The Department of Homeland Security has identified a new threat to our nation: a group of nine New Mexicans that includes a Jesuit priest, a retired librarian, a high school student and a church-going grandma.
The group, known as “The Elevator Nine,” is awaiting trial after attempting to visit the office of Republican Sen. Pete Domenici last September. Several of the Nine had written the senator to inform him of their planned visit, but none received a response.
The group hoped the senator would sign the Declaration of Peace, a document that demands the “safe and rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops and coalition forces from Iraq, with no future deployments.” This fall, the Declaration of Peace fueled a nationwide movement urging citizens to approach government officials in a nonviolent plea to end the war.
The group didn’t expect Sen. Domenici, a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq, to actually sign the declaration, though they never expected to be treated like terrorists.
After waiting for more than an hour in the lobby of the Santa Fe Federal Building, which houses Domenici’s office, the Nine were informed that only three of the group’s members would be allowed upstairs. The senator’s staff claimed, contrary to evidence, that there wasn’t enough space to accommodate all nine people. The Nine had vowed not to separate and, together, decided to take the elevator to the senator’s office.
The group crowded inside of the elevator amid the clamor of security guards who yelled for them to stop. One guard thrust his foot in the door to prevent it from closing, and power was cut from all of the elevators in the building.
“The next thing we knew, there were police swarming,” says peace activist Ellie Voutselas, 69, a retired librarian and grandmother of seven.
For the next six hours, the nine activists remained in the cramped elevator, reading aloud the names of the Iraqi civilians and American soldiers killed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago. Six hours wasn’t enough time for the Nine to read all of the names. The current death toll of American soldiers in Iraq exceeds 3,000, whereas the body count for Iraqis killed in the invasion varies from 60,000 to 655,000, as there is no official record of the Iraqi dead.
As the Nine read the names of the deceased, they were surrounded by more than 20 police officers, some of whom signaled their approval by giving the group supportive thumbs-up. Others bowed their heads in solemn respect for the dead. Some of the Nine shed tears. “Reading the names was like a prayer,” said Bud Ryan, 50, of Madrid. Both Ryan and Voutselas are coordinators of Pax Christi New Mexico, part of an international Catholic peace movement.
Father John Dear, a Jesuit priest and prominent peace activist, attests that “every police officer in Santa Fe was in the Federal Building” on the day of the protest. The police weren’t ordered to arrest the Nine, although they were prepared to do so with plastic handcuffs.
“They were just standing around, with bags from McDonalds, eating their lunches, listening to us read the names,” Voutselas says of the police. “It was like they didn’t know what to do with us.” Meanwhile, the Nine were without food, water or a restroom for the duration of the protest.
The FBI was also called to the scene. “You knew it was the FBI because of their nice suits and shiny shoes,” Voutselas says. Soon thereafter, a SWAT team was summoned and, finally, the Department of Homeland Security.
“They called the head of Homeland Security [in New Mexico], who drove all the way from Albuquerque to Santa Fe,” says Father Dear, who organized the visit to the senator’s office. Tim Manning is the director of Homeland Security for the state. “He walked into the lobby, clearly the head honcho, and looked like he was about to read us our rights. I launched into a big speech on behalf of the group, and he got flustered and stormed off.” Father Dear, who was dressed as a cleric, repeatedly emphasized to officials that the group wanted only to ask that the senator stop the war; they didn’t intend to cause trouble.
Despite the hoopla, Voutselas said the group’s interactions with officials were civil. “We were always polite,” she said. “Everyone was respectful to the authorities, and they were pretty respectful to us.” One security guard even fetched a chair for one of the activists, who is handicapped and relies on crutches.
By the end of the business day, the group was given a choice: accept a citation and fine of $75 each and willingly leave the building, or be arrested on the spot. Each of The Elevator Nine accepted a citation, but chose to stand trial instead of pay the fine. The citations were issued on the charge that the group had failed to “conform with signs and directions.” However, no one in the group recalls seeing any signage, nor does anyone remember being ordered to leave the building, except by the authority who issued the citations. The group cooperated with these orders and left the building promptly.
“It was a surreal experience,” says Voutselas. “That’s the only way I can describe it.” Ryan says the episode “was like a Monty Python moment,” so absurd, it was almost funny. But the Nine fail to see the humor in the senator’s refusal to see them and feel they were denied the right to speak with an official who is appointed--and paid--to represent the concerns of his constituents in the U.S. Senate.
Although The Elevator Nine is a diverse group, all of its members are “regular people” who passionately oppose the war. All agree that the war is “illegal, unjust, immoral, impractical, that it is a colossal waste of billions of dollars and threatens our security by provoking the world’s anger against us,” says Father Dear.
For most members of the group, the event at the Santa Fe Federal Building was their first protest. “My history is more as a prayerful witness,” says Michella Marusa, 66, of Espanola. “This is the first anti-war activity I’ve been involved in.” When asked why she decided to protest the Iraq war, Marusa says, “I don’t want to sound flip, but throwing spitballs at the TV doesn’t accomplish anything. However futile this [protest] may appear, it gets people’s attention.”
Initially slated for Jan. 25, the trial of The Elevator Nine has been postponed indefinitely. The case against them is “so ridiculous,” said Father Dear, some of the Nine have heard, unofficially, that no prosecutor would accept the case. Don Svet, a Reagan-appointed judge with an ultra-conservative record, will preside over the trial. A peace vigil will take place outside of the courthouse during the trial when it is rescheduled.
A long-time peace activist, Father Dear has been arrested 75 times for nonviolent acts of protest. “It’s very likely I could go to jail again,” he says. The other members of the group are willing to face prison, too, if that’s what it takes to call attention to the war. “We’re willing to take whatever consequences they’re going to dish out,” says Marusa.
Likewise, Voutselas isn’t scared by the trial or by the prospect of serving jail time. “I’m willing to go to jail and witness for peace,” she says. “I have five kids and seven grandkids, and I’d like to leave them something in this world.” Voutselas says that passion she feels for peace and anti-war protest “comes more from my heart than from depressing statistics.” Voutselas, like her peers, is resolute in her determination to protest war and work for peace. “I know, in my heart,” she says, “that this war is wrong.”