On April 18, 2007, a protest against the war in Iraq at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison turned into an overnight occupation of Senator Herb Kohl's office by approximately 100 citizens. Kohl is one of several Democratic Senators who claims he opposes the occupation of Iraq yet firmly supports the continued funding of that occupation and war through such mechanisms as the currently contested bill that sets a rather loose deadline for the withdrawal of some US troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008. Kohl's office had been the target of antiwar sit-ins before, but never before had there been as many participants nor had anyone been arrested. As most readers probably know, Kohl is but one of several legislators who have seen sit-ins in their offices because of their refusal to support bills demanding immediate withdrawal of forces form Iraq. The Madison action was unique in that it was organized primarily by antiwar students at the university and will most likely go down in the history of the current antiwar movement as the first large action of its kind.
I had the opportunity to connect with some of the participants/organizers of this action. We had an informed and stimulating exchange. I reprint it here in the hopes that others will be inspired to act similarly, especially in the light of the current attempts by Congress to rewrite the aforementioned legislation so that there are no timetables or deadlines for withdrawal whatsoever, only so-called benchmarks that do nothing but blame the Green Zone government for the occupation's failure to assume control of Iraq and its resources while simultaneously tying non-military aid to the Green Zone government's continuing the transformation of Iraq into another neoliberal colony of Washington. The elected representatives of the people must be made to understand that we want the troops home now. As the students below make clear, only mass protest will bring this home to them.
Ron:Tell me what happened. How did this protest turn into a sit in?
Josh Brielmaier: About 100 of us crammed into Kohl's office to make our demands. Somebody suggested staying the night and by show of hands around forty of us were willing to stay the night.
Chris Dols: The visit to Kohl's became an overnight office occupation when Kohl refused to meet our demand for an in-person meeting. Kohl has never met publicly with antiwar constituents in Madison since the war began. Further, he has supported and funded the war since the beginning.
Zach Heise: The original intention of the protest was for it to be a sit-in. We were informed that Wednesday afternoons were a time when a regular sit-in group was in Kohl's office, so we thought that we would bolster their group and show our support. We had hoped that we wouldn't need to do a sit-in, at least some of us - Campus Antiwar Network's (CAN) reasons for being there were clearly stated and taped within moments of our arrival: we wanted to meet with Kohl, or at the VERY least, arrange with him personally via phone for a time that he could meet with our group. We didn't want any secondhand hearsay from aides or notes - we wanted to hear his voice on the phone to arrange a meeting with us, and then we would have, as far as I believe was our intention, left peacefully. That was our mission.
Todd Dennis: Like Zach said, The plan from the start was to go to Herb Kohl's office and make our demands and request a public meeting where we could get Herb Kohl's response to our demands for the troops to come home from Iraq. Following the run-around from his staff, as the folks from The Network have been getting since they have been conducting their sit-ins, we stayed in the office while waiting on when Kohl would come back to speak with his constituents in his home state. The staff told us they would give us a teleconference in the next couple days but wouldn't give us an exact time as they had to work out to find some open time the senator had. After "granting" the conference call, they said okay here you go, will you leave now. Of course since we wanted a public meeting in Wisconsin we said no. As previously understood by those of us who planned the event we staying in the Senators office waiting to hear he would come to Wisconsin for the public meeting. However, overnight upon the realization that we meant business we were given several demands and when they told us we couldn't make anymore demands and also made it clear that we would get neither the conference call nor the public meeting we took back the entire office from the 10 X 20 part we were corralled in overnight. Following our taking over fo the entire office, the police were called and we had to leave the building.
Ron:What were your personal and political reasons for participating?
Bernadette Watts: I don’t see any just reasoning behind this war. Everything in my body tells me that it’s a senseless war for the profit of a small group of individuals. Kohl, the wealthiest US senator, continues to support funding for the war while saying he is against it. I believe our senator should work for us, the people he supposedly represents, and when he messes up, I believe it’s our duty to make him accountable for his actions. I recently became involved with CAN and it has been a pleasure working with such an intelligent group of individuals, all of whom continue to inspire me to use my voice.
Todd: I have a couple reasons why I participated. One, as a veteran who was on active duty in the US Navy when the disinformation war to start the occupation of Iraq began, I have been opposed to the occupation from the start. While in the military, partly out of fear of retributions and partly because I was unaware of my GI rights to protest off-base and out of uniform, I didn't participate in the anti-war rallies and demonstrations prior to the start of the occupation. I did however contact all of my representatives stating my displeasure with the proposed Iraq war vote. Kohl like normal didn't respond to my emails. This was very disrespectful to me and my brothers and sisters whose lives he is personally responsible. Since I have become a peace and justice advocate with first, Veterans for Peace and now along with Iraq Veterans Against the War, I have been disappointed in the representatives of this countries response to the war and public sentiment to it. While I can do nothing about my earlier inaction, I can when any opportunity arises take action showing my displeasure with the continued occupation of Iraq where our military has virtually no mission but to stay alive.
Some in our group until we did this action felt that Kohl was an honest and sinsere politician. I had lost faith in the Democrats long ago and felt that Kohl who claims to be against the war and yet keeps funding it was a good target to show everyone how he really doesn't stand with us in our demand that Iraqis get self-determination. To show them and the rest of the country how our purported representatives respond to our simple requests I participated in the occupation of Herb Kohl's office.
Chris: My French grandfather fought against occupation of his country by the Nazis. Had my grandfather been a German, I like to think he would have done the same, but I can't know where he would have stood. All I know is that my country is now occupying others and if the memory of my Grandfather means anything to me, it directs me to stand with those my government attempts to conquer. It is the responsibility of progressives in the heart of the empire to stand in solidarity with the victims of those empires. Kohl stands for conquest, I stand against him. We conquered his office for one, long night. A taste of things to come. I slept soundly on his plush office carpet knowing while my squirrelly little Senator stands on one side of history, I stand on the other.
Zach: I originally joined the antiwar effort due to what I view as a horrendous economic waste. Besides being illegal and founded on what have been proven to be Western expansion reasons as opposed to "democracy" this war is costing over $3000 dollars every second - every second, that much money is spent on this war. There's a great site, www.costofwar.com that allows you to see how much your exact area has estimated spending on the war. Well, Wisconsin's spending on the war could have purchased 12,000 full-ride scholarships to UW-Madison. Simply ridiculous. Maybe if this was a just and well-reasoned war, that could be justified. But as it is now, I find it simply appalling.
Josh: I think if we're serious about bringing an end to this war then its obvious traditional protest alone is going to be insufficient. It serves a purpose, but puts no real pressure on our elected representatives to do their job. As a newcomer to the antiwar movement I felt inspired by the energy and momentum of my comrades and the general sense that we were doing something different. We're no longer politely asking those in power to put and end to the war in Iraq; we're demanding it.
Ron: In the statement you all released, you wrote that Kohl expressed support for your position. If this is so, then why did you occupy his office?
Zach: We occupied his office because his "support" for our position seems to be completely ceremonial. He pays lip service to being opposed to the war, but yet he continues to fund a war. For me, that's the biggest reason: if you're supporting the war, be honest; if you're opposed to the war, let your voting record show that you're opposed to the war. It's all well and good for him to "support our position" - now show us that you're willing to vote with us.