My friend Katie is a remarkable woman and a pillar of society here in northwestern Pennsylvania. She is the mother of ten children and has, in recent years, become a grandmother. She is a minister in the American Baptist Church. One of her sons is a veteran of the Iraq War and another is an active duty Marine who has served in Afghanistan. She is an Evangelical Christian and a registered Republican. She is also the most reliable alto in the local shape-note hymn singings that I host in my home every month.
My friend Katie is spending the next five days in jail. To find out why, follow me over the fold.
Katie hates the war. She really hates the war. From front to back, from top to bottom, everything that has been done in Iraq has violated the moral principles of her religion. Last winter, in frustration over the fact that exactly the wrong thing was happening (the surge), despite the election and the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group, she decided to participate in an act of civil disobedience on the fourth anniversary of the start of the war. She and eight other people blocked the entrance to the Federal Courthouse in Erie, PA, on Monday, March 19 in an attempt to close the building. As far as I'm aware, the only print journalism on this action is to be found in the Erie Times-News. [As far as I can tell, you have to pay to view the archives, and I certainly have problems paying money to a newspaper that endorsed Santorum for the Senate in 2006.] Here is what the Times-News had to say about the event on March 20 (reporting by Robb Fredrick):
An odd bit of political theater played out in the lobby of the U. S. District Couthouse on Monday when nine members of the Erie Peace Initiative blocked the doors to protest the Iraq war. The group locked arms at the elbows. They asked that the building be closed.
Katie White offered a loud Prayer. She's a war mom, with a son in Afghanistan, and another who served in Iraq.
"Our government has become a corporation without a conscience," she said. "And that's happened because the citizens have not done their job. They've become discouraged. They've become cynical. They just don't care."
It took more than 30 minutes--and some huffs from lawyers and courthouse employees who knotted in the lobby, not wanting to squeeze through the group--for security to finally move....
The nine protesters were arrested without incident. [...] They waited two hours for their turn before Chief U. S. Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter.
On March 27, they had their trial before the same judge, who threw the book at them. The Times-News, March 28:
"I have used every legal means I can think of to prevent and stop this war," [Matthew] Ochalek [one of the other protesters], 23, said in his defense Tuesday. "I have engaged in nonviolent protest. I have marched here and in Washington, D. C. I have written my government officials. I have organized others to do the same.
"All these legal actions have failed to reach the minds and hearts of the powers in this nation," he said.
That argument failed to sway [Judge] Baxter...
With that, she smiled and fined Ochalek $500.
At least two defendants said they will not pay the money.
"I intend to go to jail," said Katherine White.... "How else can I sleep at night? How can I stand idly by as more of our giifted young men and women lose their lives in service to the ecomonic and political ambitions of the few, the powerful, the priviledged?"
Judge Baxter set the deadline on paying the fine at September 27; after that, the protesters would be found in contempt, and face a prison sentence possibly as long as 6 months. The three youngest protesters paid the fine, but the remaining six refused to pay, and hence faced Judge Baxter one more time on charges of contempt. That took place today. I went to the U. S. District Courthouse today to support my friend, and I witnessed the hearing.
Each of the protesters took the stand and stated their motivation for not paying the fine. The argument, as far as I could tell (and I'm not a lawyer, so don't jump on me), was that they were not acting "willfully" in their refusal to pay. The testimony given by each of the protesters was beautiiful and moving. Mr. James L. Wise spoke first as a representative for the entire group, listing 22 actions by the Bush Administration which he considered immoral. (He later said that his list was oriiginally twice as long, but he redacted it so that it would fit on one page.) The prosecuting attorney, Christian Trabold, tried to get Wise to state that his actions were politically motivated, rather than being based purely on moral grounds. Wise defended himself by saying that political action is how to apply one's moral view. [We do not act against the policies of the Bush administration because they are implemented by Republicans; we do so because they are are immoral, and it wouldn't matter who was implementing them. And of course, the fact that Katie is a Republican completely neutralized the "politics" assault.]
The next protester to offfer testimony was Robert H. Johnson, a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from PTSD and survivor guilt. After he questioned an expert witness on the topic of PTSD, he gave a description of his horrrific experiences in Vietnam, and stated that if his action could save just one young soldier from having either his body or his mind shredded, then going to jail would be worth it.
Johnson was followed by Sister Ann M. McCarthy, a Benedictine nun, who is a member of Pax Christi and the Followship of Reconciliation. She spoke of how, after getting to know a family with a small infant, the news of the death of an unidentified infant in Iraq brought her to the realization that she could not pay the fine. Then Richard Quiggle, another Vietnam era veteran, pointed out how the Bush Administration's war policies violated the Nurenburg Principles, and were hence illegal. Beth Rockwell, a 71 year-old Quaker who requires a walker to get around, then took the stand to offer more detail into all of the laws and treaties that have been violated in the promotion and conduct of the war in Iraq as well as the larger "war on terror", also basing her decision not to pay the fine on the Quaker conviction that war is always and everywhere wrong.
Finally, my friend Katie took the stand and, similar to some of the others, stated how her decision not to pay the fine was based upon her religious convictions. She offered a brief history of the Baptists, and how, in their early years they were champions of freedom of conscience and religion. (How far the Southern Baptist Convention has wandered from those original Baptists!)
I found the testimony of the protesters to be extremely moving, some of it bringing me to tears, and certainly they themselves were on the edge of tears at times.
At the end, prosecuting attorney Trabold stated that their act in not paying the fine was still "willful" because a "willful act" did not have to have a bad motivation. Eventually, Judge Baxter found them guilty and sentenced them all to 5 days in jail, except for Ms. Rockwell, who, owing to her health, will be under house arrest for the five days. The Times-News account can be found here.
During a break in the hearing, Katie pointed me toward a story in the New York Times that might have been pertinent to the proceedings.
Richard L. Thornburgh, attorney general in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, charged Tuesday that political reasons motivated the Justice Department to open corruption investigations against Democrats in Mr. Thornburgh’s home state, Pennsylvania.
His unusually harsh criticism of fellow Republicans was directed specifically at the United States attorney in Pittsburgh, Mary Beth Buchanan, who was director of the Executive Office of United States Attorneys, based in Washington, in 2004 and 2005. That office has come under scrutiny for its role in the dismissal of United States attorneys last year, in some cases for what appear to have been partisan reasons.
Mary Beth Buchanan, being the U. S. Attorney in Pittsburgh, is the boss of prosecuting attorney Trabold. Katie suspected that the protesters may be subject to particularly heavy penalties in order to silence criticism of the President or the war.
So, the upright and principled go to jail whiile the criminals who run our government run amok. I offer this account because it's not clear that anyone outside of Erie County, PA, will ever know about it; for that matter, precious few within Erie County itself will know about it, I suspect. I salute the brave people who tried to close the Courthouse, and I hope their actions inspire others to take action to bring this war to an end.