The Take Back America conference, an annual event held in Washington DC this year from June 12-14, is supposed to be a venue for prominent progressives to gather and debate the major issues of our day. Their aim is to "provide the nation with new vision, new ideas and new energy." But choosing New York Senator and probable presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as a keynote speaker and then stifling dissent against her pro-war position hardly seems the stuff of a new vision for America.
The peace group CODEPINK is widely known for bringing its anti-war message to the halls of power, including inside the Republican National Convention and at President Bush's Inauguration. But it has also targeted Democrats such as Hillary Clinton who support the war. "We have a campaign called Birddog Hillary," says CODEPINK's New York coordinator Nancy Kricorian. "We follow her around the entire state asking her to listen to the voices of her constituents and stop her support of Bush's 'stay the course' policy in Iraq. So far, she hasn't been listening."
Fearing that CODEPINK would openly confront Clinton on her pro-war policy, the organizers of Take Back America entered into negotiations with CODEPINK a few days before the conference. "We had lengthy discussions where they pleaded with us not to protest during her keynote breakfast address," explained Gael Murphy, one of the cofounders of CODEPINK. "Instead, we were told that we could distribute flyers explaining Hillary's pro-war position to the crowd inside and outside the hotel, and we would be called on to ask her the first question after the speech. We agreed."
However, when CODEPINK showed up on Tuesday morning in advance of Clinton's speech, the security guards refused to allow them to pass out flyers, even outside the hotel. "Take Back America violated the agreement from the moment we arrived," said Ms. Murphy. "Even though we had a table inside the conference, burly security guards blocked us and informed us that it was a private event, that we were not welcome, and they escorted us out of the building. We telephoned the conference staff who then told us that we couldn't enter the hotel, couldn't leaflet the event, the hallways--anywhere. They went back on their word and tried to quash even peaceful, respectful dissent."
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A few CODEPINK women did manage to get inside the breakfast, however, as they were legitimate ticket holders. Once inside, the CODEPINK women soon realized that they had been deceived about the second part of the agreement: They would not be allowed to ask the first question, or any question, because Hillary Clinton would not be fielding questions from the audience. "We were really upset that we had been lied to by Take Back America, and that there would be no space at this 'progressive conference' to have a dialogue with Hillary Clinton about the most critical issue of our time--the war in Iraq," said Katie Heald, DC coordinator for CODEPINK. "We got up on our chairs holding up our hands with the peace sign, and were pulled down from the chairs. We tried to take out our banner that said 'Listen Hillary: Stop Supporting the War' and it was grabbed from us. And when Hillary started talking about her Iraq strategy, criticizing Bush but not posing a solution, we shouted 'What are YOU going to do to get us out of Iraq,' but she ignored us."
Ann Wright, the army colonel and diplomat who resigned over the war, was appalled by the actions of the conference organizers. "They took away leaflets supporting Jonathan Tasini, the anti-war Democrat who is running against Clinton in New York. They searched people's bags for banners; they even took away an 'Impeach Bush' banner from Veterans for Peace. Free speech needs to be upheld by progressives and trying to curtail dissent undercuts the whole purpose of this conference," said Wright.
Many of the attendees agreed with the position of the protesters, and as Hillary Clinton left the podium, they joined in chanting "Bring the troops home; Stop the war now." The next speakers, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator John Kerry, got thunderous applause when they called for the troops to come home.
"We were amazed to discover that the organizers of Take Back America treat dissent the same way that the organizers at a Bush rally do," said Ms. Murphy. "Most progressives do not support Hillary Clinton, and stifling our legitimate, heartfelt opposition to her pro-war position is an outrage. I guess we have to take back 'Take Back America.'"