CODEPINK: Upping the Protest Ante

Posted December 3, 2007 at 6:35pm

CODEPINK has never been so red hot.

The mostly women’s anti-war group has moved from a fringe protest group into the mainstream, getting noticed by the White House and others as a political force du jour.

And it’s not just administration policies that have the group up in arms. Lately, it’s Democrats themselves who are in their cross hairs.

“It isn’t just for the hell of it we go to Congress and insert ourselves,” said Gael Murphy, a Washington, D.C., resident and CODEPINK co-founder. “Five years into the war we have extreme frustration because the Democrats are being so accommodating.”

But as CODEPINK has upped its visibility with bolder actions on Capitol Hill, it’s also facing a backlash from irritated Members of Congress who have gaveled them out of hearings, and the Capitol Police, who CODEPINK members say are trying to rein in their behavior.

The group’s frustration has translated into even louder behavior on Capitol Hill, where members regularly protest the war in Iraq and resist arrests. That’s in addition to their usual protesting fare of banner drops in the Hart Senate Office Building and tracking down Members of Congress to try to get their message across.

As CODEPINK has intensified its efforts, it has been clashing more directly with Capitol Police.

The group’s leadership says that police have begun to unfairly target their members in what they describe as “pink profiling,” stopping CODEPINK members in the halls to ask about court-enforced stay-away orders, kicking them out of committee hearings without provocation and increasingly slapping them with harsher charges.

Capitol Police disagrees. After testifying at a Capitol Visitor Center oversight hearing last month, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse told Roll Call that the department has a succinct policy on how it monitors all demonstrations — permitted or not — that take place on Capitol Hill.

“We single no one out,” Morse said. “We apply the applicable laws, and our officers act with discretion.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, himself a former Capitol Police chief. Gainer, who is regularly briefed on all security matters that affect Capitol Hill, said he has seen “absolutely no evidence of mistreatment” toward CODEPINK or any other protest group.

“The department does very well with protesters, whether they’re very peaceful or whether they get more rambunctious,” Gainer said, noting that millions of visitors come to Capitol Hill each year — and hundreds of protests are held — but very few people actually are arrested.

“I think the overall goal is for everybody to understand the ground rules,” Gainer said. “There are some areas where signs and being vocal are permitted, and some areas where they’re not.”

Figuring out what those ground rules are, though, can be tough, CODEPINK members say. What Members of Congress and others will tolerate keeps changing, something that may in part be due to CODEPINK and the continued pressure it puts on lawmakers.

“In more than 20 years of practice, I have never seen a long-term systematic campaign of this sort,” said Mark Goldstone, a lawyer who represents many CODEPINK members. “This is really new, and because of it the ground rules are shifting and enforceability is shifting.”

A Different Sort of Group

Formed in 2002 by Medea Benjamin, a former Green Party candidate for California Senate, Murphy and several other women to protest the United States’ strike on Iraq, CODEPINK has always had a different veneer than many of its anti-war counterparts.

One big difference is age: The majority of CODEPINK members are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Their age, they say, has taught them not to give up even when change is taking longer than they want.

At times, they’ve used humor to get their point across, from riffing off of then-Secretary of Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge’s color-coded national security alert system to come up with their name — CODEPINK — to chanting catchy lyrics in Congressional halls and wearing attention-grabbing garb, all while keeping the message the same: Stop funding the war.

The group also has mobilized across the country, with outposts in California and New York and more than 250 chapters nationwide. Members regularly target the Democratic leadership, protesting outside a San Francisco veterans center while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was there, and holding a candlelight vigil in front of her house over Thanksgiving recess. Although the group has tried, it has yet to meet with the Speaker.

On Nov. 17, CODEPINK interrupted a fundraiser for presidential candidate and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) in order, it said, to keep the Iraq War on lawmakers’ minds.

In Washington, that’s translated into leasing a Capitol Hill row house that acts as headquarters for the group and its members who regularly travel inside the Beltway.

