The two sisters from the Our Lady of Angels convent had driven down from Pennsylvania with a message for their Congressman: Say no to Star Wars. It was proving a tough sell. Their Congressman is Republican Curt Weldon, a vocal supporter of a National Missile Defense (NMD) program; his chief of staff, Michael Barbera, met the sisters and two other peace activists cordially and arranged them all in black leather armchairs–but he offered no illusions. “We may not agree on everything, it looks like, but that’s OK,” Barbera began cheerfully, and then listened as the four activists haltingly challenged the logic behind having a missile shield.
“Think of some of these things like the car bomb. Or that little boat in Yemen,” said sister Corinne Wright. “Suitcases,” her fellow sister, Betsy Kane, added helpfully. Barbera nodded at this list of ways a hostile device could be slipped past even a working space-based missile shield. But Congressman Weldon, he continued, worried about a foreign missile as “the weapon of choice.” Eyes then glazed as Barbera, rocking back and forth in his chair, the Capitol dome visible in the huge window behind him, spoke with confident authority about the arcana of nuclear weapons policy-making. The sisters and their allies felt the half-hour audience slipping away.
Three floors down, six other activists met with Tom Vinson, a legislative analyst for Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. DeFazio, a founder of the Progressive Caucus, is no fan of NMD; as the activists listed bills they supported, Vinson could promptly counter that DeFazio was already co-sponsoring. Two minutes into it, the activists were jokingly getting up to leave–“great meeting, mission accomplished!”
Similar scenes were enacted more than 100 times across Capitol Hill on Monday and Tuesday, June 11 and 12, as part of “Stop the New Arms Race”–a series of citizen actions that brought protesters from thirty-five states to Washington to voice opposition to President George W. Bush’s plans for NMD. “Stop the New Arms Race” was organized by the members of Project Abolition (www.projectabolition.org), an umbrella organization set up in 1999 to push for nuclear disarmament. Members include Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org), Women’s Action for New Directions (www.wand.org), the Nation Institute (www.nationinstitute.org) and the members of the Nuclear Disarmament Partnership, among them Peace Action (www.peace-action.org), 20/20 Vision (www.2020vision.org) and the Global Security Institute (www.gsinstitute.org).
The events opened on a sunny Sunday in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, where 500 people participated in a pre-lobbying pep rally. Speaker after speaker sided with America’s wary European allies in opposing a missile defense shield and derided NMD as a “lemon.” Peace Action is even calling on Congress to pass a “Star Wars Lemon Law,” modeled after lemon laws that protect car buyers from unscrupulous salespeople (www.peace-action.org), and it promises to shower some 300,000 “Star Wars Is a Lemon” postcards on members of Congress this summer.
Monday dawned on a training session for some 250 people eager to meet and greet their Congresspeople. The citizen lobbyists were sent out with suggested talking points, and also with anti-Star Wars and pro-nuclear disarmament messages collected by the thousands from each representative’s Congressional district. Organizers say that “Stop the New Arms Race” has already received about 50,000 letters of support to be delivered to Congress–many of them via a website that solicits such appeals (www.dontblowit.org)–with about 1,000 more arriving each day.
One talking point the citizen lobbyists were handed: Push HR 2013, a mild little bill that would give President Bush the authority to retire as many nuclear missiles as he sees fit. (Surprisingly, Bush doesn’t have that authority right now: In 1997, Congress, hoping to kick-start a START II treaty stalled in the Russian parliament, prohibited the President from reducing arsenals until Russia ratified it. The Russian Duma approved START II last spring but tacked on conditions Washington has opposed. HR 2013, offered by Maine Democrat Tom Allen, would simply remove that earlier prohibition.)
HR 2013 was a lifeline for sisters Kane and Wright and their fellow activists Edmund Aronowitz and Mary Davidson. Instead of getting nowhere while politely discussing the grand geopolitics of NMD with chief of staff Barbera, Aronowitz asked Barbera whether Weldon could back the bill–which merely gives Bush the power to do something he talked about on the campaign trail: unilaterally reducing the nuclear arsenal. Barbera said he would mention it to Weldon. “It’s probably not the kind of thing we would co-sponsor, to be honest,” he said, but he hinted that Weldon might still vote for it. “We probably can’t agree on the ends,” he told the activists, “but perhaps we can agree on some of the means.”
From there, talk turned to Weldon’s Pennsylvania district–the sisters’ convent is in Weldon’s former hometown of Aston–until Kane tried to again pin Barbera down on HR 2013, asking when Weldon could formally reply. After some dickering over how a response should be couched–Barbera offered to write one letter to all interested activists, but Kane kept countering that she would telephone as well–the activists left.
Afterwards, they conducted a shaken post-mortem. Wright talked of being “intimidated” by Barbera’s ability to “talk over your heads”; Barbera had mentioned some legislation and events she had never heard of, and it had frozen her a bit. But she praised Aronowitz for sticking to HR 2013, and particularly Kane for her steely insistence on a formal response–minor victories, but victories where none had been expected.
Tuesday afternoon, “Stop the New Arms Race” peaked with a press conference on the Capitol lawn headlined by sympathetic Democratic members of Congress, all of them witheringly critical of President Bush’s NMD program. For Bob Filner of California, NMD stands for “No More Dollars” for anything else. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois called on her colleagues in government to “deploy the truth” about NMD–that it is an unworkable moneypit likely to ignite “Cold War II.” Earl Blumenauer of Oregon talked of the disconnect in the Bush Administration between its approach to global warming–in which established science is rejected in favor of caution and more research–and its approach to NMD, in which weak science is embraced and caution thrown to the winds. John Tierney of Massachusetts went public with a feud he has been having with the Defense Department over a ten-month-old internal Pentagon study that he says offers a laundry list of feasibility problems with NMD; Tierney said the Pentagon first dragged its heels in providing a copy of the study, and even now insists it is not for public consumption. Tuesday he released a letter demanding that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld release the study or explain why he won’t. And Barney Frank of Massachusetts found a bright side in Rumsfeld’s insistence that his Pentagon will deploy some sort of scarecrow NMD system by 2004. Said Frank, the choice of deadline “bespeaks his lack of confidence that the Bush Administration will be re-elected.”
More meetings between “Stop the New Arms Race” activists and Congressional staff were to continue Wednesday. Then, the activists say, begins the all-important process of follow-up. That means Kane’s sweetly irritating calls to Weldon’s office about HR 2013, or efforts to get local news organizations to cover the events or the positions taken by local representatives–and preparations for October 13, the date tentatively set for the next round of “Stop the New Arms Race” activities.