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Life on the Ledge

A first-person account from one of the Veteran National Archive Occupiers, after a good night's sleep!

by Ellen Barfield
Veterans For Peace began occupying the National Archives
UPDATE: On Tuesday, September 23, five members of Veterans For Peace began occupying the National Archives in Washington, DC. Among the five is Ellen Barfield, 52, of Baltimore. Barfield is a former U.S. Army Sergeant who now works full-time as a peace and justice advocate.
We feel that large banner hangings and occupations at important buildings around the nation may be a good technique in this election season and the waning days of the Bush administration.
The five of us Veterans For Peace members slipped over the 8-foot spear-pointed National Archives fence and onto the high ledge in the cool autumn air about 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 23. We got no interference, or even notice, from security or police.

We were garbed as construction workers in hard hats, with 5-gallon buckets and equipment in tow, to fool any onlookers; an unnecessary precaution, as it turned out. The 22-by-8 foot banner went up on the columns like a dream, fortunately with no hitches as we climbed ladders and pulled ropes over a 35-foot-deep concrete-floored pit. We set up camp and our 24-hour fast and occupation was begun.

Next, officials finally began to arrive. The first Archives staffer was incensed and vowed we would be jailed rapidly, especially when he saw the double bike locks we had put on the gate to slow any intervention which might be offered. Then Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police came. I must compliment them on their calm, wise behavior. (As a long-time activist I have seen a lot of out-of-control police.) A Sergeant and later a Captain were most courteous, expressing of course their strong urging that we come down, but also their intention not to arrest us, and even their support for our First Amendment rights (!).

It was interesting that the Archives seemed to have no contract with any of the other 32(!)-or-so law enforcement entities in DC (a fact which may change now that we have pointed out the oversight), even though it is a Federal building. We were amused watching the jockeying as the Archives officials scrambled trying to find somebody to arrest us.

I was also ruefully amused, as a feminist, to watch many male officials fail to keep their eyes and attention on me as the announced designated liaison; instead they talked to and gazed at whatever male action team member happened to be present. Kudos to Elliott Adams, Veterans for Peace President and action team member, for noticing that, and simply keeping his eyes on me, so that the official finally swung his attention back. (I love men who "get it"!)

The day heated up and so did the media attention, along with supportive calls from friends and folks who just found out about us. It was most gratifying to get those good wishes, and know we had struck a chord with many, the first of whom was an Archives maintenance worker who thumbs-upped and photoed us from the pit where he was preparing for his day at work. (Thank you all!) We had of course done a lot of preliminary media work, and our media contact, VFP member Mike Ferner in Toledo, is to be commended for getting the press release out right as we climbed the fence, and fielding and directing numerous calls through the day.

We played powerful CD's put together by our fantastic 24-hour ground support Tarak Kauff, who would have been up there on the ledge with us except for a recently broken collar bone. The CD's included various music of revolutionary sentiment, and excerpts of excellent speeches, from such as those by Martin Luther King, Jr. and our own VFP President and co-actionist Elliott Adams, along with recordings from the recent House Judiciary Committee (Non-) Impeachment hearing. We called the offices of all 40 Judiciary Committee members to alert them to our action and our call for them to fulfill their Constitutional duty to impeach and prosecute.

As our water ran low, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War smuggled us up some more. His surreptitious actions to avoid the view of the security guards were a delight to watch. And some of the March of the Dead white-masked marchers who had tailed Bush at the UN in New York earlier in the day arrived with their bell to lend support. Gratifyingly, three times during the day big government convoys of motorcycle cops, escort vehicles, decoy vehicles, and the limousine of whatever actual high government official passed our Constitution Avenue and 9th St location, so we surmise we were actually seen by Bush or Cheney, and certainly the Secret Service details on those convoy runs.

At the end of an exciting day we set the lighting to illuminate the banner, worked out the watch schedule, and bedded down on our skimpy camping mats (much better than nothing on hard marble) with our empty stomachs growling as the night drew in. The cell phones kept ringing as more supportive messages arrived. The soft twilight air turned chilly as darkness fell, and we appreciated the silver reflective space blankets we had brought.

By then the police had cut the locks on the gate, ostensibly out of concern for our safety if one of us should have to leave the ledge in a hurry. (Yeah, yeah, they always say that.) An Archives security official on the evening shift actually walked through the gate onto the ledge trying to persuade us to leave, gently playing by then "good cop" to the supposed "bad cop" feelings of the evening Police Commander, who never actually presented himself to us. We simply continued to politely refuse their "last best offers."

In the morning as the sun rose, we packed up and took everything but the banner down to our supporters and handed it over the yellow crime scene tape at the base of the Archives stairs. Security had redirected Archives visitors from the entrance in front of our ledge (ostensibly so that we wouldn't drop anything on them, though we were at least twenty feet back from that walkway) and blocked off the Constitution Avenue side of the building early on Tuesday.

Then we carefully dropped and folded the banner so that the "Arrest Bush/Cheney" line showed, and carried it down the Archives steps and under the yellow tape, unmolested and unarrested. The Police were not even present, only anxious Archives officials. Then with our faithful supporters, we marched the banner around the Capitol and the Congressional office buildings, making the Capitol Hill Police very nervous, for a great ending to a really satisfying action.

LESSONS LEARNED AND SUGGESTIONS FOR SUBSEQUENT ACTIONS

We left the ledge cleaner than we found it, and were very careful not to mar or otherwise damage the building. That pleased the Archives officials, but was also important as part of our philosophy of nonviolence. Besides, we respect the home of the Constitution, and were there to defend the document with our presence and demands to prosecute its attackers, not damage its resting place.

Though this had not entered our thinking in preparation, we suspect that the precarious access to the space we occupied, along a small and narrow access ledge and across a very narrow gap between that ledge and the wider ledge we occupied, along with their own decency and wisdom, kept the Police from raiding us. As long as it is reasonably safe, but precarious, an occupied space can probably be held unless the cops are crazy (sadly not uncommon) or provoked.

Especially toward military veterans, many cops are sympathetic and not inclined to push the issue. Calm negotiation, as we prepared and did, allows the action to continue, and ongoing rationality and lack of damage or violence reassures the authorities as the action goes on.

We feel that large banner hangings and occupations at important buildings around the nation may be a good technique in this election season and the waning days of the Bush administration.


Baltimore resident Ellen Barfield: 52, MD, is a former U.S. Army Sgt., full-time peace and justice advocate. Others who participated in the "Ledge-In" were Elliott Adams, 61, NY, Veterans For Peace President and former Army paratrooper in Viet Nam; Kim Carlyle, 61, NC, mountain homesteader, former Army Spec 5,; Diane Wilson: 59, TX, shrimp boat captain, former Army medic; Doug Zachary: 58, TX, Veterans For Peace staff, former USMC LCpl discharged as a conscientious objector; and Tarak Kauff (ground support) 67, NY, painting contractor, former U.S. Army Airborne.


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This story was published on September 25, 2008.