Civil disobedience can be based on a couple of different notions, Steve Woolford was saying. One is a First Amendment approach, a right to speak out even when the government is telling you to stop. The other is spiritual. You answer to a higher power than government. You follow your conscience. Woolford was following his conscience, and it told him to go to Sen. John Edwards’ Raleigh office, refuse to leave and be arrested.
He would do this to protest the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq and Edwards’ support for it. Woolford, along with his wife, Lenore Yarger, and her sister, Lisa Yarger, were sitting in a coffee shop a block away and an hour before the planned sit-in last week. They were three of the five who’d decided to be arrested. Woolford and his wife live in Silk Hope in a Catholic Worker house, an intentional community where people share what they have, embrace simplicity and commit to serve the poor. Lisa Yarger lives in Durham.
As the prospect of war grows, Lenore said, “I feel a great affinity with the poor people in Iraq.” Lisa just returned from a honeymoon trip to Europe. People there, she said, thought a U.S. invasion was crazy and wondered how it is that Americans can think that one set of standards should apply to them and another to the rest of the world.
“Partly, it’s my conscience telling me to do this,” Lisa said. “Partly, my anger is.”
Steve and Lenore are veterans of sit-ins and arrests, but Lisa’d never been arrested and was nervous about it. “I’m not sure what difference it will make,” Lisa said, “but I wanted to put my body on the line in a symbolic way.”
What difference? Steve and Lenore talked awhile longer about the Catholic Worker movement, which started in the ’30s and has no official connection to Roman Catholicism. CW lives on the church’s radical social side–easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven, remember?–and tunes out the rest. Sitting in, he said, wouldn’t be about Edwards or the public even, but rather the way he wanted to live his life. “Government is about rules,” he said. “Religion is not about rules but about relationships with others and with God.”
At the appointed hour, about 60 protesters were gathered, signs in hand, on Fayetteville Mall outside the Federal Building. “Are they in yet?” the crowd buzzed, as Woolford, the Yargers and two others (Indy contributor Patrick O’Neill and Kathy Lutz, the UNC-Chapel Hill anthropologist) entered and headed down the hall toward the elevator that would take them to Edwards’ third-floor office.
But they never got to the elevator. They were stopped at the glass door that separates the hallway from the elevator lobby. Five guards stood on the lobby side. They called up to Edwards’ staff. The answer, one of the guards reported, opening the glass door a crack, was: Don’t let them up. We’ll come down.
This was awkward. Woolford and Lenore Yarger, on a reconnaissance mission, had visited Edwards’ office a few days earlier without any difficulty. But now an Edwards aide was asking why they’d come. To deliver a letter of protest, they said. Fine, she’d see that Edwards got it, the aide said. Just hand it through the door.
Woolford looked deflated, as if he’d expected Edwards, though on the other side of the issue politically, would nonetheless want to have a relationship with the protesters. They were, after all, his constituents. More than that, most of them voted for him when he unseated right-winger Lauch Faircloth in ’98. Right on cue, someone down the hall shouted, “We put you in!”
But Edwards (or his staff, on his behalf) wanted no such relationship. He’s already staked himself out in favor of an attack on Iraq. To let protesters come to his office anyway might serve their ends, but it wouldn’t make him any friends, only implicate him in their news.
So, in the end, there wasn’t any news. Only one TV station sent a camera, but no reporter. The News & Observer, the next day, carried yet another front-page feature on Edwards’ presidential ambitions, this one (“Edwards Brings Spotlight Home”) exploring the possibilities for the senator’s hometown of Robbins, in Moore County. For a community its size, it reported, “Robbins is rife with churches.” The sign outside the First Baptist Church says: “That Robbins Might Know Christ.”