Sam Husseni is a writer and artist based in the Washington DC area. You can follow him on Twitter (@samhusseini) and via his excellent blog. He is founder of VotePact.org, which encourages left-right cooperation and is senior analyst at the Institute for Public Accuracy.
The U.S. government broke into the Venezuelan embassy on Thursday morning, the day after a group led by Rev. Jesse Jackson was finally able to get food and water to the members of the Embassy Protector Collective inside.
Government agents — led by the State Department and including the Secret Service and Metropolitan Police — had effectively worked with supporters of the Venezuelan opposition to try to force the embassy protectors out of the embassy during a weeks long standoff. The electricity and water in the embassy had been cut off. Government officials prohibited anyone, including this journalist, from entering the embassy and even turned a blind eye as supporters of the Venezuelan opposition attempted to break into the embassy, all in violation of the Vienna Convention.
For weeks, “law enforcement” allowed a chaotic and dangerous situation to fester outside the embassy and it predictably lead to bloodshed, most notably as Gerry Condon, a member of Veterans for Peace was tackled and blooded after trying unsuccessfully to get food in to the embassy.
The DC government took no discernible action to stop the chaos and violence other than the police arresting individuals like Condon for trying to bring food in. This was especially notable given the racism and aggressiveness apparent in the pro-opposition camp.
Typically in DC, protests in front of embassies are highly restricted, with protesters being kept away from the embassy building, usually across the street from it. In this case, righwing opposition supporters were allowed to actually post material on the embassy building and restrict the entrances.
By last week, with dwindling supplies, most of the embassy protectors had left to conserve food and water. They said they hoped the “final four” could last as long as possible as pressure mounted for the Trump administration to agree to a protection agreement whereby a third country would oversee the embassy and ensure its safety, a standard procedure for countries that had broken off formal diplomatic relations.
Last week, the government moved rightwing opposition protesters away from the entrances and across the street, but it wasn’t to assert a state of normalcy — it was to launch an unprecedented break in into the embassy.
On Friday afternoon, a day after the government broke down the door and arrested them, the “final four” members of the Embassy Protection Collective — Kevin Zeese, Margaret Flowers, Adrienne Pine and David Paul — were arraigned in court and eventually released. The government lawyer argued that their passports should be withheld and that they should be restricted from travel in expansive zones inside DC that included ten properties owned by the Venezuela government. (Last year, following voting rights protests in front of the Supreme Court, Rev. Graylan Hagler was arrested and has had his passport held ever since.)
The presiding magistrate, Judge G. Michael Harvey — who had signed the order allowing the government to break into the embassy — ruled against the proposed zones. The government lawyer proposed 1000 feet from and of the Venezuelan properties. The Harvey responded: “1000 feet? That’s a football field!” The government lawyer then pleaded for 500. The government lawyer also asked that their passports be withheld.
Harvey ruled that they had to stay 100 feet away from any of the Venezuelan properties, call in once a week and inform the court of any travel. Preliminary hearing was set for June 12.
Some of the court appointed defense lawyers appeared unfamiliar with the situation in Venezuela, one of them referring to the UN recognized elected government of Nicolás Maduro as the “prior government” at one point to the hushed gasps of the twenty or so supporters of the embassy protectors.
This led to clarifications that the embassy protectors were to stay away from opposition leaders but were perfectly able to meet with or communicate with officials of the Maduro government, which is actually now governing Venezuela.
The raid on the embassy itself was done through the back of the embassy at the end of a below ground garage entrance, even though the front door would have apparently been logistically easier. But the government apparently was concerned about pictures of them actually entering an embassy with force through the front door.
There were four cases earlier in the court room on Friday — all involving younger black men. Each defendants was questioned: Age? How far did you get in school? Are you under influence of substances? The rationale for such questions may well have been to ensure defendants are able to understand the charges against them, but its actual effect seemed more an attempt a humiliation.
This seemed to backfire with the embassy protectors, who had an MD, JD, Masters and PhD.
Protests were called by the embassy protectors and took place on Saturday, with a march from the Venezuelan Embassy to the White House. On Sunday afternoon, a rally took place by the canal, the designated 100 feet away from the embassy, with the final four embassy protectors speaking along with Jackson and Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a Catholic priest, and others.
Jackson and others called for a renewed peace movement, citing the U.S. government threats to Iran as well as Venezuela. But that message was hardly getting out.
In spite of the unprecedented nature of the events, one notable aspect of the case was the at best sporadic media coverage of it, as officialdom continued to obsess over Trump and the Mueller report. This included so-called left media. Democracy Now ran several short headlines on the case, but only broadcast one segment with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, after she had a piece in the Washington Post and shortly after this reporter noted their lack of coverage. Other segments on Democracy Now ran as “web exclusives” — meaning they were not broadcast to the hundreds of radio stations Democracy Now runs on. Notably, The Intercept made no mention whatsoever of the prolonged embassy stand off. The Post provided skewed coverage as could be easily predicted. Updates of the situation were best gotten via Alex Rubinstein for MintPress News (@RealAlexRubi) and Anya Parampil of Grayzone (@anyaparampil) who were among the last people to leave the embassy before the government broke in.
Still, the episode seemed to hold promise of sparking something broader. As the rarely acted upon cliche goes, the movement around the embassy combined the local with the global. In spite of the modest size, it was the first glimmer of vibrant and broad based protests in DC meaningfully challenging the U.S. foreign policy establishment in years.