Several Code Pink Austin members descended on the Renaissance Hotel on a Thursday night before Karl Rove, President Bush's former senior adviser, spoke at the annual Associated Republicans of Texas holiday fundraising dinner.
They weren't there very long - hotel security escorted them out before Rove's speech began - but they did catch the attention of people in the lobby, member Fran Hanlon said.
While a few members stood in the lobby wearing fabric signs that read "Rove=Death" and "Rove=War," another group of protesters launched a 30-foot banner, suspended on red, white and blue helium balloons, with a caricature of Rove from the lobby's third-floor balcony. To top off their demonstration, they dropped "Rove bucks," fake bills meant to parody the fundraising effort and emphasize the amount of money spent on the war in Iraq, from the sixth floor of the atrium.
Code Pink, an anti-war organization led by women and known for staging elaborate demonstrations and protests, mixes equal parts humor and outrage in events designed to generate interest in their cause - or at least draw attention from curious passers-by.
In March, the chapter held an "I Miss America" pageant in which participants wore sashes with such titles as "I Miss Checks and Balances," "I Miss Information" and "I Miss led the People." On a recent Friday, they went out as the Pink Police, stopping downtown pedestrians and handing out pink slips - their way of symbolically firing politicians who support the Iraq war.
The Austin chapter, one of the more active in Texas, has generated concepts now used by chapters across the country; both the Pink Police and the pageant have been duplicated by other branches.
Code Pink was founded in November 2002 in Washington as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq. There are now more than 250 chapters around the world, according to the national Code Pink Web site.
Though the demonstrations are executed with great detail, members say that planning for the events is oftentimes sporadic, taking two weeks at the most to prepare.
"A lot of times we may be in a meeting and someone may holler out a completely random idea, and we'll just roll with it," said Sandra Molinari, who has been actively involved in the chapter since its inception in January 2004. "Someone may say, 'Hey, I'm thinking something about superheroes!' and the wheels start turning from there. We just have a lot of really creative members."
Some critics feel that the organization is too aggressive and that their creativity can push the envelope too far. Todd Engstrom, building manager at the Dobie Center, bumped horns with the group when they held a protest with national anti-war figure Cindy Sheehan at Dobie Mall in April.
"They came in here and started putting crime scene tape all over the outside of the windows at the Army Recruitment office and took over the whole office," he said. "I said to them, 'This is private property; you can't do this,' and they basically said, 'This is our protest. You can't stop us, and we are not going to leave,' and they continued putting the tape up."
Police were called, and the women were asked to leave the building, Engstrom said.
"I don't think any group should storm onto private property and take it over the way they did," he said.
At any given time, the Austin chapter has about 15 active members, Molinari said. Six to eight may run a particular demonstration: sewing pink slips and banners, drawing posters, writing news releases and planning events. Hanlon, 51, said their events prove that big numbers are not required to make a big impact.
The demonstrations "are designed to have an immediate impact in terms of people's impressions," Hanlon said. "We've done a couple of funeral marches where we were dressed all in black with black veils and marched in a single file quietly, and I believe those have an immediate impact on people's emotional state and affecting what they think about war in terms of realizing that people are dying in this war."
The women say they have to balance their protest work with other demands on their time. Most work full time, and some have children.
"We all have our families and work or home life to tend to, so it's about making choices and balancing your priorities to make it work," Molinari said. "Sometimes you have to put things on a back burner, and sometimes it's Code Pink, so we have to choose what we can do."
One of the group's newest members is Cindy Thomas, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom from Killeen. Her husband, a career soldier, is in Iraq, and her stepson is making plans to enlist in the Marines.
Thomas traveled to Austin one recent Sunday with her two daughters in tow to attend her first Code Pink meeting. She said she has opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and wanted an outlet to voice her frustrations.
"It's hard because there are a lot of the military wives who feel the same way, but they are afraid to speak out," Thomas said. "I'm hoping to take something from this meeting and take it back to the base so that we could try to get something started there."
The Austin chapter has spoken out against politicians, corporations and government policies that support the war in Iraq.
In October, the group stood outside Sen. John Cornyn's Austin office, wearing black clothing and white skull masks, holding signs condemning the senator's voting record on issues such as war spending and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Cornyn said that the attention from the group is not surprising and that it helps highlight what issues need attention.
"When you're an elected official, things like your voting record on key issues is going to be subjected to public scrutiny, and you will have groups that will take that and create a misrepresentation of your ideals," he said after a meeting with Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins in Austin late last month. "What my challenge is is to be informed of the facts and the problems surrounding the SCHIP program ... to see what I can do as an individual to help."
In November, the group held a silent protest of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison urging her to "Lead Us Out of War" during her appearance at the Texas Book Festival.
Group members say they have no problem targeting Democratic politicians as well.
"There is a huge amount of disillusionment ... for what many of us feel is spineless behavior" by Democrats, Hanlon said. "Many of us feel like we've been betrayed because we felt they were elected last fall to bring the troops home, and they haven't done that. We definitely try to hold them accountable."
The national Code Pink chapter has demonstrated against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Hillary Clinton. Turpin said the Austin chapter has targeted Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, carrying protest signs at an event where he spoke this year to pressure him to vote against war funding bills.
Molinari said Code Pink will probably be more visible as the 2008 presidential election approaches, but the chapter does not endorse any candidates.
"If someone is running for re-election and they have a poor voting record or voted in support of sending more troops to Iraq or anything like that, we will protest to call that to people's attention," Turpin said.
© 2007 The New Statesman