Pink-Clad Iraq Protesters Press On

Protestors from Code Pink listen during testimony from Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq, as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 12,2007, before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on the Iraqi security forces. AP

This column was written by Britt Peterson.

The frenetic scene outside of 2154 Rayburn is one that's become familiar in recent months: As a congressional hearing lets out (this one on the Pat Tillman fratricide, featuring Donald Rumsfeld as a witness), several women, dressed all in pink and bedecked in crowns like a group of mad bachelorettes, rush out the doors and launch into battle formation at the side exit, as the mostly military audience files out.

"Make way for the war criminals!" shouts Liz Hourican, who's wearing a large pink shirt over pink sweatpants and sneakers. To her right, standing with their backs pressed tightly against the wall, is a tourist couple and their two small children, dressed up for the day. The kids stare at the protesters. "That's the first amendment, kids," explains the father, sounding irritated.

Later, when Rumsfeld doesn't show, Hourican comes up to the children and starts talking in her rapid-fire way, her voice hoarse: "You two are the cutest! And you're so lucky you're in the Capitol." The kids smile, shocked into politeness, and their mother lays a protective hand on her son's shoulder. Then Hourican jogs away as she spots a Republican committee member, Darrell Issa, making his exit: "You're disgusting, Darrell Issa!" she yells. One of the women with her mutters, "Douchebag," as the crowd chases him down the hallway.

This on-a-dime switch from outrage to friendliness and back typifies the actions of Code Pink, which, along with the members of Congress it spends its days harassing, has just wound up its session and gone on recess. Its last few days on the Hill were relatively quiet, partly because members of the group have been arrested so often that several of them are either blocked from attending hearings or face serious consequences if they get arrested again. Still, it has been a good season for Code Pink, cementing its status as the most visible (both literally and figuratively) anti-war group on Capitol Hill. And group members, reminiscing as they pack up their pink costumes to return home to their families, their jobs, school and, of course, to bring the fight to constituency offices, say they've accomplished even more than that.

"We feel like we moved the Democrats in Congress — not fast, not far enough," said Medea Benjamin, one of the group's founders. "But we moved Hillary Clinton, we moved Nancy Pelosi." Hourican said, "If it weren't for Code Pink, people wouldn't be moving [to an anti-war position]."

Along with Gael Murphy and Jodie Evans, Benjamin (born Susie) launched Code Pink in 2002 as a female-led anti-war protest wing of the anti-globalization nonprofit Global Exchange, which she founded with her husband 20 years ago. The group is now independent from Global Exchange and functions as a loose national coalition of chapters, unified by weekly strategy phone calls. Code Pink's main goal is ending the Iraq War (their platform, as explained to me by Benjamin, includes a phased withdrawal taking place as soon as possible and the impeachment of Bush), but side projects have focused on bringing peace to Iran and Darfur as well.

To accomplish this, the group has unfurled giant pink banners from highway overpasses, camped out in front of the White House for months, and once organized a hunger strike outside Joe Lieberman's office to protest his belligerent rhetoric toward Iran. The name originally riffed off the homeland security terror alerts, but has become, for many in Code Pink, a way of life: "I rarely see Medea out of pink," Midge Potts, a statuesque transvestite from the D.C. wing, told me.

This term, the D.C. branch of Code Pink has become increasingly prominent at Hill events, and their tactics have evolved as well. Potts, who at the Tillman hearings was wearing a pink miniskirt and sandals along with a pink foam crown that read, "No Blood for Oil," offered an example of Code Pink's ability to stay, literally, in the picture: During a Senate Armed Services hearing to confirm Admiral Mike Mullen as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Potts, who isn't allowed to attend hearings after an arrest in February, watched the proceedings on C-Span from home. She couldn't see any of the Code Pink women's signs or crowns, but she noticed Benjamin's shoe in the top left of the frame when the camera was on Mullen. So she texted Benjamin to put her sign down at her feet, and that little square of pink is visible on the C-Span tape right over the Admiral's right shoulder. "They surprise us sometimes," Potts said of the committee aides, "but we surprise them a lot."

Code Pink's tactics are confrontational, but not (always) alienating. Their congenial relationship with John Murtha made news in March after Murtha convinced the Capitol Hill police not to arrest Benjamin after she disrupted a hearing. "Murtha called the sergeant-at-arms and said, 'This is not a police state. This is a democracy. You will not arrest this woman for speaking out in a hearing,'" Benjamin said. After one hearing, I saw Representative Maxine Waters take a photo with a group of Code Pinkers. Later, Waters told me: "I really appreciate the work that they're doing on this war in Iraq...They may get on some people's nerves, but they don't get on my nerves. As a matter of fact, I rather like them."

Group members have even bonded with their natural enemies, the Capitol Hill Police Department. While Benjamin and Desiree Fairooz, a grandmother and former school-teacher and librarian who cashed out her retirement fund to join Code Pink in D.C., were leaving the House office building, a plainclothes cop stopped to chat. He and Benjamin talked for almost 15 minutes, Benjamin remembering that a member of his squadron had just got married and asking after his children. Another cop came up to Hourican before the oversight hearing to apologize for arresting her the day before. "Yeah, they often bring us little gifts, we bring them gifts, we share books, we share interesting articles we find," Benjamin said of the Capitol Hill police, sounding bemused. "We give them lots of t-shirts." (A spokeswoman for the Capitol said that Code Pink was "generally cooperative" when arrested.)

