Two Michigan Poor People’s Campaign activists have chosen jail time over paying a $300 fine for their roles in a May protest in Lansing.
During the protest at the Department of Health and Human Services building, the Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann and Tommy Tackett were among several activists who were arrested for trespassing during an action designed to focus attention on issues including water shutoffs in Detroit and the Flint water crisis.
On Oct. 30, Lansing District Court Judge Frank J. DeLuca imposed a sentence of $300 or 12 days in jail and gave the two until Nov. 30 to pay. On Monday, the men carried out the decision they had made almost immediately after sentencing: to go to jail rather than pay the fine.
“In moral consciousness, I couldn’t bring myself to pay the $300,” said Tackett during an interview with the website Radical Discipleship just prior to reporting to court. When the sentence was originally handed down, Tackett said, he found himself wondering, “What are our communities worth? What am I willing to give for the struggle for justice?”
In an interview with Daily Kos, Wylie-Kellermann agreed that the decision to go to jail “[isn’t] a question of money. It’s a question of conscience.”
“I think of court and the possibility of making statements, or if you go to trial, bringing witnesses as part of that, as part of the moral trajectory,” Wylie-Kellermann said of his decision to go to court and, ultimately, to go to jail.
During his interview with Radical Discipleship on Monday, Wylie-Kellermann called going to jail, “a continuation of the act [of protest].”
“Civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action involve using your body in one way or another,” he said. “In this case, refusing to pay the fines puts it on the court to deal with our bodies.”
Nationwide, according to national Poor People’s Campaign co-founder the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, “between 5,000 to 6,000 people” engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience that led to their arrest during last summer’s initial 40 Days of Action, and the people who participated in those actions are “carrying out cases and trials in lots of different ways across the country.” Daily Kos interviewed Dr. Theoharis on Tuesday.
The Rev. Joseph Summers of the Episcopal Church of Ann Arbor, who was arrested during the May 28 Poor People’s Campaign protest in the state Capitol building in Lansing, plans on taking a different path on his journey through the state’s court system.
Summers told Daily Kos that he’s choosing something of a middle ground in dealing with his own trespassing case. While he turned down a plea deal, he does plan on paying whatever fine is levied when his case eventually goes to trial.
Summers said the high cost of the fine in his plea deal inspired him and a member of his congregation, who was also arrested, to go on with the case, even if that means eventually paying an even higher amount.
“Basically, the level of the fines seemed awfully high in terms of discouraging any kind of future civil disobedience,” so he and his congregant decided to go to court, “to be able to explain to the judge why we did what we did, so that it would somehow be part of the official record.”
“The whole point of these protests is because the government hasn’t been doing what it needs to do” with regard to the environment and doing right by the poor, according to Summers. “So, if we make the space for this kind of public protest prohibited, then people’s voices will be suppressed. We are both using our privilege, the ability to take this risk, to say we should not be imposing such penalties on people” for exercising their right to protest.
Dawn R. Wolfe is a freelance writer and journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.