Over 240 Arrested Since “Occupation Project” Launched to Call on Congress to End War Funding

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The Senate prepares to vote this week on a $100 billion spending bill that would give the president $100 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, the group Voices for Creative Nonviolence launched the Occupation Project. Activists around the country traveled to congressional offices and conducted sit-ins while calling on lawmakers to stop funding the war. We speak with veteran peace activist Kathy Kelly. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Capitol Hill, the Senate is preparing to vote this week on a spending bill that would give the president $100 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also establish a timeline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq by next year. On Friday, the House passed a similar bill by a margin of 218 to 212. A total of 14 Democrats voted against the bill, including eight who oppose any more funding of the war. The eight antiwar Democrats were Maxine Waters, Lynn Woolsey, Diane Watson, Barbara Lee—all from California; Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who we’ll talk to tomorrow on Democracy Now!; John Lewis of Georgia; Mike McNulty of New York; and Mike Michaud of Maine.

Many antiwar activists were pushing Congress to reject all future funding of the war. Last month, the group Voices For Creative Nonviolence launched the Occupation Project. Activists from around the country traveled to congressional offices and conducted sit-ins while calling on lawmakers to stop funding the war. Over 240 peace activists have been arrested since the Occupation Project began.

Kathy Kelly, the co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, joins us here in New York. In 1997, Kathy Kelly founded Voices in the Wilderness, which campaigned against the U.S. sanctions in Iraq. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. Her latest book is called Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

KATHY KELLY: Thank you, Amy. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this Occupation Project and all the different congressional offices that people have been occupying.

KATHY KELLY: Well, we launched it on February 5th, with the idea that people could take their vigils, take their education actions, inside the offices of congresspeople, locally, on a grassroots level, and insist that what Congress can do to stop the war is to use the power of the purse, not to create new resolutions that President Bush can veto, but cut the funding. And really, I think it’s been a sign of the depth and the breadth of the peace movement right now, with over 240 people having been arrested in just a short time, and really we’ve had to extend the campaign. And there are people across the country who have done really very creative and vigorous actions. The people who were involved, many of them, I think, found a vehicle for getting into political activism, and they had not had any inkling of being involved in civil disobedience before. So I think this is a promising sign. But we’re expecting a $145 billion new supplemental request to come through in the summertime. So we have to build on that foundation.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the more than $100 billion now.

KATHY KELLY: And in addition to the regularly authorized military spending.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the Democrats? I mean, these are Democrat-led bills in both the House and now, this week, the Senate about to be voted on.

KATHY KELLY: Well, the Democratic national leadership, with Nancy Pelosi playing a very, very active role, I think, was very anxious about the 2008 elections. They don’t want to be pinned with any kind of allegation that they don’t support the troops. And so, they have put forth a bill which would allow for the supplemental spending to go forward, and they’ve issued a timetable.

But I think Howard Zinn had it right. I mean, imagine if the early abolitionists had said, “Well, we want to see an end to slavery, but we’re going to entertain a timetable that would extend it for two more years.” And so, we have great admiration for the congresspeople whom you named. I mean, Mike McNulty in Albany, New York, was somebody who vigorously was for the war. He actually appeared at a press conference and apologized to the people who were vigiling on the streets of Albany, saying that he now realizes that this spending is wrongful and has to end. But I think many people agree with their constituents. If we go into their offices and ask them, “So who is asking you to prolong this war?” the aides say, “Oh, nobody calls and asks for that.”

So, who is pressuring Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership to prolong the war? We can’t help but think that it has a lot to do with the major weapon-making companies, with the oil execs. And we are very disappointed, really, to see that even groups like MoveOn.org have gone along with this idea that the supplemental funding bill has to be passed but with some reservations.

AMY GOODMAN: Name the offices that are being occupied. Whose offices?

KATHY KELLY: Well, there are really so many. The people in St. Louis have gone into offices across their state and extending into Kansas City, Missouri, Claire McCaskill’s office. In Chicago, Senator Durbin’s, Senator Obama’s offices will be occupied as the campaign continues. We’re calling for April 16th, which is Tax Day this year, and April 17th in the Northeast to be days when people will return to your congressional and Senate offices and continue this campaign. But they’ve really been very vigorous office occupations.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re based in Chicago, Voices in the Wilderness?

KATHY KELLY: Right, and we’ll also start a fast on April 9th and continue that going until the end of the month.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’ll be leading the occupations of Senator Obama and Senator Durbin?

KATHY KELLY: Well, sure. We think that Senator Obama now has an extraordinary opportunity, with a high profile as a presidential hopeful. And we’ve been disappointed that even though he says he’s against the war, he’s ready to continue paying for it.

