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Moments of Noise 

The people behind the most protests on the convention floor

Thursday, Sep 9 2004
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THE BIG INTERRUPTION is what made Bush’s acceptance speech interesting last week. You may have noticed the break that came between two applause lines — something about prevailing against al Qaeda and how Iraq had been a gathering threat — when a quick succession of ruckuses erupted, followed by boos and chants from the audience that forced the president to pause. The ripple in Bush’s practiced drone was short but seemed endless, as our famously quick-witted commander-in-chief smiled nervously, waiting to get back to the safety of the programmed words of the Teleprompter.

Code Pink founders Jodie Evans and June Brashares pulled off the coordinated act of protest. “We were able to get close and get our message across,” Evans said after being released from jail and returning to Los Angeles. “For once, the president himself actually heard us.”

And not just the president. Code Pink got its members inside the convention to disrupt major speeches in all three prime-time speaking slots: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dick Cheney and President Bush. In most cases, the activists obtained media passes and slipped in unnoticed. Brashares actually gained entrance to the convention with no credential at all. Dressed in a skirt suit to look the part, Brashares boarded one of the shuttle buses departing from a delegate hotel, and, arriving at the Garden, she claimed to have lost her credential. Security issued her a new one and sent her along.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Visit Joshuah Bearman's RNC blog for ABC footage of a protester getting kicked by an RNC staffer on the floor of Madison Square Garden.

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During Bush’s speech, Brashares made the first move. For maximum visual effect, she chose as her protest spot a seat down in the delegation rows on the floor, taking a chair offered to her by an unwitting Pete Wilson. As the delegates stood on their chairs to cheer Bush, Brashares unfurled her banner and was the only one still standing when everyone sat back down. The banner said: “Bush Lies, People Die.”

This, by the way, was a very brave act. Between the NYPD, the Secret Service, the convention staff and the various branches of the Department of Homeland Security, the security at Madison Square Garden was omnipresent and intimidating. Not to mention the overwhelming presence of thousands of delegates and RNC staffers waving signs and flags all around the seat where Brashares made her stand. Within three seconds, Brashares was being dragged out of the hall by men in suits and yellow “W 2004” hats. Not wanting to be charged with resisting arrest, she was careful to remain limp, but continued to yell her slogan all the way to the door.

Moments later, Evans stood up. She had been hiding out in the press stands, just above the Massachusetts delegation’s section. In what’s become a signature of Code Pink’s demonstrations, Evans pulled off her dress to reveal a pink slip on which she had scrawled the slogan “Fire Bush! Women Say Bring the Troops Home Now!” Since security was still preoccupied with the commotion from Brashares, Evans managed to stay put for about a minute before security grabbed her and started for Gate 75. On the way, Evans lost a shoe. And her purse. “I told the guy that I would leave voluntarily if asked,” she said. “But he pulled me out anyway. I think they were mad I’d eluded their attention for a while.”

Evans was brought to the basement of Madison Square Garden, and after being subjected to “that old good-cop-bad-cop routine” — one officer claimed her actions met the criteria for inciting a riot — she was charged with disorderly conduct. Evans was jailed for 21 hours, but she was surprised to discover that her arresting officer agreed with her opposition to the war in Iraq. “I talked to him for about an hour,” she said. “His wife was in the reserves, and had just been called up and gone to Iraq. I said we were fighting for them.”

Brashares was not so lucky. Despite that she was barefoot, an RNC staffer involved in her removal from the floor claimed to have been kicked and left with a wound that required stitches. So Brashares was charged with felony assault, transferred to Riker’s Island and held on $5,000 bail. She is free now but has to stay in New York for the arraignment this week.

 

THE MOST EFFECTIVE protester of the night wasn’t arrested at all. That was Jorge Medina, who had also sneaked in with the help of credentials from Code Pink. Medina’s son Irving was killed in Iraq in November 2003, and when Tommy Franks began adulating the president (whose war plans Franks himself resisted) earlier in the evening, Medina stood up to reveal a shirt which had a picture of his son, and the more heart-rending version of the protest slogan: “Bush lied, my son died.”

This put the Republicans around Medina in a strange position. Here was a man who couldn’t be dismissed as a hippie or a know-nothing or a softie Francophile; Medina was a father who had paid the ultimate sacrifice in the war they’d been hooting about all week, and whose grief couldn’t be ignored. “The people watched the picture of my son,” Medina said, “and I could see in their eyes that they looked at me with compassion. Some of them said they were sorry.” The police, Medina said, treated him gently, saying they understood why he was there but they had to do their jobs and ask him to leave. Medina was questioned for a few minutes and then released.

This was similar to the experience of Fernando Suarez del Solar, another father of a soldier killed in Iraq who protested inside the RNC. On Tuesday night, Suarez walked around the hall for 15 minutes, holding aloft a sign with a picture of his son, Jesus, who was killed in November 2003. “I stood between the Texas delegation and Bush’s father on the second floor,” he described. “When Laura Bush came onstage, I opened my sign.”

Suarez thinks that the elder Bush got a good glimpse. “And many other people saw me,” he said. “Because when the security asked me to leave, I told them I had not broken any rule. It is a peaceful demonstration. I am here according to my rights zin the Constitution to speak out. And I paid a high price for this right, because my son died in Iraq. I said, ‘You can arrest me; but remember that you are infringing on my rights as an American.’”

Suarez did several interviews and talked to a couple dozen people inside the hall. He told them the government had lied about the reason for the war, and then lied to him about the cause of his son’s death, which was originally reported as a combat casualty but he later discovered was friendly fire. “‘Too many lies,’ I told them. ‘This is why I devote myself now to peace.’” Eventually, Suarez negotiated with security to leave the arena but asked to stay outside in the hall with his sign.

And there he stood for two hours, until the convention let out and several thousand Republicans walked past him and his picture of Jesus. “Many people,” he said, “all Republicans, said they were sorry for my loss, and they agreed about the war. This really surprised me. They stopped to talk to me, and others walked by, and you could see it in their faces when they saw my sign.”

Which makes his and Medina’s protests unusually effective. Their statements were actually able to penetrate Republican indifference and mean something to the other side. These were perhaps the most important protests of the entire week and perhaps even the administration.

“When the media and the Republicans hear Code Pink, or about the protesters, they think, ‘Oh, it’s one more activist,’” Suarez said. “But when they see me and Jorge, they realize we’re not like that. And I believe others would also change their minds when they see the war fathers. We are the ones who know what’s wrong with the war.”

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