Protest and Trial in Washington, D.C.

There are still writers and activists making the case for impeachment. They make the earnest, comprehensive and correct case that Bush and/or Cheney should be impeached by Congress. I believe it is time to get the message that “impeachment is off the table”, both politically and practically. Nancy Pelosi stated so quite clearly in 2006, and has carried through on this statement while not carrying through on her commitments to change Bush administration policies. In practical terms, with less than one year left till a new President is elected, this Congress does not have time for impeachment, even if the will existed.

The political loss in not pursuing impeachment has been an institutionalization of the Bush program. By not challenging the crimes of this President, the Congress has granted impunity to the executive branch of government. It is an impunity that none of the current batch of wannabe’s have expressed any interest in modifying for the next administration. The executive privileges to ignore legislation, practice torture, spy on citizens, imprison beyond the reach of habeas corpus have been established, and have been acceded to by Congress.

I have just gone through a two-day trial in the District of Columbia, the latest in a series of political trials in which I have been a defendant for doing nothing more than speaking out against war crimes and crimes against humanity. My experience in this trial and in previous trials leads me to the conclusion that we are now living in a nation in which dissenters are guilty by arrest. I believe that there is a vertical integration between law enforcement and the Courts that places justice in the hands of those who are ordered simply to clear the public spaces of our nation of any dissent that would incommode the policy makers, the architects of crimes against humanity.

There is a strong and persistent current of resistance in this country that is unreported in our press, and is dismissed as strange or irrelevant by the majority of the citizenry. However, the movement has the potential to change US policies, if it is allowed to grow, if it is supported by those who know this government has embarked on a criminal journey. The movement includes Voices for Creative Nonviolence, School of the Americas Watch, Jonah House, National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, War Resisters International, National War Tax Resistance Organizing Committee, and other groups and thousands of people who believe that we have a citizen responsibility to protest with insistence and with our very lives, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Dave Dellinger, Kathy Kelly, Roy Bourgeois and Brian Willson to end the criminality of the US government. This movement is covered in publications like “The Nuclear Resister”, and catalogued by activists on their websites. A partial list of actions and people who have participated is an article published by Max Obuszewski of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, available here.

On September 20 of 2007, I joined 33 other US citizens in a public space of the Capitol in Washington, DC, to protest the war in Iraq. Two of our number held a banner that stated, “RIVERS OF BLOOD START HERE”. The remaining, one by one, stated the name of an Iraqi civilian victim while holding a picture of that person, and then fell to the floor in a “die-in”. We wore shirts splotched with red paint to simulate the blood spilled in this war. Within minutes, we were arrested and hauled out of the building, and charged with Disorderly Conduct and Unlawful Assembly.

We made this statement against the war in a room of the Capitol called “the Crypt”. It is a circular room about 96 feet in diameter, through which tourists circulate to look at exhibits such as a model of the Capitol, Settlers of the East Coast, or a Suffrage Sculpture. Our demonstration got the attention of the public present at the time, for sure, but no one was burdened by it, no one missed an exhibit or had their day ruined by this graphic, dramatic and peaceful statement.

The first Judge that we appeared before in the Superior Court, Judge Ringell, just wanted to dispose of the case. He suggested to Prosecutor Jeffrey Shapiro that he simply extract a commitment from us to make a contribution to the cause or charity of our choice in lieu of commencing a criminal trial. The government would have none of that ­ justice demanded we face punishment for our crimes, at least according to Attorney Shapiro’s bosses. Jeffrey was not a happy person. He was an eye rolling, sighing, retributive voice for punishment, who wanted jail time for the whole group. We had sullied the halls of Congress, the sanctity of the Capitol.

Our group was diverse. There were Catholic Workers like Peter DeMott of Ithaka, NY, an Army and Marine veteran of Vietnam who has dedicated himself to speaking out against the war. There were Jewish activists like Levanah Ruthschild, who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and spoke about the parallels between Germany in the 1930’s and the United States of the early 21st Century. There was Malachy MacBride, a Quaker activist who had faced down Mr. Shapiro on prior occasions and engaged him forthrightly on the witness stand. There was Max Obuszewski, of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR, which had organized the protest), who has a firm grasp on courtroom procedures and an affirmative and respected presence in the courtroom. There was Judith Kelly of Pace y Bene and Steve Cleghorn, a Pennsylvania farmer. There was Don Muller from Alaska, Virgine Lavinger of Wisconsin, Susan Crain from Jonah House in Baltimore, and Janet Ashby, a resident of Cambodia who has worked there for many years, and who had never before been arrested.

