Tilting at Windmills Before the Chief Judge

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On September 26th and 27th, 2006, a number of peace activists converged in Washington, DC, to take their demands for an end to war to Congress. Of the hundreds present, approximately 70 were arrested for ‘crossing a police line’ and ‘unlawful assembly’ in 4 different places. Of these, four national Peace Action staff – Eric Swanson, Graham Cowger, Randy Wilson and Executive Director Kevin Martin – were arrested in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. Below is an account of the trial that took place over the course of February 15-16, 2007 for those arrests. 

On Feb. 16, 2007, I and more than thirty other peace activists were convicted by Rufus King, III, the chief judge of Superior Court in the District of Columbia. One defendant was acquitted.

On Sept. 26, 2006, as part of the Declaration of Peace, seventy-one activists were arrested in Washington, D.C. while trying to reach members of the U.S. Senate and convince them to cut off funding for the disastrous war and occupation of Iraq. The following day, another twenty-six activists were arrested in a plaza outside the Rayburn House Office Building in a die-in symbolizing all victims of the Iraq War.

As an organizer with the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, I was involved in the planning for the Declaration of Peace. As a member of the Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore, I joined an affinity group on Sept. 26, which attempted to place a commemorative coffin on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Instead sixteen of us were arrested and charged with “crossing a police line.”

A group arrested that day outside the Russell Senate Office Building also faced a charge of crossing a police line. The largest group to be arrested was charged with “unlawful assembly” inside the Hart Senate Office Building. This was also the charge for those arrested outside Rayburn on Sept. 27.

Our first surprise was that the government set Feb. 14, 2007 as the court date for all defendants from four different arrest scenarios. The next surprise came when I discussed the case with a prosecutor who told me the government intended to proceed with 57 individual trials. I told her that was preposterous. She replied, “The trials will be short.”

Due to a snow emergency, superior court was closed on Feb. 14, and a number of defendants could not get flights out of Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin. Nevertheless, some thirty pro se defendants did come to court on Feb. 15. We acted as a community, and intended to be tried together.

When we appeared before Judge King, he agreed to hold a consolidated trial. Since the government was not ready to proceed, we made a motion to dismiss. Instead he postponed the trial until the afternoon to give the government more time to gather their witnesses.

By 2 PM, the two prosecutors secured all their witnesses and had their paperwork in order. The defense requested that those defendants who were unable to attend the entire trial be tried in absentia. Surprisingly, King accepted the motion, and some ten defendants took advantage of that decision as the trial took two days.

It was a unique trial, as legal observers had never seen a trial with defendants from four different arrests over a two-day period. Once the defendants stipulated to the fact they were arrested on either Sept. 26 or 27, the government called several police witnesses. They testified it was necessary to set up police lines for the protection of the defendants and others. Of course, we believed the real intent was to prevent us from presenting our grievances to our elected officials.

On Sept. 26, the police informed us we could not leave the permitted space at Upper Senate Park, which is near the Capitol and the Senate buildings. Nevertheless, the coffin affinity group did cross Constitution Ave. and continued its procession until we encountered a police line some 100 yards from the Capitol. As we crossed that arbitrary police line, sixteen of us were arrested.

A similar scenario unfolded as marchers headed toward the Senate buildings. Some defendants went around that police line and were taken into custody. Others negotiated with the police and were eventually allowed to enter the Hart Building before being arrested.

On Sept. 27, the police did not stop a procession with commemorative coffins from Upper Senate Park to the Rayburn Building. On that day, I was allowed to place a coffin in the plaza without being arrested. Only those who joined the die-in were taken into custody.

Once the prosecution rested its case, we made motions for judgment of acquittal. After they were denied, defendants from each of the arrest scenarios testified. In essence, those accused of crossing a police line argued the police denied us our Constitutional rights. Defendants arrested inside Hart elicited testimony from the police that they were peaceful and respectful. Defense witnesses pointed out the prayer vigil in the atrium did not interfere with government business or obstruct anyone’s passage. The Rayburn defendants argued they did not obstruct passage into the building. Witnesses pointed out two members of Congress entered Rayburn during the die-in.

Both sides presented closing arguments. The prosecution stated the defendants admitted being arrested on Sept. 26 or 27. Case closed. We argued the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt we were guilty, as the police witnesses did not specify what individual defendants did on Sept. 26 or 27. We reiterated our Constitutional rights were violated by the police lines and that the charge of unlawful assembly was bogus, as business at the Hart and Rayburn buildings was not disrupted.

We also argued points of law. I informed the court that the defendants were obligated by the Nuremberg Principles to take action against a government which violated international law by engaging in an illegal war,

We also brought to the court’s attention, District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Andrew E. Bloch, 863 A.2d 845. The appeals court overturned his conviction for crossing a police line set up around the White House in anticipation of a public demonstration. It recognized such police behavior as an unreasonable restriction on speech.

I brought to court my Don Quixote statue. Like the character in Cervantes’ novel, I often tilt against windmills. This case was no different.

In convicting us, Judge King ruled the police acted properly. The defendant who was acquitted was inside the Russell Building when a police officer brought her outside and arrested her.

Several of us intend to appeal our convictions. We believe King misunderstood the Bloch decision and erred by allowing the government to prosecute on the basis of guilt by association instead of meeting the burden of proof for each defendant’s guilt.

Those who missed the February trial are scheduled for March 14. They also intend to condemn the war and speak truth to power. As the war continues, so will the protests, arrests and trials.

Max Obuszewski has been arrested more than seventy times in the pursuit of peace and justice. He can be reached at mobuszew@myway.com.

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