Monday, Jul. 22, 2019

Reaching Across the Aisle: Building Peace Into the National Conversation

By Nancy Merritt · October 28, 2016

Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) Office <span>&copy;  </span>

Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) Office


Rep. Nydia Velazquez (NY) Office <span>&copy;  </span> Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) Office <span>&copy;  </span> Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (CA) Office <span>&copy;  </span>

Creating a countrywide model of peace is possibly the most powerful means for inspiring humanity to put an end to violence.”  – Rita Marie Johnson, Author, Educator, Innovator

In our national dialogue, peacebuilding often gets lost in the cacophony of divisiveness and diversion. During the week of International Day of Peace (IDoP) (September 21st), supporters of legislation to create a cabinet-level Department of Peacebuilding (DoP or HR 1111), commemorated IDoP by building peace into our conversations at the offices of nearly 90 members of Congress, including at least 73 Democrats and 15 Republicans.  (Photos are at legislative offices:  Photo #1 is at the office of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13); #2 is at the office of Nydia Velazquez (D-NY-7); #3 is at the office of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI-1); #4 is at the office of Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA-11).)

Peacebuilding is analyzing the root causes of violence – both internationally and domestically – and supporting proven, cost-effective policies and programs that prevent and alleviate violence.  Peacebuilders widely acknowledge that peace begins by listening to each other, fostering relationships, and building upon commonalities.  With that in mind, the National Committee for a Department of Peacebuilding and supporters went to Capitol Hill for an extended International Day(s) of Peace  to mainstream peacebuilding into the national conversation as we walked the halls of Congress.

The UN Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace recognizes that promotion of peace is vital for the full enjoyment of all human rights. In 1981, the United Nations General assembly, representing 193 member nations, adopted a resolution for an International Day of Peace (IDoP) devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace

This year, the theme of IDoP was “The Sustainable Development Goals: Building Blocks for Peace.”  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are our shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world's leaders and the people …They are a to-do list for people and planet, and a blueprint for success.”  Among the goals are ending poverty and hunger, ensuring quality education, and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies that provide access to justice for all.  Many Congressional offices knew about IDoP.  Some did not. (See www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment

Legislation to create a cabinet-level Department of Peacebuilding calls for the Secretary of Peacebuilding to “encourage citizens to observe and celebrate the blessings of peace and endeavor to create peace on Peace Days.  Such days shall include discussions of the professional activities and achievements in the lives of peacemakers.”   This legislation was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) in 2013 and 2015, and will be introduced again in 2017.  While in Washington, we also talked with former DoP sponsor Dennis Kucinich at the World Beyond War “No War 2016” conference.  (See worldbeyondwar.org/nowar2016)

I.  Peacebuilding in the Halls of Congress

The DC advocacy group included Peace Alliance National Department of Peacebuilding Committee members Anne Creter (NJ), Karen Johnson (IL), Nancy Merritt (CA), Kendra Mon (CA), Debra Poss (GA), Jerilyn Stapleton (CA), and Pat Simon (NJ) in absentia.  We took Pat Simon's photograph to the office of her member of Congress, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA-5).  Other DC advocates were Peace Alliance Field Director Dan Kahn (DC), Doug Merritt (CA), Jason Merritt (NY) and Myriah Pahl (NY). 

Together we attended scheduled and impromptu meetings, and encountered many members of Congress.  Among others, we met with the staffs of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), DoP Sponsor Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13),  House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-1) and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

Jason Merritt and Myriah Pahl – who were new to lobbying – succeeded in getting their member of Congress, Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY-7), to sign back on as a DoP cosponsor.  This increases the number of DoP cosponsors to 40.  Others may sign on in 2016.  Some committed to cosponsor the DoP 2017 legislation which will be introduced in early 2017 – and even to be original cosponsors.  

While in Washington, gun violence and police violence permeated the atmosphere.  We – legislators, their staffers and Peace Alliance advocates – dialogued about violence prevention,  divisiveness and gridlock.  We asked about the thoughts of legislators on building a more peaceful society.  