We represented ourselves without an attorney. We pleaded our First Amendment right to make this statement in this public space, and that we had a duty under international law to make such a case. The government never suggested that we were trespassing, but took the position that our behavior was a breach of the peace. International law was ruled irrevelant by the Court, in the person of Judge Ann O’Regan Keary. No citizen was called to testify to any inconvenience or shock at our demonstration. One police officer, who was unable to identify us without using photos taken at arrest, testified as to the nature of the act.

As I sat in the courtroom, I remembered my first time in the DC courts, in 1987, when I was on trial with 17 others, including David Dellinger, for protesting in the Rotunda that Congress had turned its back on the judgment of the World Court and funded the war against Nicaragua by supporting the “contras”. Our Judge was Luke Moore, known in the DC system as, “Forever Moore”, as his approach to justice was so deliberative as to be glacial. Every day, we would sit through a string of cases for disposition before he took up our case. We learned by heart his lecture about PCP, the street drug of choice in those days. He would intone, “Do you know what that does to your brain?” He, too, ruled that international law was irrelevant, and forbade any mention of Nicaragua or law in the courtroom. There were several very intimidating Marshalls present who, we were promised, would beat us if they had to haul us out of the Court. In a 6-week trial before a jury, we enlisted the testimony of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Daniel Ellsberg and former CIA officer David MacMichael. The jury was not allowed to hear their testimony, and was finally bullied into a guilty verdict by the Marshalls after a three-day deliberation. The guilty verdict was upheld by the DC Court of Appeals.

There was a similar result in my 2006 Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, State Court trial for being one of a group of nine constituents who read the names of Iraqi and US dead in Congressman Charles Dent’s office, after 5 PM. International law was irrelevant, according to Judge Platt, a personal friend of Mr. Dent, who refused to recuse himself from this Misdemeanor case. Guilty. We appealed to the Superior Court and heard Judge Michael Joyce dismiss our case with these words, “You are fine up to the point you are told by the police you are breaking the law.” Guilty.

Many first-time defendants are surprised that Judges so cavalierly dismiss international law. After all, Article 6, section 2 of the US Constitution clearly states that treaties are the law of the land, and shall be obeyed by all US Judges. How can these same Judges so casually state that the State has a right to keep passageways open and maintain public order, even if citizens are trying to simply raise the issue, non-violently and with dignity, that their government is committing crimes against humanity. Yet, it is a rare exception when a group is allowed to use Constitutional defenses before a jury. The maintenance of an artificial sanctity of our public spaces means more to these judicial civil servants than the flesh and blood activation of the ideals they are pledged to uphold.

In our “Rivers of Blood” trial, Judge Keary acquitted us of the Disorderly Conduct charge, since the government was using the charge of “loud and boisterous” against 11 of us, general disorder against the other 20. Attorney Shapiro complained that the loud and boisterous charge was a clerical error, and asked the Judge to reconsider – she had the sense to at least not change her mind about a delivered verdict. She found us guilty of Unlawful Assembly by agreeing with the prosecution that the banner and our demonstration threatened a breach of the peace, on the basis that we could have provoked a rightwing tourist into a violent rage. She sentenced us to between 7 and 15 days in jail, suspended; 6 months unsupervised probation; a payment of between $50 and $100 to the Washington, DC, Victims of Violent Crime fund. It is a sentence designed to intimidate those who would participate in any similar activity during the probation period. There will be an appeal by some of the defendants.

There is a quixotic quality to such actions as “Rivers of Blood Start Here”, an attempt to bring life to ideals that have a marginal place in this culture of mini-malls and I-phones, video poker and American Idol. We tilt at the machinery of our government and courts, hoping to trigger the citizenry into action to resist the madness of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, etc; and the madness of a domestic policy that can allow the destruction of New Orleans, the pillaging of the economy and the conversion of an industrial, producing nation to a retail strip mall of consumption.

