Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: Government Shutdown Day 4

Photo Oct 04, 12 06 15 PM

On the morning of the fourth day of the U.S. government shutdown, Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and hundreds of union and non-union federal workers came to the Capitol to protest. Some traveled from faraway states like South Carolina and Florida, and they represented various departments of the government, such as the U.S. Treasury, IRS, Departments  of Commerce, Education and Defense, the Food and Drug Administration, and NASA. Scientists, analysts, technicians, park landscapers, drivers, and inspectors continue on an indefinite furlough.

At the rally Colleen Kelly, president of National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), spoke about the need for federal workers to get back to work–for their families and the millions of people who depend on vital government services. Other speakers demanded Congress put aside differences and pass a balanced budget to put 850,000 people back to work.

As the week progressed, federal workers became less reluctant to picket the U.S. Capitol while Congress continued to be embroiled in the budget debate. The international press was there recording the spectacle.

Photo Oct 04, 12 46 40 PMIt was beginning to attract people from many places who heard about it in the news: a woman with a Guy Fawkes mask, people who had family in the government. Even tourists from other countries picked up signs and joined us.

The highlight of the week for me came when three Turkish men–Salim, Cafer, and Abdulrezzak–joined our cause. They were part of the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests in Istanbul during the summer. They saw our protest and were excited to join us. They spoke only broken English, so they made signs in Turkish: “Don’t worry, friends, Turkish protestors (Capulcular) right here!” and “Are you going to use pepper spray here too?” They liked the dollar I taped over my mouth.

For me, Friday was a cathartic return to the Capitol a day after witnessing the dramatic police chase and shooting of Miriam Casey. She is an unwitting historic marker of this stressful week. Returning was a sort of coming to terms with witnessing the deadly use of force.

I also needed to retrieve my bike, which I’d locked close to the West lawn where the shooting took place. It was in the zone of the crime scene, and Capitol police wouldn’t let me go past the yellow tape to get it, so I had ridden the Metro home, leaving the bike there over night.

When I returned Friday, my bike was gone. My first thought of course was that it was stolen. This is just great, I thought. First my job, then my bike. I sat for a while, then asked a Capitol police officer if any of the dozens of cameras pointed that way would have recorded the theft. He said it was probably confiscated after the crime scene was cleared. So I went to the Senate side of the Capitol, past security, deep into the belly of the alabaster beast.

Three men from Istanbul join federal workers' protest
Three men from Istanbul join federal workers’ protest

It was a long way through the Capitol halls to the impound room. The white marble floors are covered with plush rugs soft and neatly combed. Paintings of past Speakers and Senators adorn the walls. To me, the building has sense of royalty and nobility, rather than democracy, maybe because royalty from countries around the world are hosted there.

There were far more police and security on duty than I ever imagined working there. Nearly every hall and opening is guarded. Surely there is no threat on the inside compared to what can happen outside.

I signed for my bike and was escorted through the Visitors Center from the White Marble Building.

I wondered if the protests over the last week had made a difference. Based on the numbers of cameras who recorded us, the journalists who spoke to us, and the number of tourists, we had to have sent a message. We were heard here and around the country. The numbers of protestors had exceeded my expectations.

I didn’t think I would need to go back to continue the protest. If the furlough continues, it’s time for other federal workers to do their share.

On Saturday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 400,000 furloughed employees at the DoD–including John’s agency–would return to work on Monday, October 7, even though the government shutdown hasn’t ended. Congress also passed a bill to retroactively pay furloughed workers after the shutdown ends.

Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: All Hell Breaks Loose at the Capitol

Photo Oct 03, 3 21 18 PM

Thursday was the third day of our U.S. Federal Government shutdown protest, which drew far more protestors and media than before. But the peace at our protest ended abruptly at 2:20 pm.

I heard sirens and saw six police cruisers chasing a black Infiniti down Pennsylvania  Ave. past the reflecting pool towards us. At first I thought it was an escort but then realized it was a chase.

