Swivel Action

When the Bush administration does something worth protesting, La Mitzvah will be ready.

Four activists sit on the arm of a 200-foot construction crane in lower downtown. As two push off and rappel into empty space, they pull down a seventy-foot banner that reads "Wage Peace Now" and bears the likenesses of Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. The wind catches the banner and, like a sail, it swivels the crane arm, waving the message to the city, swinging suspended protesters through the air.

The most immediate questions raised by this daring act of carabiner creativity -- which was caught on camera -- are not political, but logistical. How did they lug a 110-pound banner up a crane that high? And why didn't anybody stop them?

The protesters are members of a Boulder-based group called La Mitzvah, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish meaning "the good deed." La Mitzvah bills the protest as "the first high-profile direct action" against the use of military force in Afghanistan. "We believe the course our country is taking is toward violent retaliation, and any dialogue that minimizes the loss of lives of innocent civilians is very important at this point," says spokeswoman and self-described "rabble-rousing kid" Nell Geiser, seventeen.

Saturday's TV-ready action was meticulously planned and rehearsed on rock faces by activists with climbing experience, Geiser says. La Mitzvah chose the crane at 1401 Wewatta Street because it provided an urban backdrop similar to the one destroyed by terrorists on September 11, when two hijacked passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in New York City.

Last Saturday morning, a half-dozen La Mitzvah members arrived at the construction site at 5 a.m. They waited about an hour for a security guard to leave, then made for the crane, where they found the ladder unlocked.

The team climbed for about twenty minutes, with the banner strapped to one member's back and supported by another's head. Four members -- two to rappel alongside the banner, two to anchor harness ropes -- went out onto the arm. A fifth member locked herself to the ladder halfway up, putting herself in position to block anyone from attempting pursuit. The final member stayed on the ground as a "police liaison," to reassure any authorities that the protesters were nonviolent and would come down soon.

The police arrived at about 8 a.m. They waited while the activists unfurled their banner and climbed back down the crane. Then all six were charged with criminal mischief. According to the Denver Police Department, the machine's owner, Etkin Skanska Construction Company, says the crane needs to be reinspected and recalibrated, at a cost of $35,000. Acts of criminal mischief that result in more than $15,000 in damages are classified as third-degree felonies. (An Etkin Skanska representative declined to comment.)

Yuri Koslen, 26, spent 31 hours in jail before being released. A staff member at Naropa University, Koslen has previous "crane drop" experience and also climbed trees in Washington State to protest logging. "As citizens, we felt like we were following the steps of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus in terms of acting in direct civil disobedience to make a statement more powerful," he says.

When asked if he was frightened, Koslen replies, "I was more scared about our declaration of war and the fear of our civil liberties being curbed," then adds that he cried and prayed while hanging from the crane.

According to its mission statement, La Mitzvah wants the Bush administration to assemble an all-inclusive international coalition to fight terrorism and to avoid any military retaliation that results in civilian casualties. The demands illustrate another ambiguity in America's most ambiguous war: The protesters are not going after the Bush administration for any official action, but for actions they presume and suspect the administration might take (such as excluding Muslim countries from their coalition and carpet-bombing Afghan civilians).

No matter what, La Mitzvah's members are pretty sure the Bush administration is going to do something worth protesting soon.

"Our desire is that it was a moot point, you know?" Koslen says. "But I think our fear is that any day, we can go to war, and the president has said he will not refrain from using any tactic."

Like their government targets, the protesters are using the media to prepare the public for a lengthy campaign. La Mitzvah launched a Web site, wagepeacenow.org, the night before the protest; La Mitzvah buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers will soon be available to help pay the group's legal costs.

Even the protest itself, a stunt straight out of Fear Factor, was staged primarily for the group's own cameras -- a photographer and videographer recorded the action and uploaded the images onto the Web -- and designed for maximum media exposure.

"It's true," admits Geiser. "We'll always reach more people in one column in a newspaper than in a whole day of sitting by the side of the road."

 
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