February, 1998 -- In response to Canadian plans to join the U.S.-led attack against Iraq, non-violent activists sprung into action almost immediately. A diverse crowd of about 40 activists, from Veterans Against Nuclear Arms and the Africa Liberation Month Coalition to the Black Action Defence Committee, Society of Friends and Toronto Action for Social Change held a press conference outside the constituency office of Minister of War and Toronto MP Art Eggleton Monday, February 9. They entered the office with a fax calling on Eggleton to speak out against war preparations, to reject any military action, and to take a positive step by ending sanctions against Iraq.
The response from Ottawa was a swift "no comment," at which point about 30 or so people sat down and explained the response was not good enough. Eggleton refused any further response, and the ensuing sit-in lasted some 31 hours. It covered the span of the debate in the House of Commons, and the cabinet meeting where a decision was made to join in the planned slaughter of Iraqis. There was almost constant radio coverage of the sit-in, and a well-attended press conference the following morning featured passionate pleas for peace from Lois Wilson, former United Church moderator, Sister Susan Moran (co-founder of the Out of the Cold program), Doug Pritchard of the Mennonite community, and activist Gloria Muller.
"These Things Happen in War"
As the second day of the sit-in dragged on, Eggleton eventually called to consult with citizens, but by this time he had already publicly committed two refueling aircraft, a frigate and some 350 Canadian troops to war. When asked how he felt about the possibility that civilians would be killed in these attacks, Eggleton responded, "Well, this is war, and these things happen in war." He ended the phone call by telling us to "de-occupy" the office. Unsatisfied with this response, the sit-in continued.
During this time, one nervous office staffer, playing with his lighter, set his desk blotter on fire, and spent the next two hours blowing ash off various pieces of office equipment. Demonstrators noted that Eggleton had almost 200 pictures of himself on the walls, in addition to an Art Eggleton clock which featured the MP's smiling mug and his ironic theme, Keeping in Touch, something Eggleton neglected to do during the first 28 hours of the sit-in.
At approximately 5 pm, Metro police finally showed up and, after the usual speech about how impending arrest would ruin our lives, promptly arrested five people. Frustrated that most insisted on being dragged from the office ("You don't have to do this, there's no media here!" they complained), police left four bodies lying in the hallway as they tried to figure out what to do next. They eventually ended the sit-in with trespass tickets. The envelopes for the court summons were symbolically burned in the parking lot, with the hope that these pieces of paper, and not Iraqi people, would be the only thing burned in this war. The trial has yet to be scheduled.
Busted at War Minister's: Maggie Helwig and Matthew Behrens on the pavement outside Eggleton's office, charged with trespassing
The Long-Distance Boot
The following week, a dozen people entered the offices of MP Bill Graham, who chairs the House of Commons Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs. As the clock ticked down towards a military strike, a letter demanding that Graham take a positive step and speak out against the war was faxed to Vienna, where he and his wife were visiting. He phoned back with a weak-kneed response which belied all the posters promoting justice on his office walls. He stood with the government. A number of demonstrators stayed the rest of the afternoon, and were eventually removed by police. At one point, as one TASC member left to go to the bathroom and returned through a side door, a staffer complained that going to the bathroom was against the rules of a sit-in! We hadn't passed Sit-in 101.
Copps Calls the Cops
One week later, as plans for a blockade of the War Department were postponed following the UN agreement, 14 people occupied the Hamilton East constituency offices of Sheila Copps, former deputy prime minister and current Heritage Minister (does stuff like distributing flags and pins). Copps' office was notable for its numerous militaristic symbols: a miniature tank on her desk, a newsletter featuring a beaming Copps in the cockpit of a a war plane. A request similar to the one sent to Graham was faxed to Ottawa; Copps refused to respond to the issue, insisting only two representatives could meet with her the following week. Demonstrators were not pleased with the response, noting the urgency of the situation; about 10 Iraqi children died during every hour of the sit-in, and hundreds would be dead by the following Friday, if not through sanctions, then through military strikes.
As chilled banner holders stood vigil outside from noon till 5:30 pm, the sit-in continued, broken up shortly before six by Hamilton's finest, who removed ten, arrested them, and charged them with trespass. They were held in a drunk tank which, due to cutbacks, is no longer open to the general criminal public but is used, as one officer proclaimed, for drunks and demonstrators.
And so much more...
Dozens of demonstrations took place across Canada, coast to coast, with particular inspiration shown by Winnipeg High School students who climbed on a stage despite the efforts of a frustrated RCMP and, while Prime Minister Chretien babbled on, they held up signs against the war, including one which read: "Killing One Person is Murder, Killing 100,000, is foreign policy."
Belly of the Beast
Demonstrations took place almost immediately in over 60 U.S. cities and towns. At least 31 people, including Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, were arrested for praying in front of the White House. In London, 2-3,000 people demonstrated at Whitehall, with nine arrested during a die-in. A five-hour blockade of the Joint Rapid Deployment Force HQ ended with three arrests.
Six people were arrested in Duluth, Minnesota, after they entered a federal building with pictures of hospitalized Iraqi children. One person was arrested for pouring blood on the building.
Inspecting Our Own
In two of the more interesting non-violent actions, the idea of inspecting our own Western weapons of mass destruction was introduced by both Canadian and U.S. activists. As we went to press, Vancouver MP Libby Davies was set to lead a Citizens' Weapons Inspection Team to Washington State, home of suspected weapons of mass destruction, including 1,600 active nuclear warheads (more than the totals of Britain, France and China).
Busted in Tucson
Meanwhile, six Citizens' Inspection Team members from Tucson, Arizona, were arrested as they attempted to inspect suspected weapons of mass destruction at Davis Monthan Air Force Base. During a six-hour standoff, base officials admitted that depleted uranium was present at the base. DU ranks as a weapon of mass destruction which continues to kill Iraqi non-combatants. Meanwhile, thousands of U.S. and allied veterans also suffer illness and some have produced deformed offspring consistent with depleted uranium's toxic and radioactive poisoning.