The driver was trying to evade police, but rammed into the barricades at the West Lawn in an attempt to come up the sidewalk toward the Capitol.

The car backed up, hitting a cruiser. As if it were a movie, the police pulled guns and fired 5, 10, 15 rounds at the driver’s window. The tinted glass blew out, but the car turned around and fled back towards Pennsylvania Ave. I heard what I thought was an explosion from behind the trees. It turned out to be a collision with a cruiser.

Within seconds, the U.S. Capitol emergency announcement system warned us to evacuate the grounds. I thought it was a terrorist attack. My heart pounded.

Cannon Senate Office Building
Cannon House Office Building

Police ran from all directions with their assault weapons and black military gear. An overwhelming force of paramilitarized police enveloped our protest and the tourists. It was frightening, not just for me but for the tourists who moments before were enjoying our conversations about the shutdown protest. A film crew I had just spoken to caught the entire incident on tape. I took video with my point-and-shoot camera, but my nerves were frazzled. The video was not great, but it caught part of the drama.

We left all our signs behind, running to the Canon House Office Building, where more news cameras surrounded us. I had no idea I was speaking to CNN. I don’t even watch CNN.

None of us were shot or injured but we were close enough to be hit. Two police were injured and the woman driver was dead within moments. Her one-year-old witnessed the harrowing scene but will not remember it.

I thought later about the expressions of panic and fear on everyone’s faces and their dramatic reactions to the police armed with assault weapons.  They hid against walls, ran for cover and tried to follow police orders.

The default for police is to behave as if everyone is the enemy, running towards people in their black uniforms with their guns pulled.

It’s hard to remain calm when you fear you are in danger, but even in panic you try to do what is necessary to survive. Maybe you protest like we have been, maybe you run like that woman did.

Photo Oct 03, 3 43 32 PM

I thought about her, the woman in the Infiniti who died in front of us, shot 5, 10, or 15 times. What was her story? What desperate set of circumstances sent her here? Had she snapped? Had life dealt her an unfortunate hand which nothing could have fixed? Did she have healthcare? Was it adequate enough to have helped her?

Apparently it was not. Her story will never be told–at least not by her. Which brings me to healthcare and the issue that seems to be the excuse for our government being shut down. The Affordable Care Act…

Being on indefinite furlough doesn’t seem as serious an issue as it was the morning before this happened.

I’m still upset about it, but really not half as pissed as I am about the police who shot that unarmed woman in cold blood. Who probably needed healthcare she didn’t get.

Video of us being chased off the steps:

Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: Government Shutdown Day 2

Defund_congress

We returned to the Capitol steps for the second day of the government shutdown. We carried the same signs and spoke the same message, but there were changes from the previous day. Some Capitol Police officers expressed solidarity with our cause, and tourists joined our protest. Both police and tourists are being affected by the shutdown.

A Capitol Police guard walked up to me and jokingly said, “Keep one of those signs for me, I may join you next week.” Surprised, I asked him if he was for real. He said he was dissatisfied because he was working but without pay, a “mission essential employee” caught between the power players in the marble building above him he was guarding.

I asked another cop if he was being paid and he said no, they had to work but they’d have to wait for backpay. “People are getting a little salty around here,” he said. “I may need to take your dollar after this week,” referring to the dollar bill I had taped over my mouth.

All day I watched the police come and go with less suspicion than usual. It felt strange to consider them brethen in the shutdown, although they are. I regarded them with a kind of respect. Here they were guarding the U.S. Capitol from people like us, peaceful protestors (protesting on their behalf too), while the members of Congress they protected discussed our fates. Capitol Police were not getting paid for it, yet they reported to work anyway. Of all the ironies I’ve heard this week, this was one of the most contemptible.

Meanwhile, we were again besieged by hordes of curious tourists, turned away from every museum and monument on the Mall by signs saying “closed due to government shutdown.” So they came to visit one of the few sites open–the U.S. Capitol. There was a couple from Australia, deeply disappointed to had paid a $5,000 fare to fly all the way to DC only to find barricaded monuments and closed museums. A church school group of 200 high school students from Tennessee was also at the Capitol on a trip planned since last year. I spoke to one of the teachers who confided how disappointed he was the civic lesson he would give his students would be about a broken government.

