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

Photo Sep 15, 5 50 54 PM

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.

Silent deterrent to war, Peace Vigil keeps watch over White House

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The White House Peace Vigil takes up only a little sidewalk space on Pennsylvania Ave. but leaves a big footprint. For 32 years, two six-foot yellow signs with a white tarp between them have warned us about the dangers of nuclear weapons. This iconic statement for disarmament almost came to an end today.

In the middle of the night Park Police disassembled and carted off the vigil’s tent and signs when its watchman left. Vigil supporters contacted the police, with Eleanor Holmes Norton following up, to restore the vigil this afternoon.

Thousands of tourists have seen it, taken pictures of it, and talked to Concepcion, the co-founder who’s been there since the beginning–Chinese tourists from Shanghai, Koreans from Seoul, Germans on their way to Philadelphia, gay rights activists from Africa, and school groups from Iowa.

Peace Vigil was removed temporarily
Peace Vigil reinstated today

Hundreds of volunteers have invested over 282,000 hours of labor staffing the vigil, sitting through rain, snow, cold, heat, thirst–and boredom. During Hurricane Sandy three people held it in place for hours as the wind screamed.

There’s a bathroom nearby but it closes early. Someone has to man it 24 hours a day, so volunteers are organized into shifts and bring their own food and water. They have to wait for their replacements, even if they come late.

Facing the north portico of the White House, the tattered tarp and yellow signs present an image of the powerless confronting the all-powerful. Undoubtedly every president since 1981–five of them–has seen it and knows its history, yet none have ever acknowledged it.

Year after year the vigil has persevered with no measurable effect. Nuclear weapons still exist. Whether we’re making progress toward nuclear disarmament or not, the vigil still serves a purpose.

The powerful argue that a strong military is a deterrent. For the same reason, the Peace Vigil must be maintained as one tiny block in the dam against the tendency toward violence. It’s an irritant to every president and a reminder that there are always those who stand vigilant against war.

Today the Peace Vigil got a reprieve. Tomorrow the sun will rise, and it will still be there. Will it be there for another 32 years? I think we’ll still need it then.

CODEPINK to camp out on Congress’ doorstep until Syria vote

Activists from CODEPINK set up “camp” on an Independence Avenue sidewalk on Friday evening, just a few steps from the U.S. Capitol building. They had to clear out just a few hours later, but they’ll be back Saturday morning when their permit kicks in.

After that, they don’t intend to leave until the House votes on the Authorization of Military Force in Syria resolution sometime next week.

CODEPINK founder Medea Benjamin said, “We’re here for a peace insurrection. We’re going to build it over the weekend and be ready on Monday when Congress comes back from a long vacation.”

U.S. Capitol Police however were clearly uncomfortable with protestors hanging out on the corner so close to the Capitol building, playing loud music, dancing and displaying large anti-war banners.

CODEPINK is calling the camp “Peace Insurrection,” a base for people to express their opposition to proposed military intervention in Syria. President Obama is pressing Congress for authorization to launch missiles into Syria after the al-Assad regime allegedly gassed civilians in the Damascus region with chemical weapons.

“We care about people who are suffering,” says Benjamin, “but we know that more violence is not the answer.”

Both Senate and House committees have approved resolutions for military force against Syria. When Congress returns next week, debate on the resolutions will begin on Senate and House floors.

The consequences of missile strikes, says Benjamin, are “totally unknown.”

“This is a scary moment in history,” she says, “and I’m glad that so many Americans are standing up… They are doing it in the heartland of America, in townhall meetings in offices of Congresspeople, flooding phone lines, and it’s pretty exciting to see in just a week.”