Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Maine nonviolence campaign leads to town meetings

Dear friends,

Here's an item from the Portland (ME) Phoenix, about a nonviolence campaign to get the attention of Maine's congressional delegation.  Thanks to list member Rick Polhamus for passing it along.

What catches my attention in this item is the careful planning of a campaign to achieve a particular goal (a town meeting).  What might "campaign-planning" offer to your current peace and justice activities?

blessings of strategic insight!

Matt Guynn
On Earth Peace
Portland (Maine) Phoenix
December 14, 2005

A somber occupation
Maine’s anti-war activists have come up with a plan to make our congressional delegates listen. And they’re marketing it to other states
By Sara Donnelly

Last December, 13 anti-war activists gathered in Senator Susan Collins's office in Portland. They read the names of the American soldiers who had died to date in the Iraq War, as well as an equal number of Iraqi civilians who died. They occupied Collins's office for roughly four hours and, before they left, asked the senator to hold a "town meeting" to discuss the war with her constituents.

On February 4, 17 Maine peace activists gathered in the Portland offices of Senator Olympia Snowe. Again, they read the names of the American soldiers who had died in the Iraq War and an equal number of Iraqi names ­ over 2000 total by that date. This time, after someone read the name of each war-dead, they marked an X, in red or black marker, on a giant sheet of cloth to demonstrate the enormity of the loss. They then asked Snowe to meet with her constituents in a town meeting on the war.

On March 18, 35 people gathered in Representative Tom Allen's Portland office. They repeated the February action's format.

The names of the war dead were read, X marks were drawn on a white sheet, and, at the end, the request for a town meeting.

On June 23, 100 people gathered to protest the war in front of Collins's Bangor office.

About a month later, on August 26, another occupation occurred in Collins's Lewiston office. Someone brought a bell, which rang after each name was read.

Then again on October 14, at Snowe's office in Biddeford. The names, the sheet, the bell, the request for a town meeting.

All told, there have been six nearly identical occupations of Maine's congressional delegates' offices (as well as several informal meetings with US Representative Mike Michaud), each lasting between four and six hours, each designed to slowly and somberly disrupt business as usual. It's all part of a statewide, coordinated action called the "Frequent Visit Program," founded a year ago by some of the state's most fervent anti-war activists.

Since the start of this anti-war occupation effort, Allen and Michaud have agreed to the activists' request to hold a town meeting on the Iraq War. Maine's FVP activists are well aware the time is ripe to use congressional leaders to get the anti-war message to the Prez, thanks to plummeting public support for the war and anti-war lightning rods like Cindy Sheehan and US representative John Murtha. So FVP creators are marketing their model nationwide.

The ready-to-wear war-resistance model ­ an office occupation, a roll-call of the dead, a request for public dialogue ­ has already been used in a handful of other states thanks to FVP outreach through correspondence, training brochures, and a DVD. Forget moose and blueberries ­ Maine now has its own little peace action franchise.

Frequent Visit is founded on a premise so basic it seems like common sense: To get things done, you need to sway your local legislator. Visitors focus on national legislators exclusively and leave the vigils and massive marches for another day.

The plan is simple. First, Visitors call or visit the offices of Maine's congressional delegates in small groups of three or four. They request private meetings to discuss their concerns about the war. If they haven't gotten a meeting after several attempts, they stage a sit-in, referred to most often as an "occupation," in which they eulogize the Iraq War dead. They ask for a town meeting, open to the public, in which the congressional delegate can discuss his or her policies on the war with constituents. If they don't get a commitment, or a reasonable promise of one, they make phone calls, send letters, write e-mails, several times a month, over and over and over, asking for a town meeting. It's frequent, pointed pressure. Visitors are the guests who won't leave.

Now, within this model, there's room for variation. Since the activist movement in-state and beyond is chronically non-hierarchical and as dynamic as sand in a windstorm, Visit actions can vary. Sometimes they're outside the office. Sometimes, they're inside. The core group of organizers changes according to which peace group is based closest to the action. The next action, on December 15, the day of parliamentary elections in Iraq, at Senator Snowe's office in Bangor, will break with FVP tradition and include a press conference and forgo the reading of the names. FVP activists, also, for the first time in the program's history, plan to occupy the office that day until they receive a response from the senator to their concerns about the war. FVP co-founder and longtime activist Bruce Gagnon thinks it might be the first time he gets arrested on an FVP mission.

Despite the December variation, FVP's strength lies in its relative consistency.

Gagnon and the handful of Maine activists who created FVP watched Allen hold a town meeting on the war in Portland last July and this month received the promise of one in Bangor from Michaud. But the senators have been a tougher sell. Kevin Kelley, a press secretary for Senator Susan Collins, says the senator "welcomes the communications from constituents" but prefers to meet one-on-one rather than in large, town hall meetings.

