More than 130 activists from Anabaptist congregations across the United States were arrested Jan. 16 in Washington, D.C., as they sang songs of peace and called on Congress to support a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and the release of all hostages in the war with Israel.
Mennonite Action coordinated the hymn sing sit-in beneath the rotunda of the House of Representatives’ Cannon House Office Building. The 135 activists were arrested following verbal instructions from police to disperse.
Participants in the day of action later delivered copies of a Mennonite Action petition signed by nearly 5,100 people from the U.S. to their House representatives.
The group is urging federal elected officials to call for a permanent cease-fire, a release of all hostages and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel supporting strikes on Palestinian territories that have taken the lives of more than 24,000 people, many of whom are children and civilians.
“Right now, innocent children are being killed, and entire communities are being bombed relentlessly as the world looks on. There must be a cease-fire!” said spokesperson Jonathan Brenneman in a Mennonite Action release. “As a Palestinian American and as a Mennonite and Christian, I must speak out. Is there a point where powerful leaders in the United States will grow weary of watching this genocide play out day after day after day?”
On Jan. 14, the 100th day of the war, a White House statement said it was “the right time” for Israel to scale back its military offensive in the Gaza Strip, but U.S. support for Israel continues as leaders there reiterated commitment to continue operations against Hamas militants.
Mennonite Action coordinated a previous day of action Dec. 19, when 43 protests across the U.S. and Canada mobilized 2,000 Mennonites and allies. The January act of civil disobedience in Washington took place in the same location where about 300 Jewish peace activists and allies were arrested in October.
The Washington Post reported U.S. Capitol Police charged the group with “crowding, obstructing or incommoding,” because demonstrations are not allowed inside congressional buildings.
“Incommoding is essentially blocking a hallway,” said Mennonite Action co-director Nick Martin in an interview following four days of events the organization coordinated in Washington Jan. 13-16. “I would say for those of us who participated with civil disobedience, the intention is never to be arrested. Our intention was to stay in the rotunda and sing, and at a certain point Capitol Police decided we were violating a law and arrested people.”
About 200 other protestors of all ages, holding signs and quilts outside on the lawn between the office building and the Capitol, could hear the singing and chants of “cease-fire now” as police used zip-tie restraints on those who were arrested before loading them into vans. The arrested individuals were released that evening after paying fines without further court proceedings.
Martin said participants came from across the U.S., including both coasts, Kansas, Chicago and Indiana.
“We were really impressed, and it was really powerful to see the level of commitment of people who drove for multiple days or flew,” he said. “We know congregations sponsored some people’s travel, and we appreciate that.”
Mennonite Action coordinated gatherings at local churches. Hyattsville Mennonite Church in the neighboring Maryland suburb hosted the group on Sunday for banner art projects and let people stay in the building overnight. On the day of the action, Washington City Church of the Brethren hosted the group and offered a welcoming statement to those preparing for civil disobedience.
“A lot of it was about being in community together. A lot of our movement so far with Mennonite Action has been online on Zoom, so it was important to be together in D.C., to meet face to face and build the beloved community together,” Martin said.
“In addition, we did hymn sings, workshops preparing for civil disobedience and preparation for the petition delivery and simultaneous outside peace service.”
Mennonite Action is collecting signatures on a similar petition in Canada, where it will be delivered to political leaders Feb. 9 in Ottawa.
An ecumenical peace service will be held on Parliament Hill as petition copies will be delivered to Members of Parliament in other locations across Canada where Mennonite constituencies are represented.
Mennonite Action announced its organizational expansion in a Jan. 4 online meeting. It has formalized fiscal connections to a registered nonprofit organization, allowing it to create staff positions and raise funds.
“Everything up until this point has essentially been volunteer run, to the point [co-director Adam Ramer] and I and a couple of other people were funding all the operations of the movement, from website hosting to Zoom accounts, just spending money out of our own pockets,” Martin said. “In order to support an organization of this size, we need to dedicate staff time to do that. We are approaching 6,000 people on our email list. You need budgets and a board and being fiscally responsible. A lot of the fundraising is going to paying people and funding the D.C. mobilization.”
He acknowledged there have been questions about whether Mennonite Action will take positions beyond Palestine. He said the organization wants to be an inclusive movement that believes in active peacemaking and the liberation of all people. At this point it is focused specifically on Israel’s actions in Gaza and joining the movement to end the occupation of Palestine.
“Our organization right now is focusing on that war, but that doesn’t preclude any of our personal efforts and beliefs in pacifism and promoting peace globally,” he said. “That includes Ukraine, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“As taxpayers to the U.S. who are underwriting the current siege on Gaza and genocide, we are focusing our energy there. Mennonite institutions have called for a cease-fire in Ukraine, and we support them in calling for that.”