Rose Colored Clashes
January 9th, 2008
Code Pink activists are learning a hard-fought lesson: Sticking out on Capitol Hill isn't always a plus
Once a self-described “shy” librarian, Desiree Fairooz had her star turn on Capitol Hill last October.
The Code Pink activist faced off with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a congressional hearing room, screaming that Rice had the blood of millions of innocent Iraqis on her hands. Photos showed a pained-looking Rice clutching the back of a chair while Fairooz circled, her red-painted hands a few inches from the secretary of state’s face.
The incident—protest or borderline criminal assault, depending on one’s political views—made headlines around the world and sent the message that Code Pink Women for Peace wasn’t going away.
Named to poke fun at the Bush administration’s color-coded terrorism alert system, the group uses outlandish costumes, tongue-in-cheek singalongs, and campy guerrilla theater. Its antics often play on stereotypes about femininity and feminism—and they helped position Code Pink on the vanguard of the country’s peace movement.
During the first four years of its existence, when the Republicans controlled Congress, Code Pink activists developed a knack for subverting committee hearings. They unveiled protest banners or flashed a bit of pink at the television cameras. When the Democrats took charge of the House and Senate in November 2006, the protesters were overjoyed at the prospect that like-minded lawmakers would finally give them a chance to be both seen and heard at key committee hearings on the war.
Shortly after the new Congress convened, Code Pink rented a row house on Capitol Hill with grand plans to host activists from its 250-plus chapters around the country and abroad. The idea was to give folks from Pasadena to Pittsburgh the opportunity to bring their protest to Washington.
As the war dragged on and both parties in Washington turned their attention to elections and domestic issues, however, Code Pink’s one-time allies in the Democratic Party deserted them. These in-your-face activists were learning an important Beltway lesson. Success as a protest group doesn’t necessarily beget more success, just more obstacles.
The five-bedroom row house on 5th Street NE is decorated in shades of pink. There are pink lampshades, throw pillows, and quilts. Most of the furniture and décor were donated by supporters or bought secondhand. Stored in the basement are the pink slips that activists wear to suggest America should fire President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
The pink police uniforms came out last summer when the activists picketed the office of Alberto Gonzales, then the U.S. attorney general. There are beauty pageant sashes reading i miss america and i miss justice.
The pink hospital scrubs with matching pink prescription pads promote the message that the country is ailing and Code Pink has the cure. Other peace props have less metaphorical content. A larger-than-life papier-mâché puppet head of Secretary Rice sits atop a bookcase in the dining room. Downstairs, heads of Bush and administration officials await their turn in the spotlight. One of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lies upside down, kept handy, perhaps, should a reunion protest tour arise.
House residents hold potluck dinners every Wednesday night. Anyone’s welcome, except the opposition.
In October, the gatherings attracted protesters from FreeRepublic.com, a group that dubs itself “the premier online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web.” Kristinn Taylor, co-leader of FreeRepublic’s D.C. chapter, has some problems with Code Pink. He says the group is running a dangerously overcrowded lodging house and lobbying office in violation of various city zoning codes.
“Code Pink is famous for flaunting the law and daring people to do something about it. And usually they get away with it,” says Taylor, who wants them evicted. His group filed a complaint last May. So far, however, city officials have declined to shut down the house but say they are monitoring the situation. Taylor says that’s a bureaucratic way to say they have no plans to act.
“If the D.C. chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had opened an office on Capitol Hill, you can be sure the D.C. government would shut it down, as well they should,” Taylor says. “It’s the D.C. government playing politics.”
Drawing perhaps the most fire is Code Pink’s support for the Iraqi insurgency that has killed more than 3,700 American soldiers and wounded nearly 30,000 since since post-combat operations began there in May of 2003.
The group’s co-founder, Jody Evans, was an international observer at the World Tribunal on Iraq in June 2005. The Tribunal culminated in a statement signed by ativists from 10 countries that characterized the insurgency as “legitimate and justified” and called for war crimes charges against Bush and other world leaders who backed the U.S. invasion. Among the signers was playwright Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues and a member of Code Pink.
