John Edwards), betrayed majority U.S. antiwar sentiment (the very sentiment that created a Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress last fall) by voting to continue funding the Iraq invasion. The $125 billion (more than Bush requested) “supplemental war authorization” bill that Congress passed with Harkin and other Democrats’ votes contained no timetables (binding or even non-binding) for troop withdrawal, despite the fact that most U.S. citizens have long supported a rapid U.S. exit.

The bipartisan war-escalation (“Surge”) funding bill said nothing about ending the air war against Iraq (likely to escalate in the wake of partial troop reductions) or dismantling the United States’ numerous permanent military bases in that country. It dropped an earlier provision requiring Bush and Cheney to seek congressional authorization before attacking Iran. It handed a remarkable imperialist policy victory to an astonishingly unpopular president on the theory that the administration would be able to absurdly accuse them of failing to “support the troops” in an illegal war most Americans have long rejected.

“OUR BRAVE MEN AND WOMEN” AND “THE TASK FOR WHICH THEY WERE SENT TO IRAQ”

It was a different feeling at Harkin’s Cedar Rapids office, housed in a private downtown bank building. Activists there were allowed to immediately enter an air-conditioned office where Harkin staffer Tom Larkin said he’d “been expecting” us. Larkin gave activists a two-page position paper titled “Tom Harkin on Iraq: Change the Course, Not Stay the Course.”

This document began by praising “our brave men and women” [soldiers] for “having brilliantly completed the task for which they were sent to Iraq.” It said that Harkin “has fought hard to pass legislation containing a timetable to extricate our troops from the civil war in Iraq” and claimed that “it is not time for Iraq’s leaders to resolve their political differences and take responsibility for their own future.”

Neither Larkin nor his handout offered any serious justification for Harkin’s decision to continue funding a criminal, brazenly imperialist oil occupation without even non-binding timetables for eventual withdrawal. Larkin seemed flustered when I reminded him that many American and world citizens know that “the task for which [US troops were] sent” is criminal and imperialist in nature and that the U.S. bears enormous responsibility — and owes reparations — for the enormous damage (including the creation of civil war in Iraq) it has inflicted on Iraq.

I told Larkin that Harkin’s late spring vote defied the majority antiwar citizen opinion that created his party’s congressional majority last fall. I asked him why the Democrats had lacked the elementary political courage to have put the onus of not “supporting the troops” on George W. Bush. I reminded Larkin of John Edwards’ useful slogan, “Support the Troops, End the War” and suggested that votes likes Harkin’s last spring help explain why the Democratic-majority Congress now receives lower U.S. approval rates than the least popular President in U.S. history.

Larkin said something about Harkin’s history as a World War II veteran and disappeared behind a wall. A handful of UI students and activists sitting on the floor of Harkin’s Cedar Rapids office then held an informal teach-in on U.S. foreign policy, politics and society. Students read aloud the names of hundreds of Iraqi children and Iowa soldiers killed by the illicit war of aggression and occupation that Harkin and Grassley have voted to fund over and over again. At 5 PM, the citizen and student occupiers were arrested and given citations for criminal trespass.

IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR

The local media coverage of the IOP’s Grassley-Harkin occupations was predictably spotty, uninspired, and conservative. Most of the activists’ key points and purpose were deleted and ignored in the standard Orwellian translation — the usual degrading and condescending media mistreatment.

One local paper even gave the activists an authoritarian lecture on their failure to be “constructive.” Not content merely to disregard the basic reasons for the Cedar Rapids actions, the University of Iowa-affiliated Daily Iowan (DI) accused the protestors of “demeaning the antiwar movement” with “behavior” that was portrayed as “superficial” and “irrational” in local media. For “whatever reason,” the DI Iowan pronounced, the Iraq War “seems to leave the majority of America in an [sic] passive state of disapproval” that leads protesters to be “judged harshly by the masses”.

Never mind that “mainstream” U.S. media (of which the conservative DI is a small part) is a leading institutional agent behind “the masses’” dangerous “passivity.” And never mind that that media works powerfully to prevent serious and respectful discussion of antiwar activists’ arguments and falsely portrays those activists as unreasonable, shallow, and ill-informed.

