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Polite protesters bring cookies, are given coffee

There's no shouting or violence at this California sit-in. It's more like they stopped by for coffee and cookies at the office of a moderate Democratic congresswoman — and never left.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It lacks the drama of Berkeley in the '60s, but a handful of neatly dressed retirees, aging hippies and passers-by are in their fifth week of a sit-in aimed at forcing a congresswoman to vote against the next Iraq war appropriation.

To say the protesters have taken over or even interrupted business inside the teal-carpeted offices of Rep. Doris Matsui would be an exaggeration. It's more like they stopped by for coffee and cookies with the moderate Democrat — and never left.

But with no end in sight, the sit-in has become a symbol for some Democrats that their party's new majority in Congress has yet to act forcefully enough to alter the U.S. direction in Iraq.

On Monday, the protesters increased their volume, ringing a "peace gong" outside Matsui's building for an hour before settling into her office.

"Doris Matsui is a good, middle-of-the-road Democrat," said John Reiger, 65, a self-employed potter who has logged more than a week on the tan loveseat that's become the cozy, cushioned hub of the Matsui protest. "[But] If she stood up and voted against funding the war — and not just a Dennis Kucinich or a Lynn Woolsey — who knows how important that might be. She might give moderates the courage to put an end to this."

"We're frankly shocked she hasn't done it yet," said Maggie Coulter, 53, another protester who on Monday held a sign with the number "97" on it — the number of troops who have died since Democrats took control of Congress.

To make their point, the protesters say they have no intention of leaving Matsui's office — from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., that is.

Daily schedule
Since Jan. 8, the protesters — sometimes nearly two dozen, but more often three or four — have arrived each work day at Sacramento's federal courthouse, which is named after Matsui's husband and predecessor, Robert Matsui, who died in office in 2005.

At the courthouse, the protesters pass through security, take an express elevator to the 12th floor and twist through hallways before reaching Matsui's library-quiet offices.

There they sit, facing a poster-sized picture of the congresswoman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Occasionally, the office staff brings them water and coffee. Once a week, the protesters reciprocate with homemade cookies.

"They can ignore phone calls and letters, but when you're in her office they can't really escape you," said Cres Vellucci, spokesman for the Sacramento Coalition to End the War.

The protest has remained entirely peaceful. Anti-war activists reported arrests Monday at other representatives' offices in Washington, Chicago and San Francisco.

Matsui tried to assuage the protesters during their third week with a 45-minute conference call from her Washington office. Late last month, she also met with them face-to-face.

Not bowing to pressure
Adriana Surfas, Matsui's communications director in Washington, said her boss opposes the war but will not bow to the protesters and vote against appropriations that support the troops on the battlefield.

"The congresswoman respects the protesters' view on the war, but the issue is cutting off funding and what that would mean," Surfas said. "She wants to make sure there's not ammunition shortages, or gas rationing or issues where broken equipment is not replaced."

Chris Norem, Matsui's district director in Sacramento, has tried to make a similar pitch for weeks.

"Really, we're on the same team. We want the same thing," Norem told the protesters on Monday.

He cautioned, however, that the office was imposing a new rule — only four protesters will be allowed in the office at any time.

"We're trying to end the occupation in Iraq," Coulter said, "and they're trying to end the occupation in their office."