The group has also raised the hackles of conservatives by collecting medicine and hundreds of thousands of dollars from its U.S. supporters and shipping the humanitarian aid to groups working with Iraqis displaced by the war, some of them in insurgency strongholds like Fallujah. Taylor has called the humanitarian aid program “treasonous.”
Code Pink co-founder and one of its chief strategists Gael Murphy retorts: “What’s treasonous? It’s already been agreed by the majority of Americans that this was an illegitimate invasion. How are we being treasonous by criticizing this war?”
She scoffs at allegations the group is funneling money to insurgents. To make sure it is not diverted for anything other than humanitarian ends, Code Pink has partnered with a single Baghdad-based charitable organization that helps widows and orphans in the capital and several of the worst-hit provinces, she says.
Before she threw every pink article of clothing she owned into a suitcase and boarded a flight to Washington, Desiree Fairooz had a job as a second-grade teacher at a public school in a suburb of Dallas. Before that, she’d worked at the Arlington, Texas, public library.
This war is the first to move her to acts of civil disobedience. Desiree, or Des as her friends call her, says she had never participated in any kind of protest. Growing up in Los Angeles, Fairooz, 51, was too young to march against the Vietnam War. And, anyway, protesting was never encouraged by her parents, whom she describes as “working people.” Like many of her colleagues in Code Pink, she says 9/11 was a call to action. She hadn’t been particularly interested in current events. Now, she needed to understand why the terrorists hated Americans enough to fly planes into buildings. She didn’t limit herself to the mainstream media but started seeking out independent news sources and Bush administration critics. She didn’t like what she learned about U.S. foreign policy and the mounting toll on Iraqi civilians caught up in the war.
As her outrage grew, so did her sense of isolation as a budding peacenik in President Bush’s home state. She learned about Code Pink while surfing the Internet and first saw Cindy Sheehan at a political meeting in the Dallas area. When Sheehan announced that she planned to go down to Crawford, Texas, to stage a vigil at President Bush’s ranch, Fairooz drove to Crawford, too. There, she met several of the Code Pink founders. They hit it off.
Last year, she came to Washington to attend Code Pink’s Mother’s Day political actions and decided she needed to make a deeper commitment to ending the war. Once she heard Code Pink had rented a place in D.C. and needed resident-activists, she withdrew enough cash from her retirement account to stay in D.C. awhile and signed on as the house “den mother.” She left behind a husband, two grown sons, and a 6-year-old granddaughter.
Once she had made the decision, she was relieved. “I just couldn’t live with myself anymore,” says Fairooz, who said she was overcome with thoughts of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi. The Iraqi teenager was raped and murdered in March 2006, her parents and younger sister shot dead and their home burned in an alleged coverup. Five U.S. soldiers were charged in the case.
“I just feel so guilty,” says Fairooz, brushing away tears.
An Unexpected Incident
The biggest blow sustained by Code Pink has come not from the conservative loudmouths but rather from a bipartisan phenomenon. For much of 2007, “Iraq fatigue” drained the Capitol Hill house of its residents and stymied the group’s effectiveness.
In October, just as detractors were stepping up complaints about the group house, the Pinks had only four full-time residents. The group needed a spark.
The day Fairooz and her red-painted hands made headlines around the world, the Pinks got up early and trekked to the Capitol, as usual.
“Attending the congressional hearings related to Iraq is something that we do often here in Washington, D.C., and it’s a matter of habit to approach whoever is testifying to let them know how we feel about the issues,” Fairooz said in an interview with an online radio station afterward. “Our intent was to sit in the hearing and hold up masks of Condoleezza Rice with the fake blood on our hands. But as it turned out, I was seated in the second row, much closer than I anticipated, and there was no one seated right in front of me, and I was able to take a few steps forward and tell her what I thought of her and the policies of this administration.”
Fairooz and several others were immediately ejected from the hearing and held by Capitol Police.
Samantha Miller, a recent college graduate with a nose ring and spike-heeled boots, was on a Metro train headed to work when she started receiving text messages about Fairooz’s protest. She raced back to the house and started working the phones.
