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A somber occupation
Maine’s anti-war activists have come up with a plan to make our congressional delegates listen. And they’re marketing it to other states
By Sara Donnelly
Last December, 13 anti-war activists gathered in Senator Susan Collins's office in Portland. They read the names of the American soldiers who had died to date in the Iraq War, as well as an equal number of Iraqi civilians who died. They occupied Collins's office for roughly four hours and, before they left, asked the senator to hold a "town meeting" to discuss the war with her constituents.
On February 4, 17 Maine peace activists gathered in the Portland offices of Senator Olympia Snowe. Again, they read the names of the American soldiers who had died in the Iraq War and an equal number of Iraqi names — over 2000 total by that date. This time, after someone read the name of each war-dead, they marked an X, in red or black marker, on a giant sheet of cloth to demonstrate the enormity of the loss. They then asked Snowe to meet with her constituents in a town meeting on the war.
On March 18, 35 people gathered in Representative Tom Allen's Portland office. They repeated the February action's format.
The names of the war dead were read, X marks were drawn on a white sheet, and, at the end, the request for a town meeting.
On June 23, 100 people gathered to protest the war in front of Collins's Bangor office.
About a month later, on August 26, another occupation occurred in Collins's Lewiston office. Someone brought a bell, which rang after each name was read.
Then again on October 14, at Snowe's office in Biddeford. The names, the sheet, the bell, the request for a town meeting.
All told, there have been six nearly identical occupations of Maine's congressional delegates' offices (as well as several informal meetings with US Representative Mike Michaud), each lasting between four and six hours, each designed to slowly and somberly disrupt business as usual. It's all part of a statewide, coordinated action called the "Frequent Visit Program," founded a year ago by some of the state's most fervent anti-war activists.
Since the start of this anti-war occupation effort, Allen and Michaud have agreed to the activists' request to hold a town meeting on the Iraq War. Maine's FVP activists are well aware the time is ripe to use congressional leaders to get the anti-war message to the Prez, thanks to plummeting public support for the war and anti-war lightning rods like Cindy Sheehan and US representative John Murtha. So FVP creators are marketing their model nationwide.
The ready-to-wear war-resistance model — an office occupation, a roll-call of the dead, a request for public dialogue — has already been used in a handful of other states thanks to FVP outreach through correspondence, training brochures, and a DVD. Forget moose and blueberries — Maine now has its own little peace action franchise.
Frequent Visit is founded on a premise so basic it seems like common sense: To get things done, you need to sway your local legislator. Visitors focus on national legislators exclusively and leave the vigils and massive marches for another day.
The plan is simple. First, Visitors call or visit the offices of Maine's congressional delegates in small groups of three or four. They request private meetings to discuss their concerns about the war. If they haven't gotten a meeting after several attempts, they stage a sit-in, referred to most often as an "occupation," in which they eulogize the Iraq War dead. They ask for a town meeting, open to the public, in which the congressional delegate can discuss his or her policies on the war with constituents. If they don't get a commitment, or a reasonable promise of one, they make phone calls, send letters, write e-mails, several times a month, over and over and over, asking for a town meeting. It's frequent, pointed pressure. Visitors are the guests who won't leave.
Now, within this model, there's room for variation. Since the activist movement in-state and beyond is chronically non-hierarchical and as dynamic as sand in a windstorm, Visit actions can vary. Sometimes they're outside the office. Sometimes, they're inside. The core group of organizers changes according to which peace group is based closest to the action. The next action, on December 15, the day of parliamentary elections in Iraq, at Senator Snowe's office in Bangor, will break with FVP tradition and include a press conference and forgo the reading of the names. FVP activists, also, for the first time in the program's history, plan to occupy the office that day until they receive a response from the senator to their concerns about the war. FVP co-founder and longtime activist Bruce Gagnon thinks it might be the first time he gets arrested on an FVP mission.
Despite the December variation, FVP's strength lies in its relative consistency.
Gagnon and the handful of Maine activists who created FVP watched Allen hold a town meeting on the war in Portland last July and this month received the promise of one in Bangor from Michaud. But the senators have been a tougher sell. Kevin Kelley, a press secretary for Senator Susan Collins, says the senator "welcomes the communications from constituents" but prefers to meet one-on-one rather than in large, town hall meetings.
Antonia Ferrier, press secretary for Senator Olympia Snowe, says the senator has not "ruled out" a town meeting but no plans have been made to hold one.
"[Senator Snowe] wants to be able to hear from [the Visitors] as well as any Mainer about how they feel on any issue," says Ferrier. "That helps her formulate her policy and explain to her colleagues in Washington what she’s hearing at home and what the political will is of her constituents."
Despite our reluctant senators, as Gagnon says, "two of the four pillars have fallen." The Visit program, only one year old, has fostered some real discussion on the war with the state's DC delegates.
"We've been getting more and more people coming out of the woodwork wanting to be a part of this," says Gagnon, of Brunswick (see "Becoming a Visitor"). "That really says something about the state of activism. People are desperate; they just want to become a part of something."
Gagnon based Visit on the 1930s General Motors plant sit-down strikes conducted by the United Auto Workers in Flint, Michigan. That movement is recognized in activist circles as one of the most important labor-rights strikes in American history. The FVP model has been used in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Some of the occupations have resulted in a town meeting on the war. Others have ended with activists spending a few days in jail, though the Maine Visitors have never been arrested during an occupation.
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