A protest organized by Feds United for Peace outside the White House on May 15 included several federal employees speaking out against the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict.

A protest organized by Feds United for Peace outside the White House on May 15 included several federal employees speaking out against the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict. Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

‘We are more complicit:’ Biden’s Israel policies spur feds to protest at the White House

A group of federal employees say their knowledge and access force them to speak out against the administration's position in the Israel-Gaza war.

A group of federal employees congregated outside the White House on Wednesday to protest the Biden administration’s support for Israel, saying they had a unique perspective and responsibility to push the president to change course. 

Organized by Feds United for Peace, which has led previous protests due to what it views as the U.S. government’s complicity in tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza, the protest drew largely from employees working in foreign affairs and international assistance. A few dozen workers participated in the event, though they said they were representing a far larger group who could not, or were afraid to, join themselves. 

One federal employee who works on humanitarian assistance said he was motivated to join the protest because he felt his opinions were not being heard within his agency. 

“Our administration and the political appointees that are running our agencies are essentially ignoring working-level staff, who are technical experts when it comes to issues like famine, humanitarian assistance, conflict remediation,” the employee said. “And there are few outlets for us to express our discontent. So this is what it has come to, where people are literally in the streets now.”

Ann Wright has stayed active with the movement despite resigning as a Foreign Service officer at the State Department in 2003 as a protest against the Iraq war. She has remained an activist since that time and sees it as the duty for federal employees to do the same.  

“I think government employees and their resignation, or when they're challenging, is really, really important because they're the ones that are in the know,” Wright said. “You the public need to think more about what's happening and we as government employees that are in the know are saying, ‘Think, think and act right.’” 

Wright encouraged more employees to follow her path and resign from government service, but to one current employee who works in human rights and national security within the Homeland Security Department, there is more that can be done from the inside. 

“The whole reason I came into this employment is with the purpose of helping American citizens and helping others,” said the employee, a Palestinian-American, adding she does not have reservations about continuing to work inside the administration. “I don't find it difficult and I think it's been really amazing, as a civil servant, to help others.” 

Annelle Sheline spoke at the protest after taking the other path, publicly resigning from her position as a Foreign Service officer at State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in March.

Sheline said she tried to accomplish what she could from “the inside,” including drafting or signing multiple cables through the department’s dissent channel, but was ultimately swayed by “conversations with colleagues who would speak with such agony in their voices as they talked about the daily toll of having to show up to work and questioning themselves as to their own complicity in what was happening.” She noted to other participants she has had no remorse about her decision. 

“It is really great when you're on the outside,” she said. “I feel a great sense of relief for having resigned.” 

Most of the employees who gathered on Wednesday declined to give their names and covered their faces with masks, sunglasses and head coverings. Several of the protesters highlighted that trepidation, with one noting it spoke to the “fear around this issue in several federal agencies right now.” 

The Office of Special Counsel, the agency that oversees the federal law spelling out the limited restrictions executive branch employees can face in voicing their personal political views, earlier this year issued new guidance clarifying that federal employees can discuss their opinions of the conflict in the workplace so long as they do not voice support or opposition for any politician or political party.

Feds United for Peace has instructed participants to communicate about their protests only on personal time and not using government resources, including email accounts. OSC’s guidance followed a call from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for the agency to investigate any potential Hatch Act violations concerning a letter from an anonymous group of political appointees and career employees in the Biden administration who called for a ceasefire in Gaza.

House Republican leaders, including Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., have said federal employees not showing up to work to protest the Israel-Gaza war "deserve to be fired" and have pledged to ensure any employee who protests during work hours receives proper discipline.

An employee at the U.S. Agency for International Development read a statement on behalf of some of her colleagues, which pointed the finger internally for the current situation. USAID’s humanitarian efforts have been insufficient, she said, and agency leadership should demand a ceasefire. 

“We are more complicit in this genocide than most,” the employee said of USAID staff. “The fact that the statement is being read anonymously speaks to the culture of fear within our agency. It speaks to the desperation of staff who have the outlets to voice their concerns about years of ineffective activities in Gaza and laid the foundation for the disaster we are all witnessing today.”

While the protesters voiced frustration at feeling silenced within their agencies, State Department officials and the union representing Foreign Service staff recently praised the administration for welcoming dissent and allowing internal discussions about the conflict.

Participants ended the protest by leaving roses at the gate of the White House, which organizers said was a note to mark their presence. One of the protesters said while small in numbers, he hoped their message would break through to the administration. 

“This is one small way to tell the administration that many staff, more than are just here, are not okay with the status quo.”