In the face of ever-widening fascism and the steady assault on the poor, the planet and the remnants of democracy, I risked arrest as part of a modest, Gandhian campaign at the White House on Sept. 22.
The action was part of Campaign Nonviolence’s national week of action, which registered 2,668 events, marches and actions across the United States, in all 50 states, and 24 other nations. Over the course of a week, tens of thousands of people connected the dots between racism, poverty, greed, war, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and called for justice and a new culture of nonviolence.
The centerpiece of the campaign began on the afternoon of Sept. 21, in a church center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where a nonviolence training session was held, followed by an evening panel discussion on the power and methodology of Gandhian/Kingian nonviolence through grassroots movements.
The following morning, we gathered at 9 a.m. at the foot of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue along the National Mall’s Tidal Basin to hear speakers call for a return to King’s wisdom of nonviolence. The rain had stopped and the water was beautifully calm. A large blue heron kept vigil at one end, and a tall white egret on another. A U.S. military helicopter – as well as a flock of Canadian geese – circled overhead.
With Kit Evans Ford and George Martin as emcees, Lisa Sharon Harper of Freedom Road called us to resist the evils of systemic racism and sexism. Shane Claiborne talked about the latest gun violence and wars and why we must end them. Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, urged us to break through our despair, numbness and paralysis, as King did, to protect Mother Earth. Ken Butigan outlined the strength of active organized nonviolence, as demonstrated by King. I said it was time for all of us to rise to the occasion and become mature champions of justice, peace and creation, that it was time for us to strive for the level of creative nonviolence modeled by King.
Then we set off. We lined up two by two, and walked off in silence. At the Lincoln Memorial, we knelt down in silence for a minute, as King did during the Birmingham marches. Thousands of tourists stopped to watch us, confused or curious. Each one of us held a blue sign with a quote by Gandhi or King, and we called out, “Abolish war, poverty, racism, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction! We want a culture of nonviolence!”
On we walked, past the reflecting pool, down the sidewalk along the black stone walls of the Vietnam memorial, past the names of the war dead. A park ranger started yelling at us and taking our peace signs, but one of our peacekeepers calmed her down. Most people seemed to understand and nod their heads in quiet appreciation.
Along Constitutional Avenue and 17th Street, we took another knee, trying to stay centered in our pledge for open, heartfelt nonviolence.
Then we reached Pennsylvania Avenue and walked to Lafayette Park. With a perfect blue sky overhead and a cool breeze blowing, we stood amidst the circus of thousands of tourists, tour groups, mimes, speakers, singers and police. We lined up holding our signs facing the White House and continued our peace vigil.
Ten of us walked up to the White House fence, turned our backs, and held up our signs in front of the passing tourists. We had crossed the line into the no-protest zone. The police eventually approached, cleared an area around us on the sidewalk, and told us we would soon be arrested if we did not disperse. We thanked them and stayed put.
So began our stand off, or our stand for peace. Nearly two hours later, we were still there, and realized that, in fact, the police were not going to arrest us. We ended our witness, gathered in a circle for a closing prayer, and promised one another to keep building up this movement of nonviolent resistance.