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June 16, 2006 Trial for Scaling Fence at Pentagon on March 20
By Joy First
I wanted to share with you my experiences at the trial I participated in on June 16. As many of you know, I was arrested on March 20 at the Pentagon, along with 50 peace activists committed to nonviolent civil resistance, including Janet Parker from Madison. Approximately 250 peace activists marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon to demand an end to the war and occupation of Iraq. We carried a coffin representing all the Iraqis and US soldiers who had died as a result of the war. Our goal was to deliver our message to end the war to Donald Rumsfeld. Cindy Sheehan and Michael Berg participated in the march, and Michael Berg was one of the 51 people arrested.
On March 20, when we got to the Pentagon, a temporary 5-ft. fence had been erected in a parking lot ½ mile away from the Pentagon in an attempt to keep us away from Donald Rumsfeld and any other Pentagon personnel. After a quick caucus among the group, 51 of us decided that the fence would not impede our progress in delivering our message of peace to Rumsfeld and we climbed over the fence. About 100 Pentagon Police were standing a few feet away on the other side of the fence and as we climbed over the fence, we were immediately arrested. We were charged with “failure to obey a lawful order” and given a date for a mandatory court appearance. The charge carries a maximum penalty of $5000 and/or 6 months in jail. There were four different court dates for the 51 arrestees and I was in the first group, court date scheduled for June 15.
I flew to DC on June 15. Johnny Barber, Clark Field, and I all stayed with Catarina Correia. We were all going to court on June 16, and so it was nice to be together and provide support. I was nervous about the trial and what would happen.
On June 16, we got up early and took the metro to the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. We had a demonstration, holding signs protesting the war, outside the courthouse before the trial. There were 14 of us there for the court appearance.
There were several possible scenarios for the day. The judge could dismiss the case, we could plead guilty and the judge would determine our sentence and it would be over, or we could plead not guilty and we would go to trial. No one in our group wanted to plead guilty. Going to trial would give us another opportunity to go on public record speaking out against the war.
The court appearance was scheduled for 9 am, but we waited in the hallway for about an hour before we were able to go into the courtroom. During that hour we discussed our strategy in case we went to trial. The prosecutor took each of us aside one-by-one to talk to us. The prosecutor asked what we were going to plead, and threatened several of us with a strong possibility of jail time if we pleaded “not guilty”. We stuck together in solidarity and told the prosecutor we were pleading not guilty and wanted to go to trial.
At 10:00 we went into the courtroom. We had to wait through several court matters concerning drunk driving, traffic violations, etc. A few people in our group asked for a continuance, and one person decided to plead guilty, and not go to trial. She got a $50 fine.
For the rest of us, the judge said we would have a lunch recess and start with our trial at 1:00 pm. During lunch we talked more about our strategy for the trail. We noted that the judge seemed lenient, was fair, and listened to what people had to say.
The judge thought he would try each of us separately, but we wanted to be tried together because we were acting as pro se defendants, and had planned to work together with several of us playing a speaking role in the trial. Max was our fearless leader throughout, and he filed a motion for consolidation that the judge accepted. The trial began.
I had written an opening statement that I was prepared to read, but because everyone wanted to complete the trial by the end of the day, the judge said there would be no opening statement from either side.
The prosecutor called one Pentagon Police officer to the stand to talk about what happened on March 20. The officer said that they knew we were coming and they put up the fence so that we would have a safe “free speech” zone to protest in.
The reminder of the trial was taken by peace activists who took the stand as witnesses to talk about why we were there. The judge gave us a great deal of latitude in making anti-war statements and the prosecutors did not object to anything we said.
Many witnesses talked about the importance of speaking out against the horrific war that has caused so many tragic deaths to innocent Iraqis and to US soldiers. We were exercising our first amendment rights by going to the Pentagon to petition our government for a redress of grievances. We did not want to protest in a “free speech” zone where we would not be heard by our government – rather we wanted to deliver our message that we wanted the war to end to Pentagon officials. Providing these kinds of notorious “free speech” zones has been a common way that our government has squelched free speech. Part of free speech is not just that we are allowed to speak, but also that someone in power will hear us. The fence was ½ mile from the Pentagon to keep us from being heard.
Other activists talked about our responsibility under the Nuremberg Principles to speak out when our government is engaged in immoral actions. Everyone spoke so eloquently and powerfully about the need to end the war, and the necessity for us to be allowed to speak to our government, not herded together like cattle in a “free speech” zone ½ mile away from those we want to speak to. It is an empowering experience to be able to speak out against the war in this way.
In the end, the judge thanked us for being there. But he said his job is to uphold the letter of the law, and we broke a specific law. He found us guilty and charged us a $50 fine plus $35 court costs. Some of us will probably appeal the decision.
What I think about now is that it was a very scary experience going to trial - with the possibility of getting locked up. But then I put it in perspective and think that it is nothing compared to what the people of Iraq are living with every single day - day in and day out. And it is nothing compared to the pain of families in this country who have lost their loved ones in the war. It is remembering the suffering and deaths of all the innocent people that keeps me motivated to go on. We have to stop the war now. I am committed to continue to speak out as strongly as I can against the immoral and illegal war.