WASHINGTON -- When a lawmaker's office is stormed, a hearing is disrupted or a protester is handcuffed on Capitol Hill these days, it's a safe bet the activist being hauled away will be female and wearing pink.
CodePink, a group spawned by Bay Area peace activists, has become the vibrantly hued public face of the anti-war movement in Washington. Launched in 2002 to oppose the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, the female activists are gaining new attention as a thorn in the side of Democrats, urging the new leaders of Congress to move faster to end the war.
"People try to marginalize them as being 'left,' " said Sen. Russ Feingold, an anti-war Democrat from Wisconsin. "But they serve as a reminder to (lawmakers) of the broader concern in the country over the war."
Publicly, top Democrats say they share the group's anti-war goals. But privately they grumble about its in-your-face tactics -- including disrupting Democratic press conferences and setting up a protest camp outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Pacific Heights home in San Francisco.
When activists from CodePink interrupted her speech to a Democratic group last month, Pelosi shot them a steely look and urged them to focus on getting Republicans to oppose the war.
"Instead of fighting us -- which is your right to do -- let's all work together to end the war and bring the troops home," Pelosi told the activists.
CodePink's leaders say the comments show they've touched a nerve with Democratic leaders. After three years of mostly fruitless actions against the Bush administration, the group feels it's finally gaining leverage by pressuring Democrats.
Medea Benjamin, the San Francisco activist and Green Party leader who co-founded the group, said CodePink began shifting its attention to Congress after its four-month daily vigil outside the White House produced no changes in policy leading to the Iraq invasion.
"We put all our pressure on the Bush administration to begin with. Obviously, that didn't make a difference," Benjamin said. "So we thought, 'Let's move who we can move, let's change the Congress,' and so we went out and worked like hell to get Democrats elected. Now we are putting pressure on the Democrats who control Congress. It seems like a logical strategy to me."
CodePink's name is a shot at the Bush administration, mocking the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded chart signaling the level of terrorist threat. The founders initially wanted to call it "Code Hot Pink" until they discovered the name already belonged to a porn site.
The group made headlines in 2004 by infiltrating the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Bush's acceptance speech was interrupted twice by the group's activists, including co-founder Jodie Evans, who stripped off her dress to reveal a pink slip decorated with the words: "Fire Bush! Women Say Bring Home the Troops Now."
But CodePink has spent equal time tormenting Democrats, sending pink feather boa-wearing activists to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's events to protest her vote in favor of going to war in Iraq. In recent months, with public opinion turning even more strongly against the war, Clinton has ratcheted up her opposition and has urged a speedier withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
"We've gotten to a place now where Hillary and (Barack) Obama are falling all over each other to be the leading peace candidate," said Gael Murphy, a former foreign service officer who co-founded the group.
CodePink intensified its anti-war efforts this spring by renting a row house on Capitol Hill, which serves as a command center and a crash pad for activists. Decorated with pink curtains, pink streamers and even a pink mailbox, it looks like what would happen if Barbie opened a boarding house for peaceniks.
The basement is the "peace room" -- not the war room -- where members plan strategy and decorate pink banners with slogans such as "War Causes Global Warming." Two upstairs floors are jammed with wooden bunk beds, where 17 activists from California, New York, Maine, Arizona and Texas are staying.
At the front door is a whiteboard marking the day's events -- a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the U.S. attorneys firing scandal -- so activists can choose what to protest. Murphy reveals one of the group's secrets: They watch C-SPAN from the house and text their fellow activists inside hearing rooms to get them perfectly placed within the frame of the TV cameras for maximum publicity.
That explains why, when ex-CIA agent Valerie Wilson testified before Congress, viewers couldn't avoid seeing a woman behind her in a bright pink shirt reading, "Impeach Bush."
But the group's tactics -- including unfurling banners during confirmation hearings and storming the offices of lawmakers -- have generated controversy on Capitol Hill among friends and foes.
On Tuesday, the group's target was hawkish Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Leslie Angeline, a CodePink activist from Santa Rosa who had been on a 21-day hunger strike, demanded a meeting with Lieberman to discuss his recent call for a military strike against Iran for its alleged support of anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq. After the independent senator refused, the group swarmed his office.
"There are no meetings today," a young Lieberman staffer said sternly. He quickly dialed the Capitol Police.
"Isn't the senator a public servant?" Benjamin demanded.
A minute later, the protest was over. Angeline was handcuffed and led away, still wearing a "Fasting for Peace" sign around her neck. Her fellow activists left the office singing, "Give Peace a Chance."
The arrest generated publicity, including a front-page photo in Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress. By Wednesday afternoon, Lieberman's office had called to say they were worried about Angeline's health and agreed to a five-minute meeting with the senator today. Angeline plans to bring photos of Iranian children she took on a recent peace mission.
"Hopefully we can touch his heart," she said.
The public relations stunts, the pink attire and '60s-era chants have made the group a target of ridicule on the right. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said most lawmakers and Americans view the activists as "kooks to the extreme."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative Alabama Republican, admits he likes the group's theatrics.
"If they want to dress up in silly suits and wear crowns, I think that's fun," he said. But he noted that Democratic committee chairmen often scold the group for interrupting witnesses at hearings.
"No one group has a right to disrupt the processes of the Senate," Sessions said.
CodePink has a tense relationship with the Capitol Police, which is now quicker to arrest, jail and fine the group's members for disruptive action. "You're not allowed to disrupt hearings," said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman. "You can't do that."
Petaluma Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, said polls show that the opposition to the war voiced by the activists has taken root among the general public.
"If it weren't for CodePink and groups like CodePink, we'd be a lot farther away from resolving the situation in Iraq," Woolsey said.
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