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Close Guantanamo NYC Action Update

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January 11, 2008

So the plan this morning was to infiltrate the Today show viewing audience. We wanted millions of home viewers to see people wearing orange today and make sure people took note that this is the six-year anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Guantanamo Bay‘s detention facility.The Today show has an outdoor studio audience, visible through the windows behind the anchors. The only problem was – we had to be subtle because the Today show screens out “political” protest. They also run on a time lag, ostensibly to keep streakers away, but which is also handy for switching camera shots and making sure no one with a message that might matter (not that “HI MOM” isn’t an important sentiment, but you can always call the lady after the show).

I arrived at a very prompt 5:51 a.m. Here’s how it went down after that:

6:15 a.m.: Twenty or so volunteers have showed up so far. We gave them orange shirts to keep under their coats and sent them to wait in line. There was a brief scare that there would be a crowd, but it was determined the line on 48th Street was to buy a Nintendo Wii. Didn’t those things come out over a year ago?

Handing out shirts at 6 in the mornin’

6:30 a.m.: Text message: “We’re in!”

6:40 a.m.: By this point, we have 50 people in the fenced-in area or waiting in line. That’s when the first reports of screening start to come in. The security guards are asking people to lift up their shirts. They make a loud announcement, “Anyone wearing orange must leave.”

6:50 a.m.: Ten minutes to air time they sweep the crowd again. They kick out anyone with orange. They are having everyone in the crowd show every layer of clothing they have on. Casualties include a family of tourists who have color-coordinated in orange to help keep track of the kiddies. Despite their innocence, the family is led away by some rather touchy security.

7 a.m.: To the CBS Early Show it is!

7:15 a.m.: The skies open up and wrath is expressed. Thunder. Lightning. Buses throw three-foot waves up onto the sidewalk. It’s only 10 blocks away, but it feels like we had to swim the distance.

7:30 a.m.: We arrive at CBS, and rather than a gruff greeting, we get apologies. Apparently, they usually have free breakfast for audience members, but not today because of the rain. They tell us to get in line for the Ringo Starr concert. Okay, sounds great.

8 a.m.: We’re in. Apparently since it’s raining, they’re shooting in the F.A.O. Schwartz next door. We take our places. We’re on the right hand side, ten strong. We have 10 in the back and 10 lining the escalator.

8:10 a.m.: They are doing a simulcast concert for Ringo Starr — he’ll be singing live from Liverpool. We’re supposed to sing along to “With A Little Help From My Friends.” They hand out lyric sheets. The chorus leader from Long Island High School for the Arts guides everyone through a rough practice session. In come Harry Smith and Julie Chen, who make small talk. Harry’s small talk is slightly aggressive in the “I-want-to-be-doing-hard-news-and-I’m-standing-in-an- F.A.O.-Schwartz-instead” sort of way. This endears him to me immediately.

8:15 a.m.: And just like that we have the screen shot. We’re just on the side of Harry Smith and when the cameras turn our way everyone drops their coats. The song goes on. We sing. The Close Guantánamo message and bright orange are clearly visible every time the camera shows New York. The people in the back hold up their shirts.

A sea of orange.

8:20 a.m.: When they go to commercial, Harry asks what we’re about. We tell him it’s the six-year anniversary of the prisoners’ arrival at Guantánamo. He seems supportive, whether of our cause or our activism, I couldn’t say. Security is there in a flash. They tell us not to leave, surprisingly, but to get in the back. They are clearly surprised. Everyone complies rather politely.

8:22 a.m.: Harry points to me and says “I want you up here.” I return to the front. The entire crowd applauds. The head security guy is fuming. He is on the phone, telling someone about our shirts and that Harry Smith just invited us back up to the front. In a minute, a very polished CBS exec sweeps into the room. She tells me to move back. I tell her Harry invited me up.Harry has conveniently gone stage left and buried himself in a group of high school students. He’s mugging for photos and laughing, watching CBS exec out of the corner of his eye. Eventually, they conference center stage. He exclaims — for the crowd — “Come on, it’s the Beatles! It’s the 60’s for god’s sake. She can stay.” The crowd goes nuts again.

That’s me in the orange shirt.

8:24 a.m.: But alas, the exec has the earphone. The cameraman doesn’t pan to our side of the stage much for the second version (oh yes, they had extra time and we sang “With a Little Help From My Friends” yet again). When they do catch the bright orange shirt, it jerks back to the high school drama club from Long Island.

Nonetheless, kudos to CBS’ Harry Smith, who stuck up for freedom of expression. And, after it was all said and done, CBS still gave us free breakfast: Waffles! That’s a classy network if you ask me.

Harry Smith pictures poses for pictures with me (left), Barbara Harris of Code PINK and Raging Grannys (center) and NYCLU Organizer Erica Braudy.

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