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Mr. BEAST Goes to Washington
by Ian Murphy
Midnight in Buffalo, NY—two dozen patriots have collected in the university parking lot, awaiting an American Civil Liberties Union chartered bus to D.C. They’re your typical cast of liberal players—lisping fags, tough as nails lesbians, smelly hippies, and the odd war vet—true Americans. I’ve been assigned to travel with them. We pick up half a dozen more in Rochester. It’s a dangerous mission. Any one of us could be snatched away by the Gestapo, deemed an enemy combatant, detained indefinitely without charge or trial, and legally tortured to the point of “organ failure”—even the white people. No bullshit. It’s a Brave New America under The Military Commissions Act of 2006. Somebody brought vegan granola bars.
“A show of force” is necessary, commands our “bus captain,” local ACLU chapter head John Curr, contemplatively tapping the cane he acquired in Gulf War I on the bus’ carpeted center strip. Ours and scores of other buses are descending on the nation’s capital to restore our right of habeas corpus—or be disappeared. Those who have sleeping pills take them.
Our delegation of citizen-lobbyists is cordially met at Washington’s Union Station by an old slumbering homeless woman. She wears a filthy pink and purple track suit. Her jet black face is dotted with flies, and bakes in the brutal sun. Her splayed arms and open mouth seem to say “welcome to D.C.” The long ride has aggravated my sciatica. I consult my pocket pharmacy, and down 3 large, pink Vicodin and chew up my first OxyContin of the day. Thank goodness for street corner health insurance.
Billed as “a day of action to restore law and justice,” this isn’t going to be the same old ineffectual protest—we’re going to ineffectually lobby both houses of congress. We have an appointment. We’re pushing two bills: H.R. 1415, the Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007, and H.R. 1416, the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007, both of which would fully reverse the Military Commissions Act of 2006—the nasty bit of legislation that’s made our collective disappearance and torture at Guantanamo Bay a legal possibility. All of us dressed in identical t-shirts, thousands of activists swarm the station. We leisurely filter outside and march toward Capital Hill. It’s hot as hell.
We meet up with Andrew Schaefer of the Buffalo News’ Washington Bureau. He’s a sad looking hack with a buzz cut and a wrist brace. His clothes hang on him like he’s just lost fifty pounds. Schaefer was listed as a contributor to the resulting News’ article: “30 from area join protest at Capitol”—211 words that summed up the day thusly:
The main object of the demonstrators' outrage was the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which strips captured foreign enemy combatants of their habeus corpus right to challenge their imprisonment in U.S. courts.
The only problem is that the Military Commissions Act doesn’t contain the phrase “foreign” enemy combatants. The bill does state, however, that any person “engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States” qualifies as an “enemy combatant.” That could be you. That could be Andrew Schaefer. Well, probably not Schaefer.
The rally follows the usual script: easily forgotten folk band, television “personality,” event organizers, politicians, torture victims, religious types. The MC is Greg Proops’s hair. It stands at full attention, stoically enduring Greg Proops, a bespectacled, nasal comedian best known for his stint on the unendurable improv comedy show, “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Nearby, speaking of improv comedy, kids in orange jumpsuits play at being tortured—bound and gagged in the hot sun. The rotund sponsor of the bills we’re lobbying for, Brooklyn Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) waddles to the microphone and admonishes the previous speakers for saying how “glad” they were to be here; a little bit of sanity.
Every so often, a tightly-packed gaggle of suits swarms the back of the stage, splits down the center, and births a sweaty bigwig senator like Patrick Leahy or Chris Dodd. Leahy, the senior senator from Vermont and current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is met by howls of “impeach Cheney!” Dodd, the hopeless presidential hopeful, steals a move from the Kucinich playbook and waves his pocket constitution at the crowd. Dodd scurries off stage; I pursue. He moves quickly, but I cut him off. Totally unprepared, brain floating in pain-killer soup—I snap a photo, and ask him the first relevant question that comes to mind:
“What do you like better—cats or dogs?”
“HA!” Dodd literally spits in my face while bolting past me. He stops briefly as a minion opens a waiting car door, turning back to me. “I like both!” he says with a carnivorous smile. I can see the headlines: Dodd Noncommittal on Contentious Pet Issue; Cats, Dogs Both Dissatisfied with Waffling Dodd.
Kucinich takes the stage. “We must reinstate habeas corpus!”—and the crowd goes fucking wild. I offer some black market OxyContin to the tie-dye clad photographer next to me—it’s a real party scene. I stumble around in a pharmaceutical daze, fending off heat stroke, placards, and socialist literature. The rally winds down with depressing firsthand accounts from torture victims and the obligatory outrage of religious weirdos. I fight a strong urge to heckle them. On this issue, the supernaturally deluded and a drugged-up atheist agree. The crowd of some 3500 splits up into states; we plot our lobbying visits and break for lunch.
