I looked out on the crowd of protesters that had marched to the Sudanese embassy yesterday to protest Omar al-Bashir’s mass murder of his people. Directly in front of me was a mob of reporters and photographers elbowing for position to hear what George Clooney had to say and catch the moment when he would be arrested and handcuffed.
My job was to explain why we were about to commit civil disobedience and introduce the speakers including those who would be arrested: Martin Luther King III, Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, Nicole Lee, President of TransAfrica Forum, Bishop Andudu of South Kordofan, Sudan, Rabbi Steve Gutow, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Dr. Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Convention, Congressmen Al Green, Jim McGovern, Jim Moran, and John Olver, Niemat Ahmadi, who is from Sudan and now works with us at United to End Genocide, John Prendergast and Omer Ismail of the Enough Project, Dick Gregory, George Clooney and his father, the journalist Nick Clooney.
After issuing a a final warning, the police arrested us on the embassy steps as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell quizzed Clooney about why he was willing to go to jail. Cheers rang out as the plastic handcuffs were slapped on and one-by-one we were led away.
There were no cheering crowds and jostling photographers when we stepped out of the DC Police van into the precinct lock-up. A couple of officers checked us in, emptied our pockets, took my shoelaces but let me keep my prosthetic right leg — I guess I wasn’t considered much of a flight risk — and led me into a cell to join my fellow law-breakers.
I took a seat on the bolted-down bench next to the lone table across from Clooney and his dad. Congressmen Jim McGovern and Jim Moran sat nearby. We talked about Omar al-Bashir and the Sudanese government, about Clooney’s trip to the Nuba Mountains and his visit with President Obama, about Hollywood and being a very well known actor with very strong convictions.
Sharing a jail cell is a good way to form an impression of someone. Beyond his commitment to the issue that threw him behind bars I knew very little about George Clooney before I entered that jail cell. Having lived and worked in Washington D.C. for years, including time in the House of Representatives, I expected a guy with no shortage of ego and a distinctly elevated sense of self-importance. Unlike many of my former Congressional colleagues, he could be forgiven for at least a degree of these qualities.
What I found was a decent, level-headed, very knowledgeable and very down-to-earth guy. He was a key figure in the Save Darfur effort, had just returned from Sudan, and had thought a lot about what to do to avert the imminent danger of hundreds of thousands of innocent people being starved to death by the same man responsible for the genocide in Darfur. And he had also thought about strategy — including what is needed not only to draw a crowd of reporters in Washington, but how to get the horror of what is happening in Sudan firmly into public consciousness, and how to translate that into the political will to do what needs to be done.
So, after we got to know one another a bit, my fellow cellmates and I decided we should put our captive audience status to use. We convened a strategy meeting to assess where things stand and how to push the proverbial envelope before it was too late for the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people whose lives are at great risk.
John Prendergast, who had traveled with Clooney to Sudan, warned that we were just six weeks away from a full-fledged famine that would claim many lives. The Obama administration was working diplomatic channels hard but we needed to build public support for a strong U.S. role — including putting Sudan prominently on the agenda of the upcoming meeting between President Obama and the President of China in South Korea. We discussed how Congress needed to start demonstrating interest and support for action. We could begin by getting the phones of Congressional offices ringing with a call for Members to become co-sponsors of Jim McGovern’s and Frank Wolf’s legislation — HR 4169, “The Sudan Peace, Security and Accountability Act”. We talked about how we needed to build support not only in the U.S. but abroad. Having that morning’s hullabaloo at the Sudanese embassy become a news item around the world did not hurt. But, we talked about how to engage networks that stretched across national boundaries so that the crisis in Sudan — and the need for a robust international response — is taken seriously in capitols around the globe. Communities of faith were an obvious place to start.
One by one my fellow cell mates began to be summoned for finger-printing, mug shots, fines and release. Height, weight, date of birth and social security number were duly recorded as they entered the on-deck circle for release. A round of hugs and then it was out the cell door and into freedom. An hour later, John Prendergast and I wondered what it meant that the two of us were the last to be released. A final hug and then on to a television studio to talk about Sudan and being George Clooney’s cellmate.