Of all the tourists, the Chinese from Shanghai seemed to take the shutdown in stride, making the best of it. They took pictures of us and asked us to pose with our signs. It was sure to be the only time they’d see a protest of a U.S. Government shutdown. How could we not want to give them a keepsake photo?

The day wore on with too few clouds and too much sun, all of us getting burned from it. At least I remembered sun screen.

Soon the police came to ask us to leave the steps because ranking members of Congress were about to give a press conference. So we chanted as loudly as our small group could so they would hear us on camera. Several police officers smiled.

It’s hard to know if our protests are making a difference. Our numbers are too small to be significant. With 850,000 directly furloughed and perhaps another million family members affected by it, our numbers should be in the thousands.

We’ll be back there again tomorrow. We’ve dug our heels in deeply on the Hill.

John Zangas on West Lawn of U.S. Capitol

Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: Government Shutdown Day 1

On October 1, the first day of the government shutdown, I joined 50 federal workers in an impromptu all-day protest at the U.S. Capitol. Just hours before, we were indefinitely suspended from our jobs. We reported to work, signed papers acknowledging the furlough and left. We had been preparing for a shutdown for several days, so wasn’t a surprise. It’s the second time I’ve been furloughed this year. The first time was due to the sequester.

The few of us who went to the Capitol didn’t know what to expect. I went there thinking I would be the only one to show up. Several others showed up with the same mindset: disgusted and worried about how being effectively unemployed would affect us.

Most carried signs to express their frustration, but I taped a dollar bill over my mouth as a metaphor for what I believe is the root cause of problems in our government. I believe that money has silenced the voices of reason, voices which should serve as the basis for a functional government.

My fellow demonstrators and I worried that our protest could be cause for our employers to take action against us, but our concern outweighed the risks. We felt it was time to act. There were precious few of us, but as the day wore on more joined our ranks.

Inside the Capitol, Congress clashed in a power struggle which will determine our fates and those of the other 850,000 civil servants who will lose pay and benefits for an indefinite period.

We stood all day holding hand-made signs, silent testimonials in magic marker: “End the Shutdown,” “Defund Congress Not The Federal Workers,” “Don’t Shut Me Down Bro,” and “Set A Budget, Do Your Job, So We Can Work.” One man held Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, making fun of Rep. Ted Cruz who read the book on the House floor last week, while I wore a dollar bill over my mouth, remaining mostly silent.

We talked about all the services affected–the NIH cancer patients, WIC, Head Start, how the  Army-Navy game would be cancelled Saturday (but few of us really cared about that). One lady carried a sign claiming that 9 million people lost WIC benefits. (I didn’t challenge the statistic, although it seemed a little high, but any number is unacceptable.)

Soon the press noticed our signs and began taking pictures and asking for interviews. No one would tell journalists where they worked, a common question, just that we were federal workers or contractors from various unnamed departments or agencies. Some people refused to speak to reporters altogether, out of fear of repercussions, but what those repercussions could be was anyone’s guess. But I wasn’t afraid to speak, and I tried to reasonably explain to them why I was there.

Shame_on_youWe stayed there until dark–nine hours, exchanging the details of our work among ourselves and the hardships we faced with yet more furlough days on top of the days already lost earlier this year. One man confided that he worked at NASA, another worked at the Navy Yard. One woman worked at the DOT going on fifteen years. Another is an attorney for an agency she would not identify. Yet another is a receptionist for a contractor. One man works for a military reserve unit as a firefighter. Although he was not furloughed, he is upset about the way government is going about its job.

All of us have bills and rent or mortgages to pay, families that depend on us to provide, spouses or children. One has a sick mother at home. The unexpected furlough is  the bullet hitting the bone, a time of difficulty, made worse by the uncertainty of when it will end.

