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Protesting furloughed employee from Laurel passes the torch

By Amanda Yeager, ayeager@tribune.com

10:57 PM EDT, October 9, 2013

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When Laurel resident Clayton Cooper Jr. found out he would be furloughed as part of the federal government shutdown, he decided he wouldn't spend his new-found free time at home.

"I can't go to work, I'm not going to stay at home, so I'm packing up and moving to Capitol Hill," Cooper said at the time.

As week two of the federal shutdown began, it was unclear whether Congress was any closer to passing a budget bill.

But as a government employee with a national-security-related job, Cooper went back to work Monday, Oct. 7. He said he was told he would be getting paid for the work he did this week, although he would have to wait until after a budget is passed to be compensated for the week he was not at work.

Cooper's week on the Hill, from Oct. 1 to Oct. 5, was filled with moments of sometimes eerie quiet punctuated by headline-making events.

During his five days of demonstrations, Cooper witnessed a police chase that ended in a shooting in front of the Capitol, as well as a man setting himself on fire.

His efforts began quietly, with the goal of giving a voice to the approximately 800,000 furloughed workers like himself. Now that civilian national security employees like Cooper have been ordered back to work, about 450,000 remain furloughed.

Cooper said his immediate response to the shutdown was a mixture of "disgust and displeasure, and a pit in my stomach. I could not believe this has actually happened, that Congress would actually allow this to happen and affect thousands and thousands of people. They are messing with the livelihood of all of these people as they play tit-for-tat with the president," he added.

Cooper and his fellow demonstrators, who included family, friends and coworkers and ranged in number from four to about 20 depending on the day, parked in front of the Capitol every morning and stayed for about 12 hours.

They had to feed the meter to stay: At 25 cents for every eight minutes in a parking spot, Cooper's parking tab came to $24 a day.

Carrying signs that read "WTFC?" — the C stands for Congress — he and his fellow demonstrators asked passersby to autograph their signs to show their support. Some people who talked with Cooper came back and joined the group later.

Cooper saw some politicians, as well. Though most kept their distance, Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, stopped to thank the group as he passed by on a jog. At the time, Cooper's group was small. "He was shocked that we were the only four out here," Cooper said.

On Thursday, Oct. 3, Capitol Hill's quiet was shattered when a police chase that began at the White House and led to the Capitol ended in a shooting, one block from where Cooper and his fellow demonstrators were parked at Third and Jefferson streets.

"We all just dropped down to the ground and then the place started getting swarmed with police officers," Cooper said of the scene on the Hill.

Then, he and the rest of his group of demonstrators packed up as quickly as possible and left the area.

"We threw our stuff in the back of the truck and got out as fast as we could," he said.

On Friday afternoon, the group was packing up their van when a man set himself on fire, "right across from where we were," Cooper said. The man's family later said his death was not a political statement.

Despite the sometimes alarming events that he witnessed, Cooper said he was glad to have taken a stand.

"I'm glad we did what we did, and I wish we were still out there being able to do it," he said. But, he added, "I'm happy to be back to work. I love doing what I do."

One of Cooper's fellow demonstrators has taken the torch. Jeff Wismer, of Crystal City, Va., a personnel security specialist for AmeriCorps, said he wanted to keep advocating for the many federal employees, including about 95 percent of AmeriCorps' staff, who are still out of work.

"You just wonder when the cry's going to be loud enough ... for Washington [to] start paying attention," he said. Federal workers "are really feeling the crunch of this, and just don't see any end in sight to the stalemate that's going on in Congress. ... Who's really going to bat for us?"