I tag along with head of the ACLU Rochester division Todd Plank, and a handful of others, to the office of Congressman Randy Kuhl (ironically pronounced “cool”), a Republican representing New York’s 29th district. “Life isn’t fair all the time,” he tells us unsympathetically, reclining in his chair, hands clasped casually over his right knee. His desk is adorned with a small bust of Lincoln, matchbox cars, a snow globe and some hand lotion. A former litigator, Kuhl clearly enjoys playing devil’s advocate—only he’s not playing. He voted for the Military Commissions Act. “Can any of you think of a time when it might be OK to suspend certain rights?” he asks us with a self-satisfied grin.
“No,” says a woman from our group. “Historically, it has never worked out,” she adds. “It has always led to abuse.” She’s right—even Lincoln regretted suspending habeas corpus.
Plank and the others calmly express their concerns—they believe that the U.S. government shouldn’t have the authority to detain people without trial and torture them—it seems like a no-brainer. Kuhl’s face lights up like a sadistic Christmas tree at the mention of torture, and he recommends a “really great” book on the subject. Say what you will about Kuhl—he’s a drunk who threatened to kill his ex-wife with a shotgun, he voted unconscionably to terminate your right of habeas corpus, or that he likely uses the lotion in his office to masturbate to torture books—at least he took the time to meet with us.
We meet back up with John Curr’s group outside of Congressman Brian Higgins’ office. Higgins, a Democrat representing New York’s 27th (which includes most of Buffalo), has cultivated a reputation as a man who brings home the pork. Unfortunately, he’s gained the people’s praise by selling them out—a little trade off with the now defunct Republican majority. He voted in favor of reauthorizing the Patriot Act, the credit industry’s heinous Bankruptcy bill, the hilarious Terri Schiavo bill, and of course the Military Commissions Act. The local press worships him.
Higgins is a no-show; we’re forced to confront his aides. It’s a scene being played out simultaneously all over town—heavily perspiring citizens in matching t-shirts being placated by slick-talking underlings. Higgins’ Senior Legislative Assistant assures us that “the Congressman shares your concerns.” He spends the bulk of our visit making uncomfortable faces, looking up at the ceiling, and being scolded by a no-nonsense dike named “Ms. Kitty.”
“9-11 was the Bush administration’s Reichstag!” says a livid long-hair named Mike.
Higgins’s office is crawling with Jews, and the Nazi metaphor evokes a quasi-seizure in one of his staff. Mike self-recriminates—all is well with the world.
“We need to investigate the physics behind 9-11,” chimes in another. And we lose whatever credibility we never had.
As we say our goodbyes, I amble over to Higgins’ desk. On it is a nearly empty bottle of Pepsi One, a plate speckled with crumbs and a wadded up paper napkin. Nothing says “I’m too scared to meet with my constituents” like the remnants of a recent meal. Affixed to the computer monitor is a yellow Post-It note that reads: “maryjane78.” There are a few lines crossing over the seven, possibly representing that an asterisk should be used in its place. How very cryptic.
“What do you think about what we did here today?” asks a middle-aged meditation guru settling into the seat ahead of me. “Do you think it had any affect?”
“No,” I reply.
“Me neither,” he says with a paradoxical smile. “It’s a done deal. No matter what we do—it’s a done deal.”
Out of youthful naivety, and psychological necessity, most on the bus don’t share our grim assessment. We all agree on one thing, however—doing nothing is no longer an option.
This little lobbying junket was a first for the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the other groups that sponsored the event. Lobbying is big business in America. It’s how things get done—mostly terrible things. On any given day there are approximately 65 highly paid lobbyists for every legislator on the Hill. In our pay-to-play political environment, does an impoverished citizen-lobby have a snowball’s chance in a hell? We weren’t lobbying on behalf of some obscenely moneyed industry. We couldn’t whisper promises of campaign contributions from company X, Y, and Z if our legislation were enacted. We wouldn’t be here tomorrow, or the next day to follow up with free meals, vacations and blowjobs. We had absolutely no clout. For the lawmakers with a conscience, our trip was a gratuitous pat on the back. For the lawmakers who didn’t already recognize the folly in killing habeas corpus and legalizing torture, our trip offered them nothing in exchange for their vote. Squat. It’s safe to say that half a dozen angry constituents didn’t exactly have them shaking in their loafers—that is, once they heard about the visit from their aides. Everyone on the bus is content, riding high on a vague sense of victory. Yet I’m skeptical—did this “day of action” do a damn thing?
“It’s a good start,” says a bleary-eyed John Curr. We stand in a Denny’s parking lot somewhere in Pennsylvania, stretching our legs and smoking cigarettes.
“Wouldn’t it be more effective to just bribe them?” I ask.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” he answers pensively.
Still, there’s an undeniable sense of possibility on this bus. Maybe in a country where we’ve all been conditioned to feel like we can’t make a difference, it’s that sense that gives our actions meaning—empowerment for its own sake. It is a “good start,” I think to myself as I pop one last pill to sooth my crooked spine.
“Next time,” I think to myself, drifting off to sleep. “We’ll have millions, not thousands. We won’t come armed with slick folders full of talking points—we’ll have torches and pitchforks! We’ll clog the streets, the sidewalks, the subways, the very halls of Congress! We’ll shut down this whorehouse of a town! And we won’t leave until our demands are met!”
I may have already begun to dream, and not even realized it.
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