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UUs join antiwar protests in Washington

UU Service Committee 'trial' of top government officials for torture draws hundreds.
By Tom Stites

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President Sinkford joins torture protest in DC

UUA President William G. Sinkford led an interfaith march to Capitol Hill Monday to protest U.S. use of illegal torture. Religious leaders and torture survivors delivered white roses to legislators. (Photo by Jan Reiss, UUSC) (UUSC)

Unitarian Universalists from across the nation converged on Washington, D.C., for a long weekend of protest against the war in Iraq and against torture sanctioned by the United States government. Three events attracted hundreds of UUs:

  • A Saturday rally drew at least 100,000 people who listened to speakers ranging from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who camped out in protest near President Bush’s Texas ranch. Protesters then marched to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue, chanting and carrying placards. UUs from at least a dozen states took part.
  • All Souls Church, Unitarian, was jammed to its capacity of 800 for a Sunday worship service. The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, led the prayer and the Rev. Rob Hardies, the church’s senior minister, preached a sermon on violence.
  • A formal mock trial of high-level U.S. officials on charges of torture drew several hundred people Sunday afternoon. Conducted in a hotel ballroom near the Capitol by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the six-hour mock trial featured testimony from torture survivors and experts.

And on Monday, while a handful of Unitarian Universalists were among the almost 400 people arrested for protesting in front of the White House, an interfaith contingent of UUs and others lobbied Congress in opposition to torture.

Sunday’s mock trial featured actor David Clennon, who played a CIA agent in the film “Missing”; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader; Mairead Maguire, winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland; and three torture survivors from South America who described their own torture.

The “defendants” were Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, played by Clennon; former CIA Director George Tenet, played by Steven Volk, a professor of history at Oberlin College and witness to the U.S.-backed coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte to power in Chile; and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, played by Francisco Letelier, activist and son of Orlando Letelier, a Pinochet opponent assassinated in Washington in 1976 by a car bomb. The actor Martin Sheen had been expected to play Rumsfeld, but withdrew saying he had a conflict.

Early in the mock trial, sparks flew as the prosecutor, played by Margaret Montoya, a lawyer and professor at the University of New Mexico, examined the Rumsfeld character, with Rumsfeld shouting statements over the prosecutor’s questioning.

Charlie Clements, the Service Committee’s president and CEO, said the ballroom held 450 people and that it was packed.

The trial followed a script written by Jennifer Harbury, the UUSC’s civil liberties program manager and author of the new Beacon Press book, Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture. Clements said she created the script using quotes the defendants had said on the record.

Harbury’s husband, Guatemalan guerilla leader Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, was secretly detained and tortured to death in Guatemala in the early 1990s by Guatemalan intelligence officers linked to the CIA. Since then, Harbury has investigated and reported the links between U.S. intelligence networks and the Latin American death squads.

Clements said the premise for the mock trial was international law that says systematic torture is a crime against humanity with no statute of limitation and no boundaries on jurisdiction. Spain referred to these laws when it indicted Pinochet for crimes against humanity committed during his 16-year reign in Chile.

“What the prosecutors tried to prove” in Sunday’s mock trial, Clements said, “was that the three defendants were guilty of systematic torture.” He said that many of the observers would be able to use what they’d learned in Monday’s lobbying efforts.

Congregations from at least a dozen states, and from as far away as California and Washington State, marched under four Unitarian Universalist banners at the Saturday protest, said Elizabeth Bukey, a legislative assistant in the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy. She said police blockades made direct access to the UU meeting place difficult, so other congregations may also have been represented but marched separately.

The protest was sponsored by groups including the ANSWER Coalition and United for Peace and Justice with a call to “End the War in Iraq and Bring the Troops Home Now.” The UUA did not formally endorse the rally but supported participation and set up the meeting place. The UUA is a member of the Win Without War Coalition, which opposes the war but favors a less abrupt withdrawal.

A dozen people from the 181-member Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northwest Tucson, Ariz., converged on the nation’s capital by car and airline to march in the protest and deliver 900 “ribbons of resistance” that they collected from UUs in 18 congregations.

Libby Johnson of the congregation’s social justice and action committee said she left Tucson by car on September 18 with four others and made stops at congregations in Albuquerque, N.Mex.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Little Rock, Ark.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Roanoke, Va., before joining hosts from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. They rallied interest and gathered ribbons along the way, then marched in the Saturday protest.

Johnson described the ribbons as strips of heavy paper stamped with the flaming chalice symbol and festooned with colorful ribbons. Each bears a handwritten antiwar message from an adult or a child in religious education classes. “Some of the messages are heartbreaking, some are angry, some very short,” said Johnson, “but all are heartfelt.”

Johnson was among the demonstrators arrested Monday at the White House, where she had marched as part of a procession organized by Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq. At the White House, they requested to see President Bush. When told that he could not see them, they sat down on the sidewalk and, as prearranged with the police, were arrested. Cindy Sheehan was the first to be taken into custody.

As she marched, Johnson carried the ribbons in two clear plastic suitcases. When she reached the White House gate, she hooked the suitcases to the top of its fence.

“We grew attached to the ribbons, but they weren’t ours, they belonged to the people who wrote the messages,” Johnson said. “Our promise was to deliver them to the White House the best we could. For us, this was the only way we could do it.”

Among other Unitarian Universalists arrested were the Rev. Kent Matthies, minister of the Unitarian Society of Germantown, in Philadelphia, and Alan Dawley, a parishioner. Matthies said he saw two other marchers wearing UU T-shirts among those arrested.

“We had a wonderful experience,” Matthies said. “There was a lot of joy. We sang songs all day, right up to being arrested."

Monday’s anti-torture lobbying began with worship at the Capitol Hill Holiday Inn. President Sinkford offered the opening prayer and then led a procession to a park near the Capitol. The UUSC-sponsored lobbying contingent included interfaith clergy and 16 survivors of torture from around the world. At the park Lowery, the civil rights leader, blessed the group before they entered the building.

Shelley Moskowitz, the UUSC’s manager of public policy in Washington, said a highlight was a chance encounter with Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is pushing an amendment to military legislation that would explicitly require the United States to follow the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners. The lobbying group was leaving McCain’s offices after meeting with a staff member when McCain came down the hall.

“We surrounded him and thanked him,” Moskowitz said. “We introduced him to the torture survivors and gave him a white rose.”

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