Miller is one of the few paid staff members employed by Code Pink. As the group’s D.C. coordinator, she is charged with, among other things, administrative duties, updating the Web site, and calling the press whenever the group’s activists get arrested. Murphy says the group has an annual budget of about $250,000, which comes mostly from individual donors and fundraisers such as selling Code Pink T-shirts and hosting wine and cheese mixers with celebrities.
Miller called the Capitol Police to find out where those arrested were being held. Soon, the press started calling. “I must have given out Des’ bio 20 times that morning. Everyone wanted to check the spelling of her name.”
“It was inspirational,” she says. “We were really proud but really worried about her, too.”
E-mails poured in from around the country and the world. An Iraqi woman who had met the activists when a Code Pink peace delegation visited Baghdad a few years earlier sent one congratulating them. Visitors started arriving at the house. Once they learned those arrested wouldn’t be let out of jail until the next morning, some people prepared a hot meal before leaving the house. “When you get out of jail, everybody wants a hot shower and a hot meal,” Miller explains.
A few days later, after they were bailed out of jail, Fairooz and Medea Benjamin, the group’s co-founder, were invited to the D.C. studio of Democracy Now, a nationally distributed radio and television show. At the end of the interview, Benjamin made a call for reinforcements. The group repeated the appeal, blasting e-mails to its 150,000-person mailing list.
Among those who responded was Sally Newman, a law student from Minnesota.
“I said, ‘Oh, yeah. I can do that,’” Newman recalls. “I’ve been calling and demonstrating and submitting e-mail petitions for the last four years. So there is something really attractive about coming down and talking to the people who make the decisions.” Newman is dressed in a fuchsia sweater, a matching ribbon in her dark blond hair. If she weren’t traveling in a pride of pink activists, she could pass as a Hill staffer.
“I’m trying to blur the lines a little bit,” says Newman. “I like that people don’t know if I’m in Code Pink or just a girly-girly.” She notes that the Black Bloc, sometimes violent anti-globalization activists who favor black clothes and ski masks, tend to evoke fear and wonders whether the color pink elicits a warm and fuzzy reaction instead.
Will Chapple, a 24-year-old emergency medical technician who spent the better part of the last year volunteering his medical skills in the West Bank and Darfur, heard the appeal over Internet radio. Kik Skakel Williams, meanwhile, who maintains that she’s not a bona fide member of the group, “decided ‘what the hell?’” after she received an e-mail. She signed up for Code Pink’s mailing list at the urging of her 25-year-old daughter. For her, activism is part of a new leaf she turned over about two years ago.
“I decided that anything that wouldn’t hurt me I would try,” she says.
Code Pink volunteers find out pretty quickly that the very quality that attracted them to the group—its in-your-face tactics—has made the peace work harder.
Benjamin and another prominent Code Pink activist, retired Army colonel and diplomat Ann Wright, have been denied entry to Canada because of their arrests in anti-war protests. The women say Canadian immigration officials told them they could not enter the country because their names appeared on the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database. FBI spokesperson Paul Bresson said the agency does not comment on who is in the database but confirmed that the agency shares portions of the list with the Canadian government. The FBI, he says, plays no role in decisions on who Canada lets into the country. “The Canadian government has their own rules as far as that goes,” Bresson says.
A Fox News commentator stoked the flames of controversy by calling for the use of Taser guns on Code Pink activists, a proposal that’s been thoroughly debated in the blogosphere.
“Now we’ve been labeled as a terrorist group,” says Leslie Barkman, a massage therapist from Sunderland, Mass. She chafes at critics who label Code Pink “a bunch of crazies” when she feels it’s the people who aren’t protesting who should question their sanity.
Tensions were growing long before the Condi Rice incident, says Murphy, who notes that last March, the Code Pink contingent arrived along with throngs of other activists at a congressional hearing on the supplemental budget only to learn that just a couple of seats had been reserved for the public. Many of those who’d lined up outside refused to move.
“The next thing I knew, I was rolling around on the floor getting handcuffed and charged with assaulting a police officer. I certainly didn’t assault anyone—if anything, I was assaulted,” says Murphy, who has been banned from the whole of Capitol Hill since May. She goes to trial Feb. 28 to contest an arrest for disrupting Congress. The incident in question occurred at the Dirksen Senate Office Building; on May 10, Murphy says she was attempting to unfurl a banner after a Judiciary Committee hearing where Rice had testified.