Nearly a thousand tourists passed by this first day, taking pictures and asking questions about the protest. We unwittingly became the exhibit tourists could visit, unlike the pandas and the bell tower. All the District’s monuments and museums are closed today, barricaded because of the shutdown. One tourist picked up a sign and joked about not having a job. It angered some of us but he didn’t know better.

Two things were certain: First, there was collective disappointment that more federal workers didn’t show up to protest with us, what is obviously not their fault. And second, our anger ensured we will return to continue protesting tomorrow.

With the government locked in what seems to be an ideological disagreement, the shutdown may go on for weeks. Several of us committed to return the next day and the next. Each day it goes on, we know that we as well as the American people at large are losing out.

Government Shutdown, Another Episode in “Budget Wars”

At the stroke of midnight on October 1, the workings of the U.S. government will grind to a halt. That is, unless a deeply dysfunctional Congress fuels it with yet another stopgap measure to tide it over for a couple of months.

Technically, when the fiscal year runs out on September 30, the government doesn’t have the legal authority to spend money unless the House and Senate agree on an appropriations bill and the President signs it.

The Republican party is using the budget process to attack the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare–a bill so nauseating to them that the Republican-controlled House has voted to repeal it forty times.

Their latest blackmail offer is to withhold funding unless Obamacare’s individual mandate–a requirement that certain people purchase health insurance–is delayed by one year.

President Obama and Democrats, however, are blasting the GOP for holding the country hostage to their radically conservative base. They are pushing for a “clean” Continuing Resolution. The Senate is certain to reject spending bills with healthcare funding conditions. The clock is ticking. A shutdown is bound to ensue.

Congress is so dysfunctional and so derelict in its duty that it hasn’t passed a budget for real since 1997. The closest thing to it was an Omnibus Spending Bill in April 2009.

Two years ago, they couldn’t even agree on a Continuing Resolution, so they implanted a ridiculous strategy within the Budget Control Act. They devised indiscriminate budgetary cuts so disagreeable to both parties that, it was reasoned, they would force themselves to compromise.

Not even that worked. The “Super Committee” couldn’t come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package in November 2011.

Republican brinkmanship threatened to put us over the “fiscal cliff” in early 2013, yet their howling over minor tax increase for the top One Percent masked their overall victory for the wealthy.

Still, that $1.2 trillion deficit reduction threshold wasn’t met, so the sequester time bomb exploded in March 2013.

The sequester was supposed to spread the pain, but its effects have been felt unevenly. The poor have gotten the shaft. Meals On Wheels and Head Start, for example, have been cut.

The GOP is finding the sequester a convenient way to shrink government, especially since some of its pain was alleviated when Congress found an extra $28 billion for the Department of Defense last spring.

The government shutdown of 2013 is unlikely to put the brakes on a Republican party which embraces a scorched-earth policy. In just a couple of weeks, we have another debt ceiling debacle to look forward to.

Occupy Wall Street Turns Two

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Sunday marked the return of Occupy Wall Street to New York City as preparations got underway to celebrate its second birthday on September 17.

There were free teach-ins at Washington Square Park in many subjects, including the Trans Pacific Partnership, Green Living Principles, Economic and Banking issues, Immigration, Climate Change, and Money In Politics. Several hundred people joined the classes which ran throughout the day. People were there to learn and enjoy themselves.

Later there was a walking tour of the financial district around Wall Street. The tour began next to the Wall Street Bull in Bowling Green where people reminisced about their experiences in Zuccotti Park in 2011.

Many spoke about how the movement changed and inspired them to dedicate their lives to activism and change in their communities.

There was nostalgia in Zuccotti Park as people told stories and reminisced with old friends about personal experiences and why they believe the issues underlying the social movement are still relevant.

There was one big difference, however: things were a lot less tense compared to last year at S17. At least, the people were relaxed, although police persisted in closely monitoring the walking tour its entire length. Somehow they seemed to expect law-breaking. Some things haven’t changed much.

The week promises to be more eventful as more rallies in labor, money in politics and tax on Wall Street are scheduled for the anniversary of OWS, September 17.