Antonia Ferrier, press secretary for Senator Olympia Snowe, says the senator has not "ruled out" a town meeting but no plans have been made to hold one.

"[Senator Snowe] wants to be able to hear from [the Visitors] as well as any Mainer about how they feel on any issue," says Ferrier. "That helps her formulate her policy and explain to her colleagues in Washington what she’s hearing at home and what the political will is of her constituents."

Despite our reluctant senators, as Gagnon says, "two of the four pillars have fallen." The Visit program, only one year old, has fostered some real discussion on the war with the state's DC delegates.

"We've been getting more and more people coming out of the woodwork wanting to be a part of this," says Gagnon, of Brunswick (see "Becoming a Visitor"). "That really says something about the state of activism. People are desperate; they just want to become a part of something."

Gagnon based Visit on the 1930s General Motors plant sit-down strikes conducted by the United Auto Workers in Flint, Michigan. That movement is recognized in activist circles as one of the most important labor-rights strikes in American history. The FVP model has been used in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Some of the occupations have resulted in a town meeting on the war. Others have ended with activists spending a few days in jail, though the Maine Visitors have never been arrested during an occupation.

Maureen Block, an activist from Swanville, became hooked on the Visit program from the first meeting she attended in March. Block heard about plans for the March occupation of Allen's office from friends, the same way most Maine activists learn about demonstrations, and was struck by how organized the sit-in was.

"The Frequent Visit Program was the first thing that was presented to me that would produce tangible results," Block says. "It was direct action in the offices, making statements with a clear purpose. It was a way to really get directly involved in something that made sense to me."

Gagnon and others who founded the program ­ including Karen Wainberg of Peace Action Maine, Dud Hendrick of Maine Veterans for Peace, and Pat Wheeler, an artist and activist from Deer Isle ­ hope activists in other states will adopt the format to put pressure on their own congressional senators and representatives. Wheeler has filmed four of the six occupations to date and edited hours of footage into 20-minute montages set to folk music which she sends to activists in the state and around the country. At an anti-war demonstration in Washington DC last September, Visitors handed out hundreds of flyers on how to recreate the program. Wheeler and other Maine activists frequently send informal e-mails to their activist buddies in other states talking about FVP. They talk about it on activist listservs. They hype it to their friends over coffee. "The good, old-fashioned, grassroots word-of-mouth network is the best way," says Gagnon.

"We felt that we created a model which could be recreated across the country," says Wheeler of Visit. "We try to encourage [other states' activists] to organize a new group of people that haven't done this before to teach them to do an effective office visit. We wanted more people to repeatedly visit the offices [of congressional representatives] because we've sent countless petitions their way, we've made phone calls and sent e-mails and it seemed too easy to ignore. We thought visiting their office in person would make a difference."

For the rest of this article, including pics:

http ://

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Baltimore sun article on Iraq hostages

An article from yesterday's Baltimore Sun.


Fate of four peace activists kidnapped in Iraq unknown

Captors vowed nearly 3 weeks ago to kill them if inmates weren't freed

By Russell Working

Originally published January 3, 2006

CHICAGO // Nearly three weeks after kidnappers vowed to kill four peace workers in Baghdad if all Iraqi prisoners weren't released, there has been no word from the kidnappers or their hostages.

The uncertain fate of the four hostages didn't stop Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams from sending another activist to Iraq on Friday for a six-week stay. Another team plans to visit the country in May.

"It's a commitment that I made to the Christian Peacemaker Teams when I became a [CPT] reservist," said Duluth, Minn., resident Michele Naar-Obed, who works at a Catholic Worker house that provides shelter and food for needy people. "I believe strongly that we have to have an alternative to warmaking as our means of solving conflict."

The November kidnapping - by a previously unknown group called Swords of Righteousness Brigade - stunned the peace group, which has roots in the traditionally pacifist Mennonite and Brethren Churches and has sought to build ties with Iraqis of all religions.

Family members and colleagues are spending the holidays worrying and praying for the safety of hostages Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va.; Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32; and Briton Norman Kember, 74. They say they interpret the silence as a sign that the kidnappers haven't carried out their death threat.

For the remainder of this article, please link to:
The Baltimore Sun

CPT Iraq update & two reflections from Baghdad

Dear friends, sisters, brothers,

Many members of the Peace Witness Action List have written in recent days to ask if there is any word on the CPTers missing in Iraq. Unfortunately, no. Please remain in prayer for them and their captors.
Here are reflections from two CPTers working in Baghdad, written in recent days: Greg Rollins, a Mennonite from British Columbia, and Peggy Faw Gish, a Church of the Brethren member from Ohio.

Yours in solidarity,

Matt Guynn

CPTnet, 2 January 2006
IRAQ REFLECTION: Where such uncertainty reigns
by Greg Rollins

Winter in Iraq and the country is frozen. Not frozen with ice or with fear but with uncertainty. Nothing here moves freely: people's lives, their jobs, traffic, reconstruction, education. Without a good idea of what the future holds many Iraqis are hesitant to move forward with their lives.