Murphy, who is not paid for her work with Code Pink thanks to “a very supportive spouse,” believes the press coverage the group’s methods have garnered has helped move the debate from whether or not troops should be withdrawn from Iraq to when the withdrawal will occur. “I don’t think we’d be there without the citizens’ effort,” she says.
Code Pink’s tactics are “opportunistic,” she acknowledges. “But after five years of beating our heads against the wall, we feel that we have to take opportunities where we can.”
“We’ve definitely gone the polite route and the letter-writing route. And we’ve had meetings. But nobody is willing to work outside of the box,” she says. Predicting things will get worse for Code Pink as the 2008 presidential elections near and the debate over domestic issues like immigration further overshadows the war, Murphy says the group’s leadership is already talking about how to evolve and remain effective.
As it becomes increasingly unlikely that troops will come home this year, Murphy says, Code Pink plans to step up its calls for the indictments of officials in the Bush administration, the State Department, and Central Intelligence Agency. The group will also renew its push for impeaching Bush and Cheney.
“We know laws have been broken. Bush himself admitted to breaking the law,” Murphy says, referring to the wiretapping controversy that flared up in 2005, in which Bush in fact asserted he had broken no laws. “If we allow this to go on, we’ll see more of it,” Murphy says, adding that her group wants to “shed some pink light” on what it considers the administration’s excesses.
When Code Pink first came together, it was a lot easier to pull out a sign or wave a banner from a strategic spot behind a politician, a tactic the group used repeatedly to get itself and its message on C-SPAN and the evening news.
These days, Fairooz and her colleagues say, the pink thing just paints a target on them. Holding up a sign, shouting out a slogan, or even just flashing a “peace” sign will sometimes get you arrested, they say. Fines have gone up, and several protesters are contesting charges in court that could land them in jail for months.
“We call it ‘pink profiling.’ We’ve been pulled out of hearings just for wearing pink,” according to Benjamin, who says the Capitol Police trail around after them. “You hear them on their walky-talkies saying, ‘Pinks in the house.’”
“The fact is we’ve been effective, and that’s why we’re being targeted,” she adds.
Code Pink members are now keeping a database to track what they assert to be false arrests and incidents of police brutality.
The U.S. Capitol Police denies the charges of pink profiling.
“The Capitol Police treats everyone fairly. We apply all the laws the same to everyone,” says department spokesperson Sgt. Kimberly Schneider.
The Pinks test that policy constantly. On one outing, a delegation of Pink protesters is singing one of the Raging Grannies’ political ditties with a chorus that goes: “Lies, Lies, Lies.” The singing transports them past a group of gawking teenage field-trippers in the Russell Senate Office Building.
The activists’ loud T-shirts are emblazoned with political slogans, a stark contrast with Hill staffers’ squared-away attire. They continue their chorus of “Lies, Lies, Lies,” as they head to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s office.
The receptionists guarding a couple of enormous hardwood doors there greet the Pinks with chilly politeness, understandable considering Code Pink has operatives trailing the Clinton campaign and heckling the candidate whenever possible. There have been other run-ins dating back to Clinton’s early support for the war.
When Clinton legislative correspondent Joshua N. Williams arrives, he ushers the group to the end of the hall, where political wrestling ensues. The topic is Clinton’s position on bringing home the troops. The women are ready for the standard Democratic response to their protest, which is to point the finger at Bush and his GOP faithful. Leslie Barkman lays into Williams when he reaches for it.
“Hillary can get anything done that she wants to,” Barkman says, her voice rising. “What the hell is she doing? Why doesn’t she step up and get the job done?”
“She’s trying,” says Williams, looking abashed.
“Not hard enough!” Barkman says. “I’ve been in the halls of bullshit for two days now, so pardon my language, but it’s not enough.”
The meeting wraps up, and they round a corridor and run into two unsuspecting members of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s staff. Code Pinker Liz Hourican says hello and then heads right into her standard stump. One of the aides offers another familiar retort: “Have you talked to the Democrats? Because they’re running Congress now.”