At the end of a grueling day of hectoring lawmakers, Code Pink members retire to a spacious Northeast D.C. home with five bedrooms, a winding staircase, several fireplaces, a large bay window in the back living room — and pink bedsheets, curtains, posters, stuffed animals, and flowerpots ("It gets pinker and pinker as time goes on," said Benjamin.). This is the Code Pink house, half "Legally Blonde"-style sorority and half radical boot camp, housing up to 22 activists at a time. The group pays $2,200 a month in rent; the money comes partly from donations, partly from a "suggested" rent of $150-300 per activist per month.

The house's huge basement, which Benjamin calls the "Fuchsia Factory," is where Code Pink gets its color. It is filled with shelves and boxes of art supplies, make up, and a Vegas dancer's lifetime supply of costumes and accessories: pink doctor's outfits, pink police costumes, pink parasols that open up with slogans ("We often go out on the water with those," said Benjamin), tutus and pompoms for when they do "radical cheerleaders," pink gowns with sashes like "I Miss Liberty," pink slips (it's a joke), constitutions to pin on your clothes, pink hula hoops, tambourines and make-shift noisemakers (most involving frying pans), huge bobble heads of Bush, Cheney and Condi, and a foam Nationals hand that someone wrapped pink electrical tape around and painted black fingernails on. Everything in the basement (like everything in the whole house) is neatly labeled with more pink tape, and there are slogans and facts posted everywhere, along with more typical group house notations: "Fund Health Care Not War," "3660 Soldiers Dead," "No Peace No P---y," "Mess up the basement and we'll non-violently slap you."

"I miss my husband, I miss my kids, I miss my home, but I really love the camaraderie of a group house," Benjamin told me, as we sat on a couch in the house's central living room, decorated with a pink painting of a peace sign and pink gauzy curtains. The group's two interns, Ina and January, both teenagers, were in the kitchen cooking fried rice and potatoes for dinner. "There's an amazingly — it might sound corny, but a very loving feeling in the house," Benjamin went on. "People really take good care of each other."

Code Pink's enemies don't get such sympathetic treatment. In one hearing, I heard two Senate committee aides call Code Pink "the worst" and describe an incident when a group of Code Pink women chased down another staffer, calling her a "little Nazi," and made her cry. (Benjamin says she's heard about this incident but doesn't know anything about it herself.)

Once, I witnessed Code Pink's righteous fury firsthand. After the oversight committee hearings, Lori Perdue, a compact brunette Air Force veteran from Indiana, confronted Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, on the congressional subway platform. Rohrabacher had told protesters at a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing on renditions on April 17th that, if another terrorist attack happened, "I hope it's your families that suffer the consequences." Rushing as close to the subway as she could legally get, Perdue thrust her teenage daughter, Lindsay, a delicate girl in a pink t-shirt and jeans, at the flustered congressman. "You want my family to suffer the consequences? Here she is! You want her to suffer the consequences?" Rohrabacher and his aides cast her a terrified look and bolted for the train, and Lori walked away, looking satisfied. Later, Lindsay, who arrived in D.C. just a few days before, told me, "I'm just starting to not be nervous."

For all its skill at making a scene, Code Pink closed out the congressional term rather quietly. One of the final protests of the session was at a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on Alberto Gonzales and the attorney firings. Lori and Lindsay had gone home to Indiana the night before, and Benjamin, Hourican and Fairooz were the only ones waiting in line to get in. Benjamin had taped a photo of Karl Rove (who had been subpoenaed but didn't attend) to the back of a Safeway Wheat Pockets box and held it up like a mask. She'd be flying home to San Francisco the next day. Hourican and Potts were leaving soon, too, for Arizona and Missouri, respectively. The house was emptying out, in fact, except for Fairooz: "I can't deal with going back to Texas," she told me.

Instead, she will be holding down the fort at the Code Pink house and helping lay plans for their actions in September, when Congress returns. Her six-year-old granddaughter was coming to visit in a few days: "We'll just be doing touristy things," she said. But she has no civilian clothes, so when they visit the Capitol Building and the White House, the duo will be properly pinked out. She has two tiny pink tutus back at the group house waiting for her granddaughter.

During the hearing, the three women continuously switched places to make sure their crowns and Benjamin's Rove mask got into the camera, following Pott's texted directions on Benjamin's pink cell phone. Gael Murphy and January the intern slipped in at the back a bit later, Murphy relatively unobtrusive in a white jacket covered with Code Pink pins, and January in a "Pink Police" shirt and hat that, along with her skirt, sensible shoes, and pantyhose, made her look like a Mary Kay meter maid. Senator Patrick Leahy shushed them a couple of times and the committee aides loomed over them defensively, but the only major disturbance came when Murphy's cell phone went off, playing the "1812 Overture," and Leahy asked her to take it outside.

As the women sat in their seats, a newspaper journalist at the press table nodded at the group and whispered to her neighbor, "If I had a son in Iraq, I'd be there with them."
By Britt Peterson
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