“We’ve intensified our actions as more people have joined us,” Murphy said.

The group’s presence has increased as well. Almost 200,000 subscribe to its weekly e-mail alert. CODEPINK’s budget increased from $2,500 to $3,500 a month from last year, said Dana Balacki, a CODEPINK spokeswoman who heads up the New York office.

The group also has expanded its vision to protest what it sees as the United States’ unnecessary intrusion into the foreign affairs of other countries, such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Benjamin was unavailable to comment because she is overseas, part of a group of human rights observers designed to be an ongoing presence in Pakistan.

Murphy tracks the group’s continued presence on Capitol Hill back to 2004, when then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified on Capitol Hill.

“When we went to the hearings [at first] we realized we could negotiate with staff, holding signs as long as they are not obstructing people’s views, wearing T-shirts that had messages,” Murphy said.

But different chairmen have different rules, and even lawmakers sometimes don’t agree with how Capitol Police handle situations.

“Some Democratic chairs are facing undue pressure to get rid of us,” Murphy said.

In March, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) went so far as to pay the $35 fine after Capitol Police arrested CODEPINK member and retired Army Col. Ann Wright after she left the hearing room. Conyers gaveled for Wright to be excused from the hearing, not arrested.

“If there is a disruption … or if demonstrators are wearing items that state an opinion, they are asked to be removed, not arrested,” a House Judiciary spokeswoman said.

Staying Away

One area in which CODEPINK members say they’ve seen a big change is the number of stay-away orders that prosecutors are requesting to keep CODEPINK members away from individual hearing rooms, Capitol Hill buildings or the entire Hill complex.

Stay-away orders aren’t given lightly, security officials say. The orders are given on a case-by-case basis, often requested for repeat offenders or particularly disruptive persons, officials say.

To get an order issued, Capitol Police must first go to the U.S. attorney’s office to ask for an order. Then, a federal prosecutor must convince a judge that there is cause to sign the order.

“Jeepers, that seems like an abundantly just way to do it,” Gainer said.

Eight CODEPINK members currently have orders to remain away from different parts of the Capitol Hill complex, said CODEPINK spokeswoman Balacki.

The group has certainly made a name for itself with its public and relatively aggressive tactics. Still, Congressional operations have not been significantly altered to adjust for their presence, and one knowledgeable Democratic staffer says CODEPINK hasn’t been the focus of any serious discussions among Members who oversee House operations.

Several Capitol Police officers said most CODEPINK members follow the rules when they come to office buildings. It’s only during specific, often heated hearings that officers have to step in, they said. One officer said that while there “are some troublemakers” in the group, most CODEPINKers are respectful.

Gainer has had “no conversations that people are particularly troubled by CODEPINK, or anybody else,” he said.

But that could change, especially if CODEPINK continues to pursue its newest strategic gambit: subpoenaing a House chairman to determine the criteria for the arrest of one of its members.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice showed up on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24, she was rushed by CODEPINK member Desiree Fairooz, who was arrested by Capitol Police after getting within a couple of feet of Rice.

But the police also arrested two other CODEPINK members, Lori Perdue and Benjamin.

Benjamin was arrested for flashing a peace sign. Her lawyer, Jack Beringer, then subpoenaed Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) to have him testify about the committee rules.

Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Benjamin, so the Lantos subpoena no longer needs to be answered. “The whole issue has been dropped,” said Bob King, Lantos’ chief of staff.

But Benjamin’s lawyer may push for a subpoena again if a similar situation arises. He’s also considering whether to file charges relating to the way Benjamin and Perdue were treated by Capitol Police when they were taken out of the hearing room, Murphy said.

King said his boss never requested that Benjamin and Perdue be arrested following Fairooz’s outburst at the Rice hearing. But Lantos will send a letter to Pelosi noting that he was subpoenaed, he said, because House rules require that subpoenas be part of the official record.