Disrupting Power: A CODEPINK Activist Explains How to Stand on Your Chair and Yell for Justice
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
I got a call from Samantha at the CODEPINK office last week: "Can you disrupt Pelosi on Saturday?" she asked. Nancy Pelosi was going to be speaking at an event less than an hour from my house. Sam said she'd send me tickets and a banner if I would stand up on my chair during an opportune moment, unfurl the banner and urge Pelosi to not buy Bush's war.
My heart started to pound. The idea thrilled me to no end, but I felt a rush of fear, too. I was a girl who always had something to say in class but was often too scared to raise my hand. I used to ask my sister to order for me at restaurants when we were young because I was too shy. I've come out of my shell a lot since then, but I still tend to feel more brave as a writer than I do out in the world. Now that I had a chance to speak truth to power off the page, I hoped I could summon the necessary chutzpah.
I remember seeing Medea Benjamin confront Donald Rumsfeld during a hearing on TV several years ago, shortly before CODEPINK was founded; it was my first glimpse of Medea, and I was utterly exhilarated by her courage. I continue to be deeply inspired when I witness CODEPINKers disrupting conventions and hearings and speeches, putting their bodies on the line to speak for peace. I work to promote peace as a writer, but writing from the safety of my home feels very different from standing directly in front of the powers that be and demanding change. Last week, watching footage of our own Midge in her hot pink IMPEACH BUSH shirt standing behind Valerie Plame, I felt such a swell of admiration and pride.
I tried to channel Midge's moxie as I put on my bright pink clothes and drove out to the Morongo Casino and Resort on Saturday. When I started to feel nervous about my mission, I remembered the seriousness of the situation: Pelosi is poised to funnel almost $100 billion into a war she says she doesn't support. A war the vast majority of Americans don't support. A war that grows more tragic by the day. Pelosi has the power to end this war -- the power of the purse -- but she is caving in to political pressure. CODEPINKers have been camping out at Pelosi's homes in San Francisco and D.C., and staging teach-ins in her office to remind her that this is about people, not politics. If she doesn't use the power we've given her, she'll lose it. If she buys Bush's war, she'll own it. I found myself feeling more and more determined as I drove into the desert, more convinced that disrupting Pelosi was the most important thing I could do, shyness be damned.
At the casino, I walked past the ringing bells and flashing lights of slot machines; my heart started pounding again but my steps felt strong as I neared the convention center within the building. There was a bit of a hassle at registration since my name wasn't on the official list, but no one seemed suspicious or wary as I grabbed some veggies at the buffet and slipped into the hall where the luncheon was being held. I found a seat near the front of the room -- better for disruptive visibility -- and flipped through the program, trying to keep my breath steady.
The event was the Native American Caucus' Second Annual Women's Forum. It was an impressive lineup -- a day full of workshops and panels on subjects such as domestic violence, healthcare, women in politics, even becoming an activist. Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi's name was nowhere to be found. The keynote speaker instead was going to be Hilda Solis, a California congresswoman. I was disappointed that I wouldn't have the opportunity to confront Pelosi directly, but knew there was still an opportunity to make a difference.
John Garamendi, the lieutenant governor of California, spoke about how women need to rise up and take the lead. He spoke of the current healthcare and education crises, and how these affect women and children most acutely. He talked about how the government needs to do a better job of caring for the people. He didn't once, however, say that if we didn't fund the war, we'd have plenty of money available for social programs. He didn't mention the war at all. I was tempted, despite my shy tendencies, to get up and say something, but I didn't want to get my message out too early -- I wanted to save it for the person who needed to be impacted: a congresswoman who was going to be voting on the supplemental appropriations in the coming week.
Jodie Evans arrived, looking like the goddess she is in all her pink glory, shortly after Hilda Solis started to speak. Jodie joined me at the table and we commiserated as Solis pimped No Child Left Behind, Bush's dubious education plan. Solis had some good and important things to say about global warming, about healthcare, but she didn't mention the war or funding at all until the end of her speech. She had been part of a women's delegation to Iraq recently, she said, and soldier after soldier asked her when they were going to come home. One told her he didn't have the light bulbs he needed to look for IEDs at night; one told her he didn't have scissors. When she asked why he needed scissors, he told her he wasn't able to bandage up his buddies without them. She bemoaned the horrible conditions and said she didn't support Bush's war, but then she also talked about how, with the supplemental this week, she had a chance to give the troops the funding they needed. Jodie turned to me and said, "I'm going to be sick." We decided that as soon as Solis' speech was over, we'd carry the DON'T BUY BUSH'S WAR banner to the front of the room.
When we stood up and unfurled the pink banner that had been folded in my backpack, the climate of the room changed: There was both a hush and a crackle of energy. We walked up to the front table, where Solis was shaking hands and having her picture taken. Solis smiled and nodded at us at first, but when we asked her to vote "no" on the supplemental, to not buy the war, her expression changed. She clearly wasn't expecting to be the target of our message. She clearly thought she was doing the right thing with the supplemental. We tried to open her eyes.
As Jodie and I walked out of the room, the audience clapped and cheered, some of them standing, when they saw the banner stretched between us. It was exhilarating to know that the people at large agree with our message, that they don't want Congress to fund Bush's war. I hope Rep. Solis was listening loud and clear to that response. We had a chance to talk with her again as she was leaving the event. She kept insisting that she was not buying Bush's war, but we told her that she was making a grave mistake. We asked her to please vote "no," to please help us end this dreadful war.
Jodie was supposed to be in D.C. over the weekend, marching with CODEPINK, joining CODEPINK in the halls of Congress, but her plane had been grounded. I was grateful to have her with me in Morongo, to help inspire me to stand up and speak to power; I would have tried to do it on my own, but her presence gave me that extra dose of courage, of resolve. She said that she was grateful to be there as well; she doubted that she would have the chance in D.C. to meet with a congressperson face-to-face, to have the time to really look a representative in the eye and urge them to do the right thing.
We later walked back into the luncheon with a larger, more graphic banner with the same message and stood at the back of the room as people filed out. Many people thanked us for being there; others asked us how they could get involved. One woman told us that her son, a 25-year-old new father, was about to be deployed to Iraq for the fifth time. She has wanted to speak out, she said, but wasn't sure where to begin. We told her how important her voice is and gave her the resources to get it out there. It was so moving to hear people's concerns, people's desire to do something to change the course of this war. We asked people to call their representatives and ask them to vote "no" on the supplemental; we reminded them that they each have the opportunity to make a difference.
I am so grateful to CODEPINK for giving people -- especially women -- a voice for helping me find my own voice out in the world and not just on the page. I love how we can inspire each other, help each other realize that we are each capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. I know that if Nancy Pelosi, or any other leader, comes to town now, I will not hesitate to stand on my chair and yell for justice, for peace. And I will do whatever I can to encourage others to raise their own voices; our voices in chorus are what will end this war.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of "Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write," "The Book of Dead Birds," which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, and her new novel, "Self Storage." She writes the weekly alert that goes out to over 100,000 CODEPINK members.