Prepping for Civil Disobedience: Dan Choi and GetEQUAL Return to the White House Gates

Just after 10:30 this morning, Lt. Dan Choi and five other service members went through the last of their civil-disobedience practice runs on the back veranda of gay advocate and political strategist Paul Yandura’s northwest D.C. home. 

Within the hour the six would handcuff themselves, Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo for the second time, to the White House gates in continued protest of "don’t ask, don’t tell" legislation. Both men are due to appear in court later this month for the first time they chained themselves to the White House gate some 30 days earlier. 

The plan? To walk up to the White House like tourists, ready to pose for a photo. Once they had backed up close to the gate, each of them, already with one wrist handcuffed, would attach him- or herself to the gate. Sitting on the veranda before their action, they waited to jump into cars, handcuffs clinking against patio tables and chairs as they drank water and prepared to get arrested, most of the group for the first time.

Choi—the most public figure of the group—rested for a moment, with one wrist already cuffed, next to a table piled with two more sets of handcuffs. “Our job, politically, hasn’t been done yet. Our message to the president is: You are AWOL on 'don’t ask, don’t tell.' You are refusing to show the resolve and leadership you promised us.” Despite his protest and arrest last month, DADT has not seen progress. Does that mean his earlier action was unsuccessful? “No, it was an absolute success. Civil disobedience instills a dignity within us. So many people have come up to me since that day, members of the military who want to join in the protest and ask us what we’re doing next.”

Among the others who joined this morning, Larry Sheldon Witt, the most senior of the group, a wiry former Navy petty officer first class, says he was discharged in 1982 for being gay. He had a picture of his younger brother, also a serviceman who was discharged for being gay and who died of AIDS, in his uniform pocket. With him at the table was Mara Boyd in her Air Force uniform; she was formally discharged in 2003 after coming out to her commander. While one GetEQUAL member took down medical and allergy information for each of the six, Boyd explained that she has never been arrested before, though she expected to be within the hour. “This is way out of character in terms of my relationship to the law,” she told NEWSWEEK. “I’m really nervous.” Evelyn Thomas, an African-American and a Marine, says she was discharged in 1991. “I’m doing this so other men and women can, in their true essence, serve this country.” Another, Autumn Sandeen, a former Navy fire-controlman, says she (she is transgender) retired after 20 years in the military. “I’m a little concerned,” she said. “Once we get arrested I will be isolated from everyone at jail because I’m transgender.” While Sandeen says that repealing DADT won’t affect transgenders, “I’m doing this because gay and lesbian issues are our [transgender] issues too.” Within a few minutes everyone had a last sip of water, ducked into the bathrooms, and headed to the cars to drive down the road to the White House.

About 30 minutes later, just as planned, the six strolled up, posed for their photo, and surreptitiously chained themselves to the gate. Security didn’t notice for about 15 minutes, even as GetEQUAL activists unfurled a "don’t ask, don’t tell" message and Choi made brief comments calling on Obama to act. It was when security realized they were handcuffed—“Yep, they’re cuffed,” one officer spoke into his walkie-talkie, calling in more officers—that onlookers were pushed back and police and National Park Service cars began arriving. Supporters shouted to the six: “Thank you for your service,” “I am somebody; I deserve equality,” and “We don’t need a study,” referring to calls for the Pentagon to study the issue over the next year. When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was spotted walking through the park, GetEQUAL cofounder Robin McGehee chased him down and told him, “Show us the courage and change you promised,” and handed him a GetEQUAL flier. NEWSWEEK could not hear Gibbs's response, but McGehee says Gibbs told her he was headed to a meeting, that he was not running away from the protest, and that he asked, “What do you want us to do?”

Around 1 p.m. the six were arrested.

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