How can I convince you of the value of joining the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance on March 12, in another petition to our nation? I can do no better than present the testimony of a co-defendant, Janet Ashby, on January 17, in the courtroom before a Judge who ruled her testimony irrelevant:

Your Honor,

My name is Janet Ashby. I have worked in Cambodia and with Cambodians since 1981, as my personal contribution to reparation for the illegal acts of war of the US in that country. (In fact, I just came back from Cambodia on Monday for this hearing, and am jet lagged, so please don’t feel offended if I look sleepy.) I have worked in refugee border camps, refugee resettlement, integrated community development, supporting the re-emergence of civil society, reducing the masses of illegal post-conflict weapons, and supporting police, judges, and prosecutors in their efforts to stop human trafficking.

That experience partly underlies my conviction that my country is engaged in an illegal, immoral, and extremely counter-productive war in Iraq. Because of my conviction, I was part of this group expressing ourselves about that war in a peaceful, legal, and orderly way on September 20th, 2007. I was arrested that day, for the first time in my life.

I have struggled with what to say today. I know I must be brief, so instead of listing all of the ways in which we are not guilty of any of the charges against us, I am happy to affirm that the clarifications about this by my fellow defendants have been accurate.

In particular, I want to clarify my intentions when I exercised my freedom of expression on September 20th. I was acting on my conviction that I am called and obligated, as a person blessed with US citizenship, to take action when I see that my country is committing international crimes and folly. My fellow defendants are addressing many points of law on this. My intentions in participating on September 20th were rooted in direct experience ­ my husband was a victim of and refugee from ethnic cleansing during World War II, and I personally interviewed and recorded the testimony of hundreds of Cambodians who applied for refuge in the US in the early 1980’s. On September 20th, as today, I was convinced in every fiber of my being that I must speak out.

Indeed, September 20th was not my first time to speak out. In 2002 I worked with other American citizens to organize vigils and to petition the US Embassy in Cambodia to not invade Iraq illegally. I have worked for peace in Iraq in many other ways since then, including lobbying members of Congress in their offices during the week of September 17th 2007. As I was going to the crypt on September 20th, I was thinking of several things:

– First, my sure knowledge that the US is violating international laws which the US Constitution says constitute our highest laws, and my pain that this is naked for all the world to see ­ for example, I have discussed this with an international lawyer who worked directly under the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights;

– Second, my sorrow that the US actions in Iraq justify the opinion of so many of my friends from other countries that the US is a hypocrite for telling other countries to respect the rule of law but blatantly failing to do so itself. Since the pre-emptive attack on Iraq and then Abu Ghraib and the visible erosion of civil liberties in the US, the moral standing of the US has simply melted away;

– Third, my outrage that the US continues to squander US and Iraqi lives, as well as dollars and the economic well-being of our next generation;

– Fourth, my grief at the long and awful reconstruction that I know Iraq faces, because I know how incredibly hard it is to recreate trust, peace, infrastructure, education, health, rule of law, and social justice in a society devastated by war and occupation;

– Fifth, my certainty that the war we were protesting on September 20th is utterly counter-productive, because invasion, occupation, and torture polarize and transform ordinary citizens into people willing to undertake extreme measures, people called terrorists – the illegal US bombs in Cambodia were fabulous recruiters for the Khmer Rouge.

When I went to the Capitol building on September 20th, I carried with me several things:

– The concerns I had expressed in my other lobbying efforts;

– The knowledge that the Senators and Congresspersons who are supposed to represent us are not yet moved enough to take the decisions that are needed;

– A T-shirt that looked bloodied, like those you see here ­ captivating but not offensive; and

– As you can see in Prosecution Exhibit 1, I was carrying a picture of an Iraqi man and woman, who looked to me to be grieving for a child. I chose that picture as it best represented to me both the current illegal war and the many debts to the future that we are building up ­ an arresting picture, but not a reason to be arrested.

It was an honor to go to the Capitol in fellowship with the people who are today my co-defendants at this hearing, and who take so seriously their obligations to secure peace and stop crimes against humanity. I am glad that, because our expression was in a public place during public hours and conducted in such a respectful way, we were able to gain the interested and sympathetic attention of some of the other members of the public who were also there.

I neither sang nor chanted in the crypt. I simply spoke in the name of Iraqi parents grieving for their dead, then lay down quietly as if dead.

I really did appreciate that some of the arresting police officers were gentle, but I did not appreciate at all being arrested on unwarranted charges.

Many people in Cambodia know that I am on trial now. I look forward to being able to report to them that justice was exercised today.

Thank you.

JOE DeRAYMOND of Freemansburg, PA,, who thanks Janet for the use of her testimony and all his co-defendants for their witness