Monday July 12, I spent a day in DC Superior Court supporting six anti-war activists on charges that arose from March 20 arrests at the White House while protesting the 7th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Elaine Brower and Matthis Chiroux were found guilty in a bench trial of “failure to obey a police order.” LeFlora Cunningham-Walsh was found guilty of “crossing a police line.” John Gold, Cindy Sheehan, and Jim Veeder were found not guilty of crossing the police line.
There are legal questions involved in the convictions which will likely be appealed. In the course of a permitted, peaceful march, at which symbolic cardboard coffins were left in front of buildings of the Veterans Affairs Offices and Halliburton, marchers dropped about a dozen of the coffins in front of the White House, in the designated “picture postcard” zone where tourists are always allowed, but political protest is not.
The prosecution produced a US Park Police video of the S.W.A.T. team leader Lieutenant Beck announcing, on a barely-audible bullhorn that the protest permit was revoked, and that everyone inside of an arbitrary police line of yellow tape and bike racks had to move. Police already had a continuous line of these bike racks and cops directly in front of the White House fence with plenty of safe space for them to “protect persons and property”, that no one was attempting to challenge.
Where was the emergency or dangerous situation that the prosecution referred to which allegedly gave the park police the right to declare the “permit revoked?” Where was the threat to the area? Elaine Brower, who testified in her own defense, talked of years of opposition to the wars in which her son was deployed. She explained that she lay down on the sidewalk next to the symbolic coffins demanding an end to these illegitimate wars that have so adversely affected those military family members who stood beside her that day crying over the death of their sons. She argued that if tourists can be there at one moment taking photos unimpeded, why can’t a permitted political protest be there at another?
Cindy Sheehan choked up on the stand, recounting her efforts after her son Casey was killed to stop the wars — many miles of marching, thousands of speeches and interviews, her radio show, and even a run for Congress — only to have a new, Democratic Congress and president expand the war in Afghanistan.
These activists all did the right thing in making visible non-violent protest, stepping beyond the bounds of what the government arbitrarily permits, and also refusing to accept any offer of a “plea bargain” in the process leading up to and on the day of the trial. All six defendants stood together in solidarity to demand their right to be heard and that all bogus charges are dismissed. Unfortunately, the end result was that three were ultimately convicted, and three were able to walk away with an acquittal.
That Saturday afternoon in March, Elaine and Matthis were calling on many more of the protesters standing there to join their impromptu action of lying on the sidewalk in front of the White House. If hundreds would have joined in, there likely would have been no arrests and no situation where the six arrested for basically a “traffic violation” were roughed up and held on cement floors in torturous conditions for 50+ hours. Given the max penalty for the infractions were fines, and no jail time, the government clearly was delivering a message that such protest will be riskier and more dangerous. None of them should have been convicted!
Dissent, truth-telling, and daring to speak about why these wars continue, through the Bush regime, escalating into the “change” we should be resisting, has to be our mission. While the Peace of the Action events attracted very few people last week, I applaud Cindy and those who came to protest. I also applaud those that were convicted who could have accepted the plea bargain from the government which ultimately allowed three others to have their charges dismissed.
We need more of this!