It was a model of the modern style of civil disobedience: about 370 antiwar protesters, including Cindy Sheehan, arrested at the White House peacefully -- and on schedule.
Thus concluded three days of demonstrations against the Iraq war.
Yesterday's finale played out under agreed-upon and paradoxical rules of engagement: permitted, but not entirely allowed; defiant of authority, yet enabled by the police; emotional, yet routine. Another choreographed ritual of civic life, like the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Protesters and police played their roles perfectly, as if according to a script. The screenplay would go like this:
Getting Arrested at the White House:
One (Nonviolent) Act in Three Scenes
Scene 1: At 10 a.m. the sanctuary of Foundry United Methodist Church, nine blocks north of the White House, is filled with hundreds of protesters. They wear labels with names of dead American troops and Iraqi civilians. Organizers Gordon Clark with the Iraq Pledge of Resistance and Steve Cleghorn with Military Families Speak Out announce final logistics.
Steve Cleghorn: Yesterday we ran out of sheets that have maps of the route around the White House. Today we have more if you need one. On the back is a map of the Park Service detention facility, and how to get out of there by walking to Metro.
Gordon Clark: Is there anyone who has not had nonviolence training?
Upstairs, veteran activist Nadine Bloch of Takoma Park has the group role-play interactions with police.
Nadine Bloch: Sitting down is a technique you may want to use. Sit down. I want people to experience the dynamic. Protesters, how do you feel? Grounded, intentional, powerful. This is a beautiful place to be.
Scene 2: The group begins marching to the Ellipse, led by clergy and protest notables including Princeton professor Cornel West and Leslie Cagan, organizer with United for Peace and Justice.
Cornel West: We are going to bear witness today.
Leslie Cagan: We're not going away and we're going to use every tool available to us.
Clark: If people have to put their bodies on the line to risk their security, their money, their freedom, that's what we're going to do.
D.C. police block traffic for the singing, chanting procession. The organizers have permits to march and gather on the Ellipse and in Lafayette Square. They have sent letters to the White House seeking a meeting with President Bush; if he declines, they will risk arrest by stepping into an unpermitted area.
Clark: We sent the letters by Federal Express because the last time, at the trial, we were asked, 'Well, did you send the letters by Fed-Ex? How do you know the White House got the letters?' . . . We talked with the Park Service, the Park Police, the Metropolitan Police Department. As part of our nonviolent witness, we're not trying to keep this a secret. If they will work with us to help us do what we want to do, we're happy to work with them.
Sgt. S.L. Booker [special events coordinator with the U.S. Park Police]: You don't have a permit to march on Constitution Avenue.
Clark: You mean they gave us permission to march in your jurisdiction and they shouldn't have?
Booker [nodding yes]: I'm here to work with you. [He stops traffic on Constitution so the protesters can march, even without a permit].
At the Ellipse, Cleghorn centers a blue milk crate for a podium in view of the south facade of the White House, for good camera angles. But where are the media?
Sunny Schnitzer [a member of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation]: I'd like to have somebody notice all these people here. . . . The fact that 300 to 400 people get arrested will not be a footnote in history, a spit in the ocean, unless hundreds of thousands of people know it happened.
Clark [With bullhorn]: From the Boston Tea Party to the abolition of slavery to the suffrage and the right of women to vote, to the civil rights movement, to the movement to stop the Vietnam War -- all of those movements had civil and nonviolent resistance at their vanguards to stop and face that injustice. You are part of that history here today, everyone.
With whoops and cheers, the group marches to the climactic Scene 3: The sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue close to the White House. Surprise! Cindy Sheehan is here, too. Now the television cameras are out in force. The cameras press the clergy leaders and Sheehan against the White House gate, where they are seeking to meet with Bush.
West: Media, back up. This is crazy!
Cindy Sheehan [turning away from the gate, rebuffed again]: He won't meet with us!
Somehow, they expected as much. The group walks to a spot directly in front of the White House -- where demonstrations are illegal. Also not allowed: affixing nametags of the dead to the fence, which the group does. Four men wearing Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits and black hoods step up on the base of the fence.
SWAT commander: All the media, go to your area. We're getting ready to go with our announcements. [Reading from a sheet of paper, using a bullhorn to give the first of three warnings to the protesters.] All those who remain on the closed portion of the White House sidewalk will be arrested.
After two more warnings, enter, stage left: More black-clad SWAT officers with white plastic handcuffs. Sheehan is the first to be cuffed. She goes limp, and they hoist her up. She smiles briefly. Then she walks the rest of the way to the police van.
Sgt. Scott Fear [Park Police spokesman]: A lot of times they try to get the leader first.
Exit, stage right: The first van full of arrestees, charged with demonstrating without a permit. Consequences: $50 fine or stand trial.
Clark: I'm thrilled that this many people are willing to take the next step of nonviolent resistance and have this level of determination and seriousness about opposing the war.
Code Pink [the women's protest group, a dozen members of which chant]: Rita, Katrina, we need another lead-ah. War in Iraq, we want our country back!
Then they sing "America the Beautiful" as the handcuffing drags on for 41/2 hours and the audience drifts away.