Last Friday, Washington DC played host to the Interfaith Peace Witness—a project of the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership. Over 11 houses of worship, including All Souls Church, Unitarian hosted services where hundreds of faithful activists prayed and meditated for a world united in peace and justice. An interfaith service with guest speakers including Rev. Bill Sinkford was then held in the pouring rain in Upper Senate Park. Participants continued to the Hart Senate Office Building. There, a non-violent direct action was held in the atrium of the building while religious leaders met with Sen. Reid’s (D-NV) office.
The whole day was really quite powerful and more information about it can be found at uua.org. What I would really like to focus on is the Civil Disobedience (CD) that happened in the Hart Building. I have been in direct actions before—at the School of the Americas as well as other events. But I have never seen a more beautiful and spiritually grounded action as this one.
The original plan for the action was to have a “pray-in” on the front steps of the building. As senators, staffers, lobbyists and tourists left the building, they were brought into our worship service for peace. Capitol Hill Police (CHP) came out of the building and began filming our service. The trickle of people leaving dried up. And after an hour, it was evident that CHP was trying to wait us out.
So the plans changed. It was decided that the CD would head inside where it was warm and dry. Those risking arrest sat in the middle of the Office Building’s Atrium in a circle and began to sing hymns and pray. CHP came within a matter of minutes to break this up.
As CHP entered, they came to intimidate. They marched in and made a circle around the protestors. The rest of us then made a circle around CHP. We now had about three concentric circles. The CHP captain came with a bull horn to inform every one sitting that they had gathered without a permit and they needed to move. After three warnings, CHP brought out the handcuffs. At this moment some one stood up and started to pray in a loud, strong voice.
They thanked God for their ability to stand strong and peacefully in the face of injustice. They said that the police had no need to be afraid as we were peace loving people. They thanked the United States for being a good land to live safely in. And finally, they thanked CHP for doing such a good job, keeping our building safe. They prayed to God to protect every one, from the police officers to the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the people suffering in war torn regions. At this moment, the spirit of the room changed.
I could visibly see the tension of the police officers leave. They no longer felt the need to intimidate. The Quakers have a saying that “The Light came into the room.” And I could feel that. The bullhorn went away. And police officers crouched or sat on the ground in order to have conversations with the people they were arresting. The officers told folks that they could move along and not get arrested. They gently helped people up from the ground and gave them an option of whether they wanted to be handcuffed in the front or the back.
Those of us who were not getting arrested, were polite and professional as well. We followed directions well and thanked the officers for their work. We clapped for every one getting arrested. One by one, each of our 41 participants were handcuffed, had their picture taken and were gently led to the police vans. They were then all taken to jail.
Back at our hospitality site, we could only wait. We called each of the contacts for the arrested and let them know what we knew—which was not much. We expected a minimum of 4 to 8 hours of holding time. But after only 2 hours of waiting, we found that people were already getting released! Reports from those getting released showed that CHP continued to act in a professional and peaceful manner. They moved people along, giving them an option to Post and Forfeit—a legal option similar to a traffic violation or parking ticket. Just four hours after the first arrest, every one was released. All but three people took the Post and Forfeit, choosing instead to take this case to trial.
Like I said before, I have seen a lot of CD’s end in arrest. I have seen police officers get tough and mean. Once, a White House Police officer threatened to hit me with his cruiser! I have seen people being held in uncomfortable situations, sometimes for hours. I have never before seen such a beautiful, respectful, honor filled and peaceful action as this one. My compliments go to every one involved, activists and officers alike for respecting the inherent worth and dignity and the divine spirit of every one in that room.