AMY GOODMAN: And Hillary Clinton?

KATHY KELLY: Well, Hillary Clinton’s aides have been deeply distressed by people who stayed in her office. And, you know, they said, “Well, Hillary doesn’t want to be viewed as somebody who supports the war.” But we have to insist that they can turn off the funding for the war if they don’t want to see it continue.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about another issue that you’ve been focusing a great deal on. You recently returned from Amman. I wanted to ask you about the growing Iraqi refugee crisis. You were working in Jordan with Iraqi refugees. The U.N. refugee agency announced Monday it might begin building emergency camps in Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to house Iraqis fleeing their home country. According to the U.N., 1.2 million Iraqis have already fled to Syria. Up to another 750,000 are in Jordan. Egypt has 120,000 more refugees. And there are 200,000 Iraqi refugees living in other Gulf nations. Jen Utz of Democracy Now! recently traveled to Jordan and Syria, where she spoke with many Iraqi refugees, including 27-year-old Hiba Adib, who was living in a refugee camp on the Iraq-Jordan border for the past four years. Her family was recently denied asylum by Australia, and their future remains uncertain.

HIBA ADIB: We already lost four years from our age. In four years, we can’t complete our education and live like normal people. We have — even we have no house to settle down. We are living in tent. When I was in Iraq, I go to my college, and I have friends. But now… [crying] Often I was in the bed, and I remember my friends, and I ask myself if they live now or died. I miss my life in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Iraqi refugee Hiba Adib. Democracy Now!’s Jen Utz also spoke to a 23-year-old Iraqi named Muhammad, who is now living in Jordan. He left Iraq after a car bomb exploded outside his home. He attends school in Amman, but says he feels safest staying at home to avoid risking deportation.

MUHAMMAD: Hard for my life. I’m uneducated. I learn so many things. And in the end, I’m just a loser. If you usually see me, you see me always with nice smile. But it’s fake. I don’t want to spend all my life in fake things, fake smile, fake behavior, but I feel that’s what’s going to happen. I feel I’m going to lose all my life in these things. That’s it. And I don’t know. Maybe over two months, if I didn’t get anything good, I’ll get back to Iraq and just wait my day. Yeah.

JEN UTZ: Just wait your day.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, just wait my day, if you understand what I mean.

AMY GOODMAN: Muhammad and Hiba, just two of the Iraqi refugees. They’re living in Amman. Kathy Kelly, you went to Amman to work with refugees. Just two of how many? Two million Iraqis?

KATHY KELLY: Sure, there are 750,000 to one million in Jordan alone, and in Syria, 850,000 to a million. And then, of course, a massive humanitarian catastrophe within Iraq, where there are at least 1.9 million people that have been displaced.

AMY GOODMAN: What is happening? And what about the United States? Is the United States allowing Iraqi refugees in here?

KATHY KELLY: Well, about the time that Jen filmed her interview with Hiba, the United States State Department had issued a kind of rosy report about the programs it was undertaking with a new Iraqi refugee task force, and talked about social counseling and emergency cash and small infrastructure projects. But people that are living in Jordan have seen very little of that. And anyway, if all of the money that they’ve allotted had been spent on Jordan alone, that would amount to three-and-a-half dollars per person amongst the new population in Jordan of Iraqis forced to flee violence.

The Jordanian government is strained. I mean, it’s very difficult for them to imagine trying to bring in this new population to their schools, to their hospitals. But people are in grave danger of being deported. The young man that was interviewed, you know, if he were to be discovered as having a visa that’s run out, then he could be deported across the border. That trip back to Baghdad is extremely risky and dangerous. And so, people don’t want to even produce their documents, for instance, to try to get their children into a school, even if they can afford it, because if their visa has run out, they might risk deportation.

People don’t have access to healthcare. They have basically no legal rights. And this is a situation which the United States has caused. And yet, when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees asked for $60 million to alleviate some of the suffering, the United States contributed $18 million. If the U.S. would just give a few hours’ worth of the money that’s spent on the war, this could possibly make a significant difference.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the solution overall?

KATHY KELLY: Well, I believe that the overall solution is to bring these Unites States troops home, end the war, and put very, very generous packages of reparation and reconstruction into an account that would be made available to Iraqis, but detach that from United States military or the logistical military security companies that have been attached to the United States. Certainly, the United States owes people in Iraq a huge apology for what has been done; however, it seems that President Bush’s statement in January was that he thinks the problem is that Iraqis aren’t showing a sufficient level of gratitude.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Kathy Kelly, executive director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, with Voices in the Wilderness. Her latest book is Other Lands Have Dreams.

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