CODEPINK: On the Hill to Stay
CODEPINK has staged anti-war demonstrations at the offices of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), disrupted committee hearings, chanted songs in Capitol Hill hallways and unfurled banners in the Hart Building.
But if some Members of Congress were hoping this female-led group would eventually go away, they’ll be sorely disappointed.
Earlier this spring, after spotting a listing on Craigslist.org, CODEPINK signed a one-year lease on a row house near Union Station — giving the colorful group a semipermanent base of operation within walking distance of its intended audience.
“I hope [Members] are shaking in their boots,” says 60-year-old Ann Wright, a retired U.S. Army colonel and diplomat, who resigned her post at the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia in protest against the war. Wright, who is now a full-time activist, frequently stays at the house when she’s in Washington, D.C.
Aside from a CODEPINK bumper sticker on the front entrance and a feminine doormat out front, there isn’t much to distinguish the rather nondescript brick walk-up at 712 Fifth St. NE from its neighbors. A lone green sign in the yard reads: “Impeach Him.”
Inside, however, lies a veritable pink wonderland. Living room walls are papered in anti-war and anti-President Bush signs that have been used at protests. There’s a communal computer for blogging and a TV nearly continuously turned to CNN or C-SPAN. A pink straw hat is perched on a lampshade. Pink feather boas hang from a row of hallway hooks. There’s a board listing contact information for the current occupants of the House and a map with pushpins showing where they hail from. Another board lists potential targeted news conferences, briefings and hearings for each day. A bookshelf is stocked with copies of the Constitution.
About 60 women — ranging from elementary-school-age to grandmothers — have slept in the five-bedroom, four-level house for stays that average about a week. There’s an online application for admission to the house, which is typically reserved for “core organizers,” says Barnard College graduate Rae Abileah, 24, CODEPINK’s local groups coordinator.
“It’s like a sorority house but better,” says Dana Balicki, a bright-eyed, 26-year-old who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and has been working for CODEPINK since getting involved “right before” the 2004 Republican National Convention.
And like a sorority, there’s a house mother. Desiree Fairooz, a 50-year-old former librarian and schoolteacher who left behind her family in Arlington, Texas, to join the cause, is “our mama,” Balicki says.
CODEPINK doesn’t like the word “rules,” Fairooz says, although there are a few house guidelines that include respecting yourself and embracing the “feminist/womanist principles” of “anti-racism” and “cooperation.”
That’s all good in theory, but how do roughly 20 women share two and a half bathrooms — yes, there are pink shower curtains — peaceably? Just fine, asserts Fairooz, noting that a 15-minute limit in the bathroom is suggested.
Food comes in part from donations — a local activist who collects bread for the needy also helps supply CODEPINKers. “We’ve been needy lately,” Fairooz explains. There also are periodic runs to Costco, and everybody who stays at the house pays $5 per day into a general grocery fund. Given the short stays, the kitchen cupboards’ contents are labeled for easy usage. Chores are a shared responsibility. A pink sign tacked to the dishwasher warns that the current load is “dirty.”
CODEPINK co-founder Jodie Evans says the group — which emerged in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and whose name is a spoof on the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded threat level system — was inspired to lease the house after a group of CODEPINK activists had briefly rented a house on the Hill and found the “community” they shared there “nurturing.” Having an official house, Evans adds, allows the group “to work closer together” and to respond “more quickly” to events around Washington. The $2,200-a-month rent is paid through member donations.
And the coolest room in the house? That’s the basement “peace room,” says 8-year-old Autumnrain Symphony, who arrived last week with her mom, Deidra Lynch, to take part in Mother’s Day peace activities. “It’s my favorite place,” the bespectacled fourth-grader confides, before breaking out into a rendition of a protest song to the tune of “God Bless America.” In the “peace room,” Autumnrain says she can escape the other “crowded” rooms and play dress-up with the various costumes and props the group keeps for its demonstrations.
The costume choices are plentiful, notes Fairooz. For instance, she says, if CODEPINKers were headed to an event with embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, they might “go as pink police” to show they wanted “to arrest him.” There also are pink scrubs hanging from ceiling pipes — which are useful when offering prescriptions to lawmakers “to make America well,” she says — and even a pink sequined “I Miss America” gown. In other parts of the room, pink tulle is wrapped around the ceiling pipes. A pink curtain attached to the ceiling doubles as a screen for movie nights. There also are stockpiles of paint and brushes for making signs.
It’s in the “peace room” that nightly strategy sessions are held to discuss which Members and hearings to target the following day.
Being a female-dominated group, it’s not surprising that tips on dressing also come up. “If you went to Gonzales and were wearing torture clothing, you would be appropriately dressed for the Judiciary” hearing later that day, Medea Benjamin, a CODEPINK co-founder, tells the assembled group Monday night. Abileah even models their new pink tunics, the fabric for which was donated by Danny DeVito’s wife, Rhea Perlman.
So far, neighbors haven’t minded the activity at the house, these women say. One family brought a card with a $200 donation that represented part of its tax refund for the year. Another local woman painted scenes of Capitol Hill houses, which now adorn the walls of the house.
While the occasional man who stays at the house is generally relegated to the basement, several men have helped outfit the digs. One drove from Indianapolis to build the women bunk beds. Another bought them a rickshaw-style, pedaled cart, kept out back behind the house, to carry those who have trouble walking.
When the activists return in the evening after a day of “actions,” the house serves as a place to regroup and network. Given the flow of people who drift in and out, a relatively low-key vibe dominates. In the tiny backyard — which features pink impatiens and geraniums — a male Army nurse who recently returned from service in Iraq hangs out with a cowboy hat-wearing Vietnam War-era veteran from Texas who sports a ponytail. Both men took part in an anti-war march earlier that day. Inside the house, Midge Potts, a self- described “transgender activist” who lives as a woman though she was born a man and who ran against then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in his GOP primary last summer, is on her cell phone organizing people to pick up those who were arrested while protesting that day. In an upstairs bedroom, women count the money they’ve collected to help bail out those who were arrested.
At the end of the day, lights-out times vary, says Evans, who works out of one of CODEPINK’s California offices but stays at the house when in D.C. “We don’t have to have rules. You have respect. You figure it out.”
And anyhow, at least for the moment, the occupants appear to be mainly an early-rising crew. A few minutes before 8 a.m. Tuesday, several women pile into a car to head over to the National Press Club, where Gonzales is scheduled to headline a breakfast.
Just then, Lori Perdue, 38, stumbles into the kitchen yawning. “We were doing jail support till 5:30 a.m.,” says the poet, mother of two and former Air Force radio broadcaster, who was inspired to join CODEPINK by Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war activism.
Elizabeth Barger, a 71-year-old woman with long gray braids who lives on a cooperative farm in Tennessee, offers to make Perdue some eggs so she can get ready to take Barger to the Hill to look for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Barger has been through this before. She remembers marching against the Vietnam War and in earlier anti-violence protests in the 1970s, but this is worse, she believes. “We know better” now, she says.
So will CODEPINK renew its lease when it comes up next March?
Evans hopes the group doesn’t have to.
“When that’s up we hope the soldiers are home from Iraq,” she says.