WASHINGTON - Seven-year-old Alvin Mitchell worked intently yesterday on what looked to be a blue balloon wrapped around a tennis ball. It was a fake version of a cluster bomb, and the real thing, he pronounced, can "blow you up and kill you."The fake bombs Alvin and a dozen other children were making at a peace workshop will be put to use Monday in Lafayette Square. As hundreds attend the White House Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn, a smaller group will gather at the park on the north side for what is being billed as a "family-friendly Easter cluster-bomb hunt."
It used to be that an Easter egg hunt was just an Easter egg hunt. It had no message beyond cute kids playing with colored eggs. Now the venerable White House Easter Egg Roll, which dates to the 1870s, has become an occasion for at least two groups to make a statement that is as much about politics as it is about the spring holiday.
"Obviously, we're trying to spoof a little bit what will be happening on the South Lawn," said Brian Hennessey of the Vineeta Foundation, a local human rights group founded in 1995 that is the lead sponsor of the cluster-bomb hunt. "We're not trying to hit kids over the head with this; we want them to have fun. We also want to bring attention to the fact that our munitions cause a lot of death and destruction to civilians, especially children."
Last year, gay and lesbian parents were in the media spotlight, when a group of about 100 families donned rainbow-colored leis and waited in the overnight line for egg roll tickets. Their goal was visibility. "Our families just want to participate in a great American tradition," said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition, the group that led the effort.
This year, about 100 families again plan to attend, with considerably less hoopla. "The fact that there is less of a frenzy or outcry about our participation is a good thing," Chrisler said.
She said she understands why the White House event attracts groups with agendas to promote. "I think the fact of the matter is, politics has gotten infused into a lot of parts of American lives," she said. "This is a White House that has been fairly unresponsive to the sentiments of its people, and I'm not surprised that folks are going to great lengths to get the president's attention."
Hennessey acknowledged that the cluster-bomb hunt invites criticism from some areas. He said he has reported "threats of violence," found on a right-wing Web site, to the U.S. Park Police.
"This is supposed to be funny," he said about the hunt. "We're not trying to be confrontational. We're not going to be in anyone's face. People are welcome to reject what we say or think about it."
He said he has read a few comments from people wondering if it is right to expose children to thoughts of bombings and death when all they are after is a pleasant holiday experience. "I think a more important question is whether we should be exposing other people's children to these bombs," he said.
Cluster bombs, in which a larger weapon releases several hundred smaller bombs that might explode or linger on the ground as landmines, continue to maim and kill civilians around the world, he said. In February, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation that would ban the use of American-made cluster bombs in civilian areas. The U.S. bombs reportedly have been used in a number of countries, including Iraq, Laos, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia.
Hennessey said he got the idea for the Easter hunt at the March 17 antiwar rally at the Pentagon. As he stood on the stage and looked out at hundreds of like-minded protesters, "I realized we were preaching to the choir," he said.
He set about to organize the Lafayette Square event, hoping to draw participants from the 40,000 people the Park Service estimates will be in the immediate area Monday. Other peace groups, such as Code Pink and the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, came onboard.
"When you look at the message of Easter, it's about life and love and peace," said Linda Schade, executive director of Voters for Peace, another co-sponsor. "We're trying to emphasize how our actions are not in step with our values."
The event, which runs from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., the same hours as the White House Easter Egg Roll, will include a search for weapons of mass destruction for the adults. "They'll all come back looking confused five minutes later, saying they couldn't find anything," Hennessey said.
Another search, for Osama bin Laden, will turn up only photographs of Saddam Hussein, he said. A hulk of a large bomb will be filled with toy bombs, and a prize will be given to whoever guesses the number inside.
At a "teach-in" yesterday at a Northwest Washington community center, Hennessey and others helped the children fashion the fake bombs, using balloons, tennis balls and brightly colored clay. The adults told the children they could write their names on the "bombs" and take them home after Monday's event. And they tried to explain what the concerns were all about.
"In these countries far away from here, kids find them and they look just like toys," said Radia Daoussi, a Vineeta worker, holding up a ball covered in swirls of orange, blue and yellow clay. "If you saw this, wouldn't you want to pick it up and play with it?"
© 2007 The Washington Post Company