We talked about creating a U.S. Department of Peacebuilding to make peace a national priority by giving peacebuilding a prominent and ongoing voice in our government. We talked about other initiatives and legislation supported by legislators we visited.  We talked about poverty and its relationship to violence.  We talked about the role of women in building peace.   

We also presented “Peace Pioneer” pins to current DoP cosponsors and others for their courage in standing for a DoP and other peacebuilding initiatives. 

II.  AMPLIFYING the Message of Peacebuilding

We were joined in our advocacy by those who signed letters and petitions – particularly folks from CA, MA and NY – and by supporters who called from their home districts to AMPLIFIED our DC visits:   

  • Constituents of several CA members of Congress signed letters about the DoP, including constituents of Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA-53), Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA-11), Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA-20), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA-2), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA-33) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13).
  • From MA, constituents of Rep. Katherine Clarke (D-MA-5), Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA-4) and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA-8) signed petitions.  This included individuals from the Lewis D. Brown Peace Institute (BPI), which is in Rep. Lynch’s district.  In MA, there were also some in-district Congressional visits during DC advocacy days. 
  • From NY, constituents of Rep. Nydia Velazquez signed a letter urging her to cosponsor HR 1111.
  • Callers made AMPLIFY phone calls to 7 former DoP cosponsors and 3 potential DoP cosponsors.

One AMPLIFY caller said she had fun making the calls and found a way to link to each congressional office she called, such as talking with an OH office about a peacebuilding program in that state which mandated conflict resolution training for all students before the program ran out of funding.

III.  Some Context and Some Hope

Many legislators ran for office because of their convictions about peace, justice, economic issues, poverty, national security, gun safety, violence prevention, and the role of government.  As we know, there is deep division on many of these issues.  While we were in Washington, much of the conversation revolved around gun violence, Black Lives Matter and the lives of police officials.  The mass shooting in Orlando was on the minds of many.  Two Black men had just been killed by police in Charlotte, NC and Tulsa, OK.  It had not been so long (July) since five police officers were killed in Dallas, TX at a peaceful rally. 

            A.  Gun Violence & 33,000 American Deaths Each Year

Gun violence results in the deaths of 33,000 Americans each year.  Many of the offices we visited were of members of Congress who were frustrated by the Republican majority refusal to permit a vote on gun safety legislation following the deadliest incident of gun violence in American history when 49 people were killed at an Orlando, FL gay nightclub on June 12, 2016.  That led to a 24-hour+ sit-in by 170 Democratic lawmakers before House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-1) adjourned Congress early for the July 4threcess.  Many of these same members of Congress took back to their districts their resolve to do something about gun safety legislation.

Upon returning to DC, on 9/14/16, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA-5) again led a brief ‘stand-in’ in Congress calling for a vote on gun safety measures.   Shortly after Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12) and others encouraged the Speaker to bring gun safety legislation to the floor, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA-5), said, “Mr. Speaker, I rise yet again to speak out about mass shootings and gun violence in our nation.  When I think of Newtown, of Charleston, of Orlando, my heart just breaks.  Mr. Speaker, what will it take for Congress to act?  How many more must suffer? How many more must die?”  

"Mr. Speaker, Republicans must join Democrats, and do what is right, what is just, and what is long overdue.  There are good, common-sense proposals that not only protect rights, but also will save lives.  These bills should be passed immediately … History will not be kind if Congress continues to turn a blind eye and a cold shoulder to those crying, begging, and pleading for action,” Rep. Lewis said.  To show their support, several members of Congress stood with Rep. Lewis in the well of the House.  The House was immediately gaveled into recess.

