By Mike Ferner
DES MOINES -- A new campaign to place the Iraq war in the center of Iowa's presidential caucus races kicked off in Des Moines yesterday. But as often happens, it wasn't so much the protest that made the story as the reaction to it.
"Seasons Of Discontent--A Presidential Occupation Campaign," or SODAPOP as its organizers dubbed it, targeted the campaigns of Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, taking over their offices in the Iowa state capital and disrupting both campaigns for several hours before a total of 19 people were arrested.
The "law and order" Giuliani campaign waited only about two hours to call on the suburban Clive, Iowa police to arrest 10 activists. The Clinton campaign appeared more reluctant to remove the protesters, waiting almost eight hours before requesting the Des Moines Police Department remove nine activists. The last two hours of the Clinton occupation generated reactions from young staffers that typically send a candidate's damage control unit into overtime, especially when that candidate is trying to appeal to rock-solid Democratic voters.
The nine, along with a handful of supporters, called on Clinton's Ingersoll Ave. office at 1:30pm, telling staffer David Barnhart that they had come for the Senator's response to a letter they had sent her a month earlier, asking her to publicly pledge "to take the necessary concrete steps to end the Iraq war, to rebuild Iraq, to foreswear military attacks on other countries, and to fully fund the Common Good in the U.S."
Barnhart ended a brief exchange with Catholic Peace Ministry director, Brian Terrell by saying, "Look, nobody wants to end the war in Iraq more than Hillary Clinton. We love to hear a diversity of opinion, but we are asking you to leave now."
Ignoring Barnhart's request, the occupiers spent until 8:00pm reading the names of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers killed in the war, taping "End the Iraq War" flyers onto Clinton campaign signs, taking a brief turn calling registered voters to inform them of Clinton's war votes before the phone was disconnected, having limited success engaging staffers and volunteers in discussion, and making enough racket doing so to make it difficult to continue business as usual. In twos and threes throughout the afternoon, all the campaign volunteers and most of the staff departed.
At 6:30, Terrell and Farah Mokhtareizadeh, a 24 year-old peace activist from Philadelphia, followed by two reporters, drove across town to Clinton's Second Street office. Through the building's glass doors they saw a group of about 25 people but found the door locked. First Terrell, and then the reporters, asked to come in. One reporter, told earlier in the day that all statements for the Clinton campaign had to come from press secretary Mark Daly, asked unsuccessfully to speak with him. Staff members ushered the knot of volunteers into an interior room, leaving a half-dozen of their colleagues in the outer area who proceeded to ignore not only Terrell and the reporters, but over the next half hour, more than a dozen volunteers and paid staff, all surprised to see the doors locked and unable to get anyone's attention from inside.
At one point the reporters went to a side window to try and observe what was happening, only to have a large "Hillary" sign placed to block their view. At that, the four drove back to the Ingersoll Avenue office.
Shortly after they returned, Mokhtareizadeh began reading the famous speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York, titled "Declaration of Independence from the Vietnam War." The most frequently quoted lines in it are, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," but it also contains a prophetic warning from the Buddhist leaders of Vietnam.
"Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat."
Moments after those lines were read, a booming guitar riff thundered from the open door of a work room adjoining the space held by the occupiers, drowning out King's words. Mokhtareizadeh picked up a bullhorn and continued King's speech, overpowering the music.
Shortly thereafter, the decible battle ended in success for the occupiers and King's speech continued at a humane level. A reporter went to the office from which the music had emanated and asked the staff member if he wanted to give a statement about the odd juxtaposition posed by a speech of Martin Luther King's being drowned out in a prominent Democrat's Iowa campaign headquarters. The unidentified staff member declined and referred the reporter to Mr. Daly.
At the conclusion of the King speech, Robert Braam, a 51 year-old cabinetmaker from Manhattan, Illinois took up reading the names of Iraqis killed in the war until through the main door strode an assertive, middle-aged woman who went about the office introducing herself with a firm handshake to every protester, as Teresa Vilman of the Hillary Clinton campaign. "I'll give you three minutes to leave and then I'll call the police," she said, smiling, "which I guess is what you want anyway."
With that, Vilman directed the remaining staffers to take down the numerous "End the Iraq War" flyers and remove all traces of the occupation. She cheerily asked the protesters, "If you don't mind, would you please take the empty water bottles with you?"
No one objected to her request, but David Goodner, a senior at the University of Iowa, retorted, "If you don't mind, would you please get Mrs. Clinton on the phone for us?" And Des Moines resident, Mona Shaw, 56, added, "And if she doesn't mind, ask her to keep from invading Iran."
Within minutes, five police cars and over a dozen officers began rolling into the campaign office's parking lot. At Captain Bob Clock's request, Vilman went up to every activist and the reporters, asking each to leave. Supporters of the occupiers who did not intend to be arrested, and the reporters exited the office. Not long afterward, Des Moines police officers led nine handcuffed occupiers out of the Hillary Clinton campaign office and into a waiting paddy wagon. The ninth was Mokhtareizadeh, who, throughout the day was not planning on being among the arrestees. As she returned inside the office to submit to the police, she said, "After reading that whole speech from Dr. King, I just had to get arrested with the others."
The other SODAPOPers arrested at the Clinton campaign office were Renee Espeland, 46, a Des Moines chimney sweep; Chris Gaunt, 51, a third-generation Iowa farmer from Grinnell; and Chrissy Kirchoefer, 30, from Marseilles Illinois.
They were joined in the Polk County Jail by the ten arrested at Giuliani's Iowa headquarters, Kathy Kelly, Co-director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Chicago; Suzanne Sheridan 31, photo assistant and artist model, Francis of Assisi Catholic Worker House in Chicago; Ron Durham, 26, bike repair and handyman, Francis of Assisi House, Chicago; Elton Davis, 45, proprietor of Sweet Bee Infoshop, Des Moines; Ed Bloomer, 60, Dingman Catholic Worker House, Des Moines; Joy First, 53, of Madison, Wisconsin; Nick Kinkel, 19, Des Moines; Mickey Davis, 16, Waukee, Iowa; Jeff Leys, 43, and Dan Pearson, 26, both Co-directors of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Chicago.
Organizers say the protests in Iowa will continue, with more occupations slated for December 29 to January 3, 2008 as the caucuses take place. They hope peace activists will generate similar actions in other states as the presidential primary season develops, and challenge candidates "as they make public appearances around the state without regard for arbitrary 'free speech zone' restrictions that may be established by candidates, parties, police or the Secret Service."
Ferner is a freelance writer from Ohio and author of "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq."