On a sunny patch of Pennsylvania Avenue a half-block from the White House, middle-aged men and women recline on beach lounge chairs under four canopies festooned with colorful flags. They haven't eaten solid food in a month. Before them stands a row of large photographs of 11 men, each draped with a wreath of red flowers. A soft-spoken woman carrying a light-blue umbrella hands out leaflets.
Sound familiar? Ho-hum? Demonstrations like this are so common in Washington that we rarely honor them with more than a glance. A drive down Embassy Row typically passes protesters angry over some event deemed worthy of perhaps two paragraphs in the Foreign pages last week.
Our blasť attitude is understandable, but we miss an opportunity when we ignore these scenes. They offer windows into rich, dramatic human experiences and historic developments overseas.
Moreover, it often turns out that these demonstrators are our neighbors, anxious about relatives or political issues in their native countries. Our region has attracted waves of immigrants from turbulent parts of the world, including the Vietnamese in the 1970s and Central Americans in 1980s.
The beach chair protest provides an especially interesting tale, including a troubling message about America's actions abroad. The demonstrators are ethnic Iranians, most of them U.S. citizens. They are pressing the Obama administration to intervene to protect about 3,400 Iranian exiles in Camp Ashraf outside Baghdad, which was stormed by Iraqi security forces July 28. The 11 men in the photographs were killed (plus one other), and hundreds of the camp's unarmed residents were injured. U.S. military forces stationed nearby, who once pledged solemnly to safeguard the camp's residents, stayed out of it.
"This is going to bring attention that people are getting beaten and killed in a place where you [the U.S. government] promised to protect them," said Zahra Rashidi, 51, of Chantilly.
She and husband Parham Malihi, 48, have consumed only Gatorade, water and tea in the hunger strike, which reached its 32nd day Saturday. Malihi said he feels weak sometimes but has a history of suffering for his politics. He's missing a toe and has scars on his face after being tortured during five years in prison in Iran in the 1980s.
"All of this is the price we pay for our freedom," he said. "We have pain but are proud of it."
The background of the controversy is convoluted, even by Middle Eastern standards. The exiles in Ashraf are the remnants of an Iranian opposition group, the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, which has long been based in Iraq.
The Iraqi government, which is increasingly close to Iran, wants to shut down the camp and evict its residents, as Tehran has been demanding. The United States is concerned but says Ashraf is now an internal Iraqi matter since the Baghdad government has assumed full sovereignty of the country.
The embarrassment for Washington is that it made a show earlier in the decade of assuring Ashraf's residents that they would be safe in exchange for their formal agreement to disarm and repudiate violence. The United States did so even though it has listed the MEK as a terrorist organization since 1997, mostly because of attacks that the group staged decades ago. America warmed to the MEK in part because the group provided valuable help monitoring Iran's nuclear program. In 2004, a U.S. Army general issued each Ashraf resident a written declaration with congratulations "on their recognition as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention."
The collapse of those assurances is a particular source of anger for demonstrators here. They hand out photocopies of "Protected Persons" identity cards carried by men killed at Ashraf last month. They say: "Should an incident occur, it is requested that you contact the [U.S.] 89th Military Police Brigade at the following phone numbers."
Many of the demonstrators have relatives or friends in Ashraf. About 30 people are staging the hunger strike, and additional protesters come to chat and chant. A hundred showed up Wednesday for a half-hour march they hold each evening in front of the White House. Some stay overnight, so the protest goes on around the clock.
The demonstrators are mostly well-educated and successful. Those interviewed included a construction company owner, civil engineer, university professor, published poet and two former international wrestling champions.
Some grew up in politically active families and lost relatives to execution by the Iranian government. Others are getting involved for the first time after being outraged by video footage of the incursion in the camp. It shows Iraqi forces beating people with batons, vehicles swerving directly into groups of people and numerous people with bleeding heads. Long bursts of automatic gunfire are audible. An American in military uniform is seen being asked to intervene and then gets in a vehicle and drives away.
The Americans "made a promise that they went back on," said Zolal Habibi, 28, of Alexandria. She is especially worried about two people now in Ashraf: her mother, whom she hasn't seen in seven years, and her closest friend, a woman who needed stitches in her head after being beaten there. Her father, a prominent writer and sociologist who received his Ph.D. from American University, was killed in 1988 by the Iranian government.
The people in Ashraf are "the closest thing I have to a family," Habibi said.
In short, the folks in the lounge chairs are unhappy because the U.S. government let down some Iranians in Iraq who share our dislike for the regime in Tehran and whom Washington promised once to protect even though it officially labels them as terrorists. Got that? Such are the intriguing stories to learn from those colorful little spectacles on the streets of Washington.
Same Old, Same Old
Nobody can be surprised that District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) apparently used influence to place his twin fourth-grade sons in much-desired Lafayette Elementary School. It's long been common for people with clout in the District to use it to get a child into a coveted school. It's insulting, though, to West Elementary, the school closest to his house. And, as with the expensive heater installed at the city swimming pool that he used, it reinforces the mayor's image as one who places a premium on self-interest.