With just 22 seats set aside for the general public, the atmosphere before the joint House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees hearing on the much-anticipated testimony of U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on Monday was more akin to a crowd of groupies at a rock concert than a Congressional hearing.
However, the haphazard line outside the Cannon Caucus Room — a jumble of protesters, average citizens, staff and interns — was anything but adoring.
Tempers flared as more than 100 people vied for the elusive blue squares of paper that would allow admittance to the big show. With no plan for rotating the seats, the unlucky ones who wouldn’t receive the squares knew they’d be relegated to waiting in line on the chance that protesters would be removed from the hearing, or would have to trek over to the overflow room in the Rayburn House Office Building to view the hearing on a big-screen TV.
“I’m eager to get everyone in there, but obviously there’s a very limited number of seats,” said David Swanson, an activist and blogger for BetrayUsReport.com who arrived at 8 a.m. to get a spot at the hearing.
Things came to a head almost as soon as the doors to the Cannon Caucus Room opened at 12:15 p.m., when Capitol Police denied entry to the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., head of the Hip Hop Caucus in D.C. Yearwood, who was known among the crowd as “the Rev,” refused to move to the end of the line and argued that he had waited for hours before stepping out to do an interview. After police tried to escort Yearwood out of the line, he lunged forward and at least six Capitol Police officers piled on top of him.
“They’ve got arbitrary rules,” said Geoff Millard of the D.C. chapter of Iraq War Veterans Against the War, following the Yearwood scuffle. “Rev’s been here for hours doing interviews.”
More vocal protests against Yearwood’s arrest got others in trouble. Anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan and her sister Christy Anne Miller were charged with disorderly conduct after shouting “Arrest Bush, not Rev!” several times.
Two medics were called to the scene shortly thereafter, with Yearwood complaining of an injury. He was charged with disorderly conduct and assault on a police officer and was transported to The George Washington University Hospital.
The campout for seats began shortly after the Cannon House Office Building opened Monday, with a group of CODEPINK protesters arriving at 7:50 a.m. to start the line. Decked out in their typical hot-pink garb, the women were hoping to get as many seats as possible. But with members of the organization swapping places in line, Capitol Police limited the protesters to seven spots.
“The White House is going to report that things are going as smoothly as the White House wants us to think. But since the escalation, more troops have died,” said Liz Hourican, who was part of the CODEPINK contingency.
Shortly after Yearwood was arrested, CODEPINK member Desiree Fairooz Ali was charged with disorderly conduct for shouting in the hallway. As of press time, 10 people were arrested in relation to the hearing.
People in line weren’t dissuaded even after the allocated number of seats were filled. More than 50 people continued to wait in hope of getting a glimpse of the hearing, including Karen Besser of Fairfax, Va., who said this was one of the first hearings she had tried to attend since she was a Capitol Hill intern 40 years ago.
They weren’t disappointed; three protesters were removed from the hearing by police for shouting after Petraeus’ testimony.