Iraqis often talk about the uncertainty. They turn on the faucet and there might not be any water. They can flick on the light switch but there might not be electricity for hours. They want to go to school or to marry or find work but they feel doing so is a wasted effort when they don't know what will happen next. The election promised change and a bright future but Iraqis know it isn't that easy. The violence will not fade and the infrastructure will not improve in a matter of weeks.

The Iraqi people do not feel like they are in charge of their country. They do not feel like their government is in charge either. Even if there is a government made up of Iraqis, people face the power the Multinational Forces. They see and hear the military helicopters that constantly pass overhead. They see the convoys of foreign vehicles or they hear about the battles fought by Multinational Forces and they know who is really in control of the country.

Usually the uncertainty and lack of control in Iraq do not affect CPT directly. There have been times when we have been unable to move forward in our work. Before, those times never lasted long. But now the team in Iraq is frozen like the country. As we work for the release of our four colleagues we are unable to continue with our previous work. We cannot talk with Iraqis held in the prisons here. We cannot listen to Palestinian Iraqis and hear what their lives are like. In the past we helped many human rights groups, now those groups are helping us.

We cannot force the kidnappers to contact us, but we do write letters asking them to and then post the letters on our web site. We cannot call up someone who might know them and say "Just release our guys already!" but we ask our Iraqi friends to send out appeals in the hope that they might know someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows--

And we wait. Like the people of Iraq we are waiting for things to thaw, for things to become certain again and for some control over our lives and our work. We are uncertain when this will happen, but we have faith. The Iraqi people are also uncertain about when they will be able to move forward or how, but they are certain that after the winter comes the spring.

CPTnet, 4 January 2005
IRAQ REFLECTION: Walking ahead in the New Year
by Peggy Gish

The New Year began in Baghdad with firecrackers, flares and even some colorful fireworks, but also with bombs and shooting that killed at least twenty people. Celebrations of this day usually symbolize the hope for new beginnings, new possibilities. Iraqis still have that hope, but it's a struggle to maintain it when the changes in their society and government have resulted in greater insecurity and continued violence.

As part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, I find challenges to my hope when I see the daily pain and hardships of the Iraqi people, as well as the unresolved disappearance of our four colleagues.

Kidnappings, killings, and bombings- whether they are done by the resistance or the state--instill fear in the people. This fear leads to feelings of helplessness and paralysis. It drains the hope that their actions can lead to change. People become afraid to speak out and take action against injustice. We see this in Iraqis, and we find it creeping into our consciousness as well. We, as peacemakers, often feel pressure from others to be more realistic in our work, to see that the world's economic, military and governmental structures are so strong and entrenched that they are truly impossible to change.

We are aware that when we work for change, we can be eliminated any time our work is seen as threatening to those wielding power. Our government's and the world's networks of violence appear overpowering, but we must not be seduced into believing that they are invincible. I continue to believe that the power of truth and love is stronger than all these forces. (I do not mean that there won't be struggle and suffering. It is when the dissent is having a powerful effect and the structures of power feel threatened, that the greatest crackdown on it occurs.)

We are encouraged when we walk alongside Iraqi people who daily take risks addressing injustice and corruption, but we must also make wise and critical decisions. We need to discern how to respond, where to focus our energies, whether this is the time to be more publicly confrontational or whether moving forward must wait. Whatever the decisions, we do not want fear to immobilize us.

This New Year is the time for more of us to become part of movements that expose the real sources of terror and the lies behind lofty reasons given for war and occupation. It is the time to live out alternatives to the dehumanization and emptiness of our society, to build communities of love that more justly share the world's resources. It is time to keep walking ahead, although we feel weak as individuals, and to allow God to work powerfully through our combined efforts. It is time to affirm what we know deep inside, that love and truth are more powerful than any evil force.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Year's Reflection

Dear friends,
        In this first post of the year, I offer several questions for this time of spiraling year-turning.  It's an appropriate week to look behind and look forward at your own peacemaking, discipleship, and justicebirthing.  
        You may want to pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee, or open your journal, and find a bit of open time for reflection and prayer.  Or if time doesn't permit, print it out and think about it while stuck in traffic! 
  • About what do you feel most satisfied as you look back on 2005, in terms of your risk-taking for peace and justice?  For what do you give thanks?
  • What leadings did you finally recognize this year?  What did naming them lead to?
  • In what ways is your call to peace & justice-related ministry clarifying right now?
  • What new risks might you be willing to take this year for the Beloved Community and the Reign of God?
  • In all things may we give glory to God, through whom all things are possible.  What shape might peace action as an expression of worship take for you this year?
May God richly bless your inmost soul
and your fierce and persistent resistance
to the forces of Empire.

Love & grace,