Activists Rally In DC For Human Rights

April 19, 2011

By Dana Watters, Amnesty Get On The Bus Volunteer

Even at nine in the morning on a Friday, when most of us would normally be counting down to the weekend, the energy in the Foundry in Washington, DC is phenomenal. In the sunshine outside, groups color flags in support of Filep Karma, while inside roses and key actions are passed around for signatures. Larry Cox hasn’t even arrived yet, and everyone is already buzzing with excitement.

By the time everyone has settled inside for the opening speeches, the count is well over one hundred Amnesty International activists. The various speakers infect the crowd with even more passion and anticipation, reaching a pinnacle when Larry announces that he has decided that joining us for Get on the Bus is more important than going home to meet with the IRS.

The group splits, half heading to demonstrate for the Women of Zimbabwe (WoZA) at the Zimbabwe Embassy and half for Walid Yunis Ahmad at the Iraqi Consulate. We march in long ovals, chanting and holding our signs, the very picture of peaceful protest. At the Iraqi Consulate, faces peer out from the windows and passers by stop to watch.

Indonesia is after lunch, to call for the release of Filep Karma, and embassy staff returning from lunch walk by with varying degrees of interest and annoyance. A few black SUVs roll through the gates, and we wave our signs bearing pictures of Filep and shout that “waving a flag isn’t a crime.” Our elliptical march ends in a group photo with our banner, and a final, ear-splitting chant of “Free Filep.” We remind them we’ll be back – they probably know, by now. Amnesty USA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office organizes a monthly demonstration on Filep Karma’s behalf.

At Chad, there is good news – an embassy official meets with Becky Farrar and expresses both interest in meeting with an Amnesty representative and support for our cause, protection of displaced persons. Outside in the hot sun, we call for an end to violence in Darfur and in Chad, and protection of refugees and IDPs. Many of us, caught up in the greater cause, forget to apply sunscreen. Our sunburns will be our battle scars.

We split again, this time half heading to the Myanmar Embassy to call for the release of Burmese political prisoners and half to the Sri Lankan one to call for an international war crimes investigation and protection of journalists. A sign on the door of Myanmar puts a momentary damper on our collective spirit – they’re closed. But we’re reminded that if we don’t stay and send our message, next year they might follow suit. We stay, and rally anyway, spilling our thousands of signed keys down the steps. We make sure to pick them up before we leave.

At long last, we reach the Chinese Consulate, and begin to circle the small park across from the building, holding our signs with pictures of filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen and chanting. “What do we want?” is the familiar rally cry of the day, answered with a resounding cry of “human rights!” Again, we draw curiosity from within, and support from passing cars. The day has been long – all of us have been either traveling, volunteering, or organizing since before dawn – but the volume and intensity of the group doesn’t reflect it. For many people, the final action seems to renew their spirits. They throw everything they have into this last one, and it shows, when it takes three calls to wind down the chanting. No one is eager for it to end, because Get on the Bus Day, for first-timers and veterans of Get on the Bus New York alike, is exhilarating.

By any conceivable standard, Friday is an overwhelming success. The turnout, while a mere fraction of New York’s numbers, is impressive for the first year, and certainly exceeds the final few weeks’ dire registration count that had many behind the scenes worried. At least a third – probably closer to half – of the participants sport bright turquoise bandanas, signifying volunteer status, but that’s certainly nothing to be disappointed about. The support and enthusiasm of local Amnesty group leaders, Mid-Atlantic Amnesty staff and interns, and Get on the Bus volunteers is, and has been, remarkable, and without question helped the event to exceed expectations.

The recurring rally cry at the end of each action transcends a mere warning – that “we will be back.” It is a promise to those who came, those who couldn’t, and those who didn’t even know about Get on the Bus Day that next year’s event will be even bigger, even better, and even more amazing. In the meantime, however, we have made our mark. Get on the Bus is no longer just New York – it is Washington, and it is going to be the stuff of legend.