Williams turns to the man’s colleague and compliments her for wearing the Code Pink color—a neon blouse that peaks out from her black pantsuit. The woman flashes a sugary smile with just enough vinegar when she drawls, “It’s the least I can do.”
Onward to the Senate Committee on Science and Transportation, where they are greeted by an aide charged with admitting the public to the hearing room and calling the Capitol Police if the occasion arises.
The aide closes the door and stands in front of it. He and Hourican, who know each other from countless earlier meetings, exchange pleasantries. Then he makes a personal appeal for the group not to disrupt the proceedings and tells Hourican he’d like her to take off her tiara before going in.
She refuses. He insists. They reach a compromise: The rest of the women go into the room, while Hourican, her tiara in place, remains outside. She’s upset and excuses herself to the ladies room.
After first refusing to be interviewed, the aide approaches me. He wants to explain: He’s just enforcing the rules. Only dress hats are allowed in the Senate chamber. Why should his room be any different? But it soon becomes clear the issue is broader than Hourican’s tiara—which she has worn into every hearing room and senator’s office visited that day.
“Respect. They tell me they don’t have signs. The next thing you know they are holding up signs. It’s disrespectful,” says the aide, who refuses to give his name, noting rules that bar him from sharing his opinions with reporters. But he has a lot more to say.
“Stress, stress, stress,” he says. Since the Condoleezza Rice incident, he says, he’s got a lot more to worry about. Each time Code Pink operatives come into view, he feels compelled to call the Capitol Police. And, sure enough, a plainclothes officer in a tan suit, a walky-talkie device in his ear, appears in the corridor. Uniformed officers follow.
Hourican, who’s returned from the loo and is now buttonholing senators, takes a timeout to point out a burly police officer heading purposefully down the hall. “He’s arrested me twice in the past two weeks. See him? I’m not going to look,” she says. He cruises by without a glance and huddles in the corner with his colleagues.
The aide says he can sympathize with the Pinks’ position but doesn’t like their tactics.
“A lot of mothers and parents have been very effective, and they came here with no signs and no screaming and yelling,” he says, adding that he’s dealt with all kinds of activists during his last 38 years working on the Hill. The Code Pink activists, he says, are wearing out his patience. “They take advantage of your kindness,” he says.
“Sweetheart,” he exclaims to no one in particular, “take it to the White House.”
Soon the hearing breaks up, and the out-of-towners gather in the hallway. Hourican says goodbye to the aide and wishes him a good Christmas in case she doesn’t see him again before the break. Her unexpected cease-fire is well-received.
“Can I get a hug?” he responds. She quickly crosses the room, they embrace. Everybody smiles. The day’s almost done. It’s time to head back to the group house.
Laughter and Lobbying
The visiting activists return to the house for a quick dinner of stir-fried vegetables, tofu, and brown rice. Between resting feet, checking e-mail, and eating dinner, Williams gets everyone to form a circle for Laughter Yoga, an exercise that involves a lot of full-belly guffaws. If jocularity doesn’t come naturally, you can fake it, and “you still get the same health benefits” she assures the group, before starting in with moves like “The Milkshake,” “The Cell Phone,” and one posture that involves crumpling up the body in simulated weeping, then throwing your head back and letting loose a deep belly laugh.
Soon the group breaks up into smaller parties and heads to political forums at area universities. Fairooz changes into her Code Pink pajamas, pulls her hot-pink bathrobe over them, and relaxes. The next day, she has a status hearing in her court case stemming from the Condi Rice incident. A meeting of the D.C. chapter of Code Pink gets going in the basement, while a few exhausted peace warriors hang out in the living room, gathering their strength for the next day’s work.
The following morning, dawn breaks on the first snow of the season. Over at Stanton Park, about halfway between the Code Pink house and Capitol Hill, the statue of American Revolutionary War major general Nathanael Greene, riding a horse, one hand outstretched pointing the way, has been saddled with a new message. troops home now, it says. Stenciled in lightly on the right bottom corner is the Code Pink signature.