            B.  Black Lives Matter & More than 2,195 Deaths Since Ferguson

On 9/22/16 – the day we met with Rep. Barbara Lee’s office and other offices, Congressional Black Chairman, G. K. Butterfield (D-NC-1) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA-43) led a press conference at the Department of Justice (DoJ) urging Attorney General Loretta Lynch to bring civil rights investigations for citizens whose civil rights have potentially been violated during unarmed killings by law enforcement.  After the press conference, Rep. Butterfield and Rep. Waters hand delivered a letter to Attorney General Lynch outlining the Congressional Black Caucus’s concerns and proposed solutions.

That same day, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) addressed Congress on “Black Lives Matter.” She said that since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson (MO) two years ago, 2,195 people have been killed by police in our nation.  “Each time we lose a precious life to fear, distrust and prejudice, the list of things that will get you killed as a black person in America gets a little longer.”  She also recognized the important work and dedication of most law enforcement officers.  During the press conference at the DoJ, Rep. Lee said, “Our message to the Attorney General was simple: ‘help us stop the killings.’ Being black in America shouldn’t be a death sentence.

As of International Day of Peace in 2016, 173 Black people had died during the year at the hands of the very law enforcement officers who have been sworn to protect and serve them.  Exactly when we dropped by the office of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA-43) to present her with a Peace Pioneer pin, the media was broadcasting her statement at the DoJ.  “The killing of unarmed black men and women by police is a crisis. It is an emergency …  We must do something to end this assault on black men and women. The conversations, the studies and the investigations are not enough.  Black citizens must be afforded the right to equal protection by law enforcement and we must commit, as nation, once and for all, to end these killings.” 

            C.  Bridging the Divide Between Law Enforcement & Our Communities

We met with a staffer at the office of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), who has represented Dallas since 1993.  The epidemic of gun violence and bridging the divide between law enforcement and our communities touched Rep. Johnson’s district when five Dallas police officers were slain in July 2016.  In a statement at that time, Rep. Johnson said the “calculated ambush and murders of the Dallas law enforcement officers during a peaceful protest in downtown Dallas last night was a disgraceful act of violence. My prayers and sympathy go out to the families of the officers slain and the victims of the shooting.”

“Our response going forward, not just in Dallas but across our nation, will be more important now than ever before.  My thoughts and prayers are also with the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile who violently lost their lives this week as well. We must de-escalate the violence … We need to bring meaningful legislation to the floor that will help bridge the divide between law enforcement and our communities,” Rep. Johnson said.  

            D.  It’s Time to Do a Heart Check

At some offices, we left a quote by author and activist Van Jones, “Everybody’s got to reach deep down and find some empathy.  If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancée, but you didn’t cry this morning for those police officers, it’s time to do a heart check.  If you cried for those police officers, but you have had a hard time taking seriously all these videos that are coming out about African Americans dying, it’s time to do a heart check.  We are either going to come together or come apart.  There’s enough pain on both sides that there should be some empathy starting to kick in.

This -- and the divisiveness of the long election season -- was the backdrop of our advocacy visits.  Despite the divides and the drumbeat of violence, we felt there was at least some dialogue, some attention to building peace into our national discourse.  Maybe it was us.  Maybe it was some members of Congress and their staffers. Maybe it was International Day of Peace.  Maybe it was the realization that the way forward is in hope and collaboration.  Whatever the reasons, we came away with the commitment that we can – and must -- build the political will to work through our differences and that peace is possible. 

IV.  Overview of Congressional Meetings and Encounters

We went to each office consciously focusing on the heart energy that we are all human being seeking a better world.  Every Congressional interaction was an exercise in peacebuilding. 

