The Protesters Are Back

Not that they ever officially left, but Politics Daily's Shahzad Chaudhary reports an uptick in anti-war protest activity as President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, including more arrests at the Capitol this year than last:

With waning public approval of the Afghanistan war, however, antiwar groups have noticed an increase in support. "We've had a lot of decentralized action in October," said Gael Murphy, co-founder of Code Pink.

Antiwar actions such as the committee hearing protest, in which Blome and Hubert participated in earlier this month, have slowly started to reemerge. So far this year there have been eight official "disruption of Congress" arrests, compared with only four in all of 2008, according to Capitol Hill Police. These types of protests are likely to increase, said Murphy.

Code Pink has been around since 2002, regularly disrupting activities on Capitol Hill while decked out in full pink regalia, known for pulling theatrical pranks.

It was founded by, and continues to be led by, a handful of early-middle-aged women who gave up their lives to come live in a communal house in Washington, DC, to dedicate themselves to protesting the war in Iraq at every opportunity.

While Chaudhary reports that their activity dropped off after Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, they were quite active during the next year, turning immediately on the Democrats who suddenly controlled the purse strings for the Iraq war effort. They dedicated themselves to holding Democrats responsible for the war--"you're in power now, it's up to you to make it stop," basically, was how they put it--and some of their more sensationalistic protests have happened since the Democrats took power.

In March of 2007, four Code Pink members were arrested for staging a takeover of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's congressional office. They were there trying to tape a game of "Pin the War on the Donkey" to the wall in the hallway, and planned to play it as fellow protesters infiltrated the office (knowing that the Capitol Police would arrest them as they did so).

I was standing in the hall at the time (I'd heard this was going to take place), and I noticed that several of the protesters started crying, on cue, as the protest began.

I asked one of the criers, a 24-year-old named Rae Abileah who still serves as Code Pink's local groups coordinator--much younger than the group's leaders and probably the youngest one outside Pelosi's office that day--what the crying was all about. She told me she was crying out of "outrage that this is all we can get from the Democrats."

Then there was the blood-on-the-hands Condoleeza Rice incident in October 2007. As then-Secretary of State Rice began to take her seat at the witness table before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in 2007, one of Code Pink's leaders walked up to her and shoved fake-blood-stained hands in her face, shouting, "The blood of millions of Iraqis is on your hands, Condoleeeza!"

The late Tom Lantos, the committee's courtly, mild-mannered Democratic chairman--a Holocaust survivor born in Hungary--stepped between Rice and the protester, waving his arms frantically for police to get her out. "Out!" he shouted, as she was led away.

None of these antics have endeared Code Pink to Democrats, who are as irked as anyone else when protesters disrupt their hearings--especially since they've become the object of Code Pink's scorn.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party rode anti-war sentiment to power in 2006, and when anti-war protesters began pressuring Democrats to strip funding for the war entirely--something President Bush had vowed to veto through several House votes on a defense appropriations bill in 2007--it was bad publicity.

Code Pink became a liability for the Democratic Party. Could Dems live up to the wishes of their base? became a question surrounding the new congressional majority.

And nobody liked that.

Pelosi succeeded in forcing Bush to veto an appropriations bill that contained benchmarks for the Iraqi government's internal political process--but a benchmarks strategy wasn't good enough for the protesters. Tensions were running high all-around: Democrats couldn't get their benchmarks approved, Bush couldn't get a war-funding bill to his desk, and Code Pink, all the while, protested them both.

When President Obama came to power and the Iraq war seemed to almost be over, I called Code Pink to ask them: what now? The war is going to end (or so everyone hoped), and the one candidate who opposed it from the start is now the leader of the free world. Do you pack up and go home?

"Well, we oppose the war in Afghanistan, so we plan to continue to protest," a Code Pink member told me then.

Naive as I was, this came as a surprise. The nation's anti-Iraq-war sentiment had been rolled into support for the effort in Afghanistan during the previous four years, as Democrats from John Kerry to Barack Obama called it the "forgotten war," blaming Bush and the GOP for starting an unnecessary fight in Iraq while ignoring the noble one in Afghanistan.

But Code Pink doesn't see it that way. Coincidentally, this is a position they may be forced to rethink, or so the Christian Science Monitor suggests: when Code Pink's leader, Medea Benjamin, traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan this month, she stood up at a town-hall meeting and asked Afghanistan's former Minister of Women, Masooda Jalal, if she would prefer more international troops or more development funds to flow into Afghanistan.

"It is good for Afghanistan to have more troops -- more troops committed with the aim of building peace and against war, terrorism, and security -- along with other resources," Jalal replied, according to the Monitor's Aunohita Mojumdar. "Coming together they will help with better reconstruction."

It is a reality that the whole of the nation's left must face: if U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan--or if the mission is scaled back to include counterterrorism operations and drone attacks along the Pakistani border, primarily against al-Qaeda--the Taliban will likely gain a greater foothold in parts of Afghanistan, which will mean hell to pay for some of America's supporters, and the elimination of rights for some women.

In Washington, DC, Code Pink continues to protest the Afghan war. Their function is to remind lawmakers that some Americans oppose it--or, at the very least, oppose the troop increase President Obama is weighing, even if they don't see things in Code Pink's starkly ideological terms. They are, in short, the voice of the nation's peaceniks on Capitol Hill.

But since 2006, when they decided to hold Democrats accountable for the war in Iraq, they've held an antagonistic relationship with the ruling party. Since then, Democrats haven't wanted to say anything bad about Code Pink--recognizing the anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment that buttered their bread in the '06 Democratic wave--but they haven't taken them particularly seriously, either.

A chunk of the anti-Iraq-war groups that thrived in the Bush years are either now defunct or have fallen out of prominence. On Capitol Hill, Code Pink remains the face of the protest effort.

As Democrats are faced with this pressure from clusters of pink-clad critics, with their president weighing a decision on the future of America's war in Afghanistan, it's questionable whether Code Pink actually pushes consensus toward withdrawal--or whether they turn Democrats off, to some degree, to what they stand for--just as the late Chairman Lantos had has fill two years ago.