Reading the Cedar Rapids action’s press local clippings last Monday, I was reminded yet again that dominant media can never be trusted to get the antiwar Left’s message out to those who most need to hear it. I’ve long argued with activists that the media they so desperately want to impress (for highly understandable reasons) is in many ways the leading institutional culprit in the militarization of U.S. society and foreign policy they are fighting.

CRIMINAL TRESPASS: “WE ARE CITIZENS, NOT POLITICIANS”

Reflecting my own left-Marxist and left-anarchist background(s), I’ve never been a particularly big fan of pacifist and religiously inspired civil disobedience and “speaking truth to power.” As Zinn has cogently observed, “the left is in a position of continually opposing war after war after war, without getting to the root of the problem — which is the economic system under which we live, which needs war and makes war inevitable” (Arnove 2006, p. 102).

It’s going to take some kind of a revolution to get to “the root of the problem,” and revolutions are about dismantling oppressive systems of concentrated economic and political power, including military power. They are not about persuading existing public officials — who are generally beholden to dominant corporate interests with a major stake in militarism and war — to behave in more proper accord with majority peace and justice sentiment.

Still, I commend the Iowa Occupation Project for acting with the courage of their convictions beneath and beyond the plutocratic, imperial and winner-take-all cycles of our candidate-centered politics and “dollar democracy.” Occupation Project members are doing what they can (with little external reward) to expose and resist imperial, high state criminality of the highest order and to show that citizens can act in accord with their beliefs against policy evil and political calculation. Defying the practically moribund “peace movement’s” cringing captivity to the corporate-imperial Democratic Party (Cockburn 2007), they know that the war crimes they are compelled to oppose are not being committed only by the rightmost of the United States’ two dominant political parties.

“When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators,” Zinn reminded us last March, “it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.”

“We who protest the war are not politicians,” Zinn added. “We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable, in a shamefully timorous Congress…”

“We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do.”

The United States government has been inflicting a mass-murderous form of criminal trespass against the people of Iraq since March 19th, 2003. Citizen-activists who privilege “the common good” over “civic order” by trespassing against their unlawful war-making misrepresentatives in Congress are “brave men and women” too. Their efforts to advance freedom, security and peace deserve as much recognition as those who have been led to believe they serve democratic ideals by enlisting in the armed forces of the U.S. government, still “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today” (King 1967). Conservative editorialists, academicians and other ideological authorities will always deem committed action against imperial violence “irrational” and “self-indulgent” and the like. What else is new?

SOURCES

Anthony Arnove 2006. Iraq: the Logic of Withdrawal (New York: New Press, 2006).

Alexander Cockburn 2007. “The Unquiet Americans: Why So Few Protests Against a Hated Invasion,” Le Monde Diplomatique, reproduced on ZNet (July 8 2007).

Elizabeth de la Vega 2006. United States v. George W. Bush et al. (New York: Seven Stories, 2006).

“Editorial: Some Protests Demeaning to Antiwar Movement,” Daily Iowan (July 9 2007), p. 4.

Mason Kerns 2007. “Eleven Arrested in Grassley Office Protest,” Daily Iowan (February 27, 2007).

Martin Luther King Jr. 1967. “A Time to Break the Silence,” April 4 1967 speech to the Riverside Church, pp. 231-244 in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harpercollins, 1991), pp. 231-244.

Howard Zinn 2007. “Are We Politicians or Citizens?The Progressive (April 2007), reproduced on ZNet (March 27, 2007).

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul.

3 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Daoud Ali Chavez said on July 13th, 2007 at 4:14pm #

    Articles like this are the reason I keep coming back! I agree the focus must be on taking action. We are all witness to the injustice, hypocrisy, attrocities, etc. Now what? Activism of this nature (CR11) is a great start.

    Peace & Justice,
    Abu Nurah
    myspace.com/abunurah

  2. Michael Gillespie said on July 14th, 2007 at 6:01pm #

    Good piece, Paul. With the recent not guilty verdicts (see: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=200770712031) I think perhaps the tide is beginning to turn. At the very least, it is inspiring to see a judge allow, and a jury respond to, an argument on Constitutional grounds. Keep up the good work!

  3. DesMoinesRegister.com Blogs » Blog Archive » Media database of the Iowa Occupation Project said on July 25th, 2007 at 8:45am #

    [...] 38)  *Courage of Convictions ZNet story picked up by Dissident Voice, 07/13/07* [...]