We met with staffers of members of Congress from compelling and diverse backgrounds:

  • the only member of Congress to oppose the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) after the 9/11/01 attacks due to her belief AUMF would become a blank check for endless war [Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13)]
  • the first Hindu member of Congress [Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-2)] 
  • the only two female combat veterans [Tammy Duckworth (D-IL-8), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2)]
  • a 2016 presidential candidate [Bernie Sanders (D-VT)]
  • the Speaker of the House [Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI-1)]
  • several members of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, where the DoP legislation currently resides [Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ-12), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA-11), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL-8)]

We also went to the offices of:

  • the 39 current DoP cosponsors to thank them, to ask them to sign on as cosponsors when the bill drops in 2017 and to present each with a “Peace Pioneer” pin for their efforts – and courage – in supporting peacebuilding as a national policy.  Staffers from many offices were very touch by this. 
  • all remaining former cosponsors who have not yet signed on to the bill to ask them to sign on in 2016 and again in 2017
  • potential new Democratic cosponsors
  • our own members of Congress
  • members of Congress from our states and regions (CA, IL, NJ, many Southern members of Congress)
  • all CA Republican members of Congress except one (due to of lack of time), a NJ Republican and the House Speaker to explore possible commonalities

V.  Conversations on the Hill

We scheduled and attended meeting at 14 offices, including Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA-5), Rep. Bonnie Coleman Watson (D-NJ-1), Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA-11), Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL-8), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2), Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL-4), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA-2), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), Rep. John Larson (D-CT-1), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA-5), Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ-3), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI-1), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

We also encountered in the Congressional office buildings several members of Congress, including Rep. John Conyers (D-MI-13), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN-5), Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL-4), Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA-44), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA-2), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA-4), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA-5), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA-2), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA-3), and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA-43). 

Our conversations related to:  A) Department of Peacebuilding &/or other peacebuilding measures; B) moving the DoP bill forward and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (COGR); C) other initiatives; and D) other impromptu conversations.

            A.  DoP and Peacebuilding Conversations

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2) has said, “Growing up in Hawaii, I learned from a young age the importance of serving others. My life has and continues to be inspired and motivated by the spirit of aloha - the spirit of respect, love, and selfless service - as I try my best to be of service to others.  We need the spirit of aloha in Congress now more than ever.”  This was our feeling as we conducted our Congressional conversations.

Several staffers told us they have followed DoP legislation for many years and thanked us for keeping peacebuilding in the public discourse.  One staffer said he was glad some people are still focusing on peacebuilding and it is refreshing that people still care.  Others stressed the importance of what we are doing.

Some said peacebuilding is – or should be – bipartisan and that the DoP legislation has much that should be liked by members of both parties.  One individual said that within the current political system and climate, it realistically takes years for many bills to get passed. He also advised to avoid having a bill assigned to multiple committees.

After discussing the cost savings of violence prevention, at one office the staffer said his Representative thinks a DoP is important even if it does not save money – the government spends on things that do not save money all the time -- instead of voting for billions in tax breaks for wealthy Americans, we should be voting on programs that save money and lives.

A staffer at another office said although Republicans worry about spending and how to pay for a DoP, it is important to keep bringing DoP up and to engage on this potential legislation with members of Congress, the Defense Department, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and any other stakeholders who might be impacted by establishment of a DoP.  The discussions could include how a DoP would work and how it would be beneficial.   This staffer there is a lot for Republicans to like in the DoP legislation and many Republicans like USIP. 

At another office, the Congresswoman recommended putting more women at the negotiating tables and in agencies where peacebuilding is at stake and emphasizing negotiation and words before bombs

At the office of Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA-2), the conversation centered around his concerns about:  1) the relationship/ overlap between the DoP and the Department of State; and 2) possible bureaucratic waste by creating a new department such as happened with the Department of Homeland Security.  “We explained that, unlike the Department of Homeland Security, a DoP would not transfer other agencies and departments to its jurisdiction but would instead work collaboratively with liaisons in each department and agency to support their efforts with resources and research” said Kendra Mon.

      B.  Committee on Oversight and Government Reform & Other Committees

DoP legislation is currently assigned to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (COGR).  We met with some members of that committee and with others who offered suggestions about moving the DoP legislation forward.  On the Senate side, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office emphasized that it is the committee chair who decides when and how to move a bill.  At many Congressional offices, we talked about the importance of working with members of both parties.

