To be sure, the events were not related. The laptop walked away from the temporary offices of Christian Peace Witness for Iraq at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church sometime Saturday afternoon. By then I had already been, like a sport fish in a school of 42, caught and released by the U.S. Capitol police.
We were arrested Friday evening in the Hart Senate Office building where we had gathered to pray for peace in what the police deemed an illegal demonstration. Following a permitted interfaith witness in Upper Senate Park attended by 750 folks in a driving rain and led by a remarkable collection of folks including Rev. James Forbes, Rev. Michael Kinnamon, Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, we processed up the sidewalk along Constitution Avenue to the Hart building.
Those of us risking arrest walked down the stairs into a small patio outside the glass doors. Police watched, photographed and filmed us, but made no move to arrest. Most of them were warm and dry inside the building and seemed to be thinking, “well, if those fools want to sing and pray in the rain, they can stay out there all night for all we care.”
After a half hour, we decided to move inside and join them.
We made our way through security, and 42 of us sat in a circle beneath the gigantic Calder sculpture that dominates the atrium. We prayed and sang, and sang, and sang some more – This Little Light of Mine, O Freedom, We Shall Overcome, Peace, Salaam, Shalom. Perhaps had we rehearsed more and sounded better the police would not have arrested us, but as we sang We Shall Not Be Moved, they moved in.
The Capitol police are an interesting institution. We worked for weeks prior to the event to arrange a permit for Upper Senate Park. They dragged their heels and dragged us through a tortuous bureaucratic maze before finally releasing the permit on Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours before we were to begin the program. The permit included a stage and sound system, and the information that we included with the permit application detailed it all. Then, in the midst of the program, in the driving rain, the police informed us that the small tents over the stage and sound equipment would have to be removed. It was harassment, pure and simple. They had the power, and they were going to use it. We negotiated and stalled and speeded up the program and brought it to a conclusion before they pulled the plug on the electricity.
Then, the same police, as they arrested us, were incredibly humane and thoroughly professional.
I was among the last to be arrested, so I had the opportunity to watch the process unfold slowly. It was almost liturgical. As each of us was arrested, the arresting officer asked if we had any injuries. (In my case, a rotator cuff that causes serious pain when my right hand goes behind my back, led to being handcuffed in front of my body which allowed me to get to my cell phone while in the paddy wagon and take a couple of seruptitious pictures.) We have all been through nonviolence training, and in keeping with that spirit, each of us tried to connect with the human being on the other side of the line.
In a remarkable testimony to the power of nonviolence, such connections were made in many cases with the same police force that an hour earlier was threatening us. I was wearing a new, bright blue clerical shirt, and several of the officers were admiring the color as they stood with us waiting to load us into the wagons. When I recounted this later, my wife asked if we’d been arrested by the fashion police! Another young officer told me that he lives down in Fredericksburg, a long commute to DC, and uses his morning drive as prayer time. The woman in charge of the station where we were processed shared with us that when she retires in 18 months she fully expects to be joining us in pressing for peace and for an end to this war.
Small connections, to be sure. Nothing earth shattering or system changing, but small human connections that break down walls and barriers and begin to build common ground and community where mistrust and hostility reign.
Today I will engage the system again. This time as a crime victim, as I follow up on the theft of my laptop. I anticipate frustration, but I will look for connection. That is the way, these days, of peacemaking in the heart of the empire.