WASHINGTON - Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and four other members of Congress were arrested Monday in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington as they protested the expulsion of aid groups in Darfur.
It was an apparently unprecedented act by a member of Minnesota's congressional delegation and somewhat out of character for Ellison, a Democrat who has generally avoided controversy since he arrived in Congress, attracting international attention as its first Muslim member.
Minnesota Republican Party officials, while saying they respect Ellison's advocacy against genocide in Darfur, criticized his decision to get arrested as a "publicity stunt unbecoming of the office he holds."
Ellison said he and the other members of Congress who were arrested succeeded in bringing national attention to the Darfur crisis that they wouldn't have received otherwise. "I could have sent out a press release, but it would be, 'Yeah, so what?'"
News archives show that no other members of the state's delegation have been arrested for civil disobedience.
Before being led away in handcuffs during the mid-morning protest, Ellison said it's wrong to deprive aid to what he called "the most vulnerable people on our planet."
"They told us three times to leave, we didn't leave and they arrested us," Ellison said nearly four hours later, after he paid a $100 fine and was released.
Secret Service spokesman Darrin Blackford said uniformed officers made eight arrests, including Ellison. "They were charged with crossing a police line, which is a misdemeanor," he said.
Also arrested were Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.; John Lewis, D-Ga.; Donna Edwards, D-Md.; and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.; and three Darfur activist leaders.
Ellison said he, Lewis and several of the other men in the group were taken to a nearby Metropolitan Police Department station, where they were kept in a van with their hands cuffed behind their backs for about an hour, waiting to be processed by authorities.
"We did not get the quote-unquote congressional treatment," said Ellison, sporting an open collar shirt. He said he neither sought nor received any special treatment from the police, whom he praised. "We were treated like anyone else who would get arrested at a political demonstration," he said.
But Ellison, experiencing his first civil disobedience arrest, acknowledged feeling some stress. "I felt my mouth run dry, and the cuffs digging into my skin," he said. "Quite frankly, I was calm on the outside, but I was slightly freaked out."
Dire conditions seen in Darfur
The activists are urging world leaders to take a stand against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's decision to expel 16 aid agencies from Darfur.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died in Darfur, a region of Sudan where ethnic African rebel groups have been fighting the Arab-dominated national government for six years.
According to humanitarian advocates, the Sudanese government's decision to expel the aid agencies will leave approximately 1.1 million civilians without food aid, 1.5 million without health care and more than 1 million without potable water.
Since 2007, early in his congressional tenure, Ellison has tried to make conditions in Darfur a major legislative priority.
In criticizing Ellison, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey said that a member of Congress should not have to resort to civil disobedience to get attention. "Members of Congress are offered no shortage of platforms to advocate for their passions that don't involve crossing police lines," Carey said.
With Ellison representing a Minneapolis-based congressional district that many analysts consider one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation, his arrest is unlikely to affect his standing at home.
"I think that the people of the Fifth Congressional District of Minnesota believe passionately in human rights," Ellison said. "They want me to lead from the front. They want me to set a moral tone."
Ellison's chief of staff, Rick Jauert, said that during Ellison's arrest he fielded calls from CBS News, the Los Angeles Times and other national publications.