Some characterized COGR as an investigative body which, currently, is very polarized and is focused on anti-Obama, anti-Hillary Clinton investigations.  One staffer said we need to work around or mitigate the polarization.  Sometimes a bill moves if there is support by the committee Chair and bipartisan support. 

Some talked about the extreme difficulty of getting anything passed in the current political climate and cited examples of seemingly non-controversial efforts to rename some post offices   Another said they have been working together on a bill calling for lowering the flag when a first responder dies and even that has not made it through the committee. 

            C.  Other Legislation & Initiatives

Over 6,500 bills have been introduced during this 114th Congress (2015 – 2016).  Preparing for and during our meetings we learned more about various peace-related and governance initiatives and bills.

At our meetings we discussed:  ‘A  Better Way’ initiative; ‘A World of Women for World Peace’ initiative; Establishing a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress (H.Con.Res. 169); Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative Act (HR 5847); Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, (HR 2646); Pathways Out of Poverty (HR 2721) and its related Half in Ten Act of 2015 (HR 258); Protecting Girls’ Access to Education in Vulnerable Settings Act (HR 5735); Securing American Families by Educating and Training You (SAFETY) through Nonviolence Act (HR 5846);  the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act  (HR 1232); and Support Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act (HR 5963). 

We also learned about Running Start which works to inspire and train the next generation of young women political leaders through Star Fellows internships with female members of Congress.  

At the office of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-1), we had an extensive conversation about the Speaker’s “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America” initiative, which encompasses six focus areas (the Constitution, the economy, health care, national security, poverty, and tax reform).  The Republicans plan to turn this initiative into multiple pieces of legislation starting in 2017.  At our meeting, we said we were there to learn more about the Speaker's proposals for “A Better Way” – and in the poverty area in particular -- and how we might collaborate on proven-effective policies and programs that address root causes of societal problems.  The staffer said the Speaker has a deep interest in self-help and person-to-person non-profit and religious-based programs that support upward mobility.  Specific programs mentioned were former gang members reaching out to youth and addiction programs. We also talked about programs we know about through our peacebuilding work.  (See better.gop)  

In January 2015, Rep.  Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) introduced the Half in Ten Act (HR 258) which would establish a Federal Integrated Working Group on Poverty to create and carry out a national plan to cut poverty in America by half.  In June 2015, she introduced Pathways Out of Poverty (HR 2721) which includes provisions relating to education, housing, nutrition, employment and re-employment.  Rep. Lee, co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Out –of-Poverty caucus, has met directly with the Speaker on the issue of poverty.  While both are working on this issue, there are likely fundamental differences between the parties on how to fund programs that might reduce poverty.

     D.  Impromptu Conversations

We also had some impromptu conversations with past and current supporters of the DoP Act (HR 1111) and the Youth PROMISE Act (HR 2197).  

Rep.  Mike Honda’s (D-CA-17) office was very interested in our meeting with Rep. Ryan and our other efforts.   Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-NY-13) staff was supportive of the DoP legislation.  We had an extended conversation with a staffer from Rep. Adam Smith’s (D-WA-9) office. 

At the office of Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA-4), the staffer talked about the Congressman’s sponsorship of the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (HR 1232) and took Debra Poss into Rep. Johnson’s office to see the visuals of police in riot gear facing down ordinary civilians in no gear.  “Then Rep. Johnson came in and I said that the (reality) of the visual concerns me and Rep. Johnson said something to the effect that we resonate,” said Debra Poss.   HR 1232 would place restrictions and transparency measures on the Department of Defense (DOD) Program that transfers excess military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.

When we ran into Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA-44) in the basement of a Congressional office building, we thanked her for signing on to the DoP legislation as a freshman Congresswoman, and after that, and told her we would miss her as she leaves Congress. 

For more information about the initiatives and legislation mentioned in this article, see “Wonky Stuff:  Peace-related Initiatives in the Work.”    See also "Dennis Kucinich Speaks on Peace at the World Beyond War Conference in Washington, DC in September."  Both articles are posted at www.peacealliance.org in the Movers and Shakers’ section.

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