Convicted in Court & Praised by the Judge!

On Dec 14, 2011. I stood trial in Washington DC Superior Court for the pray-in last July in which I joined with ten other religious folk in the Capitol Rotunda.

We were seeking to focus Congress on the need to pass a budget responsive to needs of the poor, the disemployed, the homeless. Our pray-in was covered by the New York Times and many religious news sources.

I pleaded guilty to “disrupting traffic in the US Capitol,” a violation of DC law. Judge Harold  Cushenberry then surprised and very much pleased me by saying that though my actions had broken a DC law, they had upheld the deepest teachings of the Constitution. He required me to pay a $50 fee to the victims’ fund in DC that most or all people convicted there have to pay, but said he would impose no other penalty. (It could have been $500 and 6 months in prison.)

(I was alone for trial yesterday because my throat cancer and its treatment had made it physically impossible for me to be with the other ten when they stood trial. My recovery has restored my voice and my vigor.)

 I decided against the “deferred prosecution/ probation” arrangement offered by the prosecution partly because it would have required taking 3 days away from sacred Shalom Center work, coming from Philadelphia to DC 3 separate times to pee into a test tube to be tested for drug use — and much more because it would have required me to promise not to get arrested in the next months. I may very well choose to risk arrest again as the movements for social / political/ religious transformation go forward.

 What I told the judge in my pre-sentencing statement was —

In the late ’50s/ early ’60s I worked as legislative assistant to a congressman who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee and therefore deeply involved in efforts to pass a vigorous civil rights bill;

While I deeply respected the normal process of debate and principled compromise in the Congress, it became clear to me that on civil rights, it was deadlocked and could not move ;

So I chose to get arrested in 1963 for the first time,  in a sit-in to end racial segregation in an amusement park in Baltimore  — hoping not only to integrate that park but in concert with thousands of others around the country, to intensify pro-civil-rights pressure on and support in Congress (as did indeed happen by 1964 — enough to get a striong bill passed);

During this past year, I became convinced that again the Congress was at a dead end in regard to passing a budget that would meet the needs of the poor, the disemployed, the homeless;

And that was why I chose to risk arrest in the Capitol Rotunda. (Since then, the Occupy movements have helped create a public conversation  about inequalities of wealth and power. Religious communities — perhaps moved in part by our pray-in in the Capitol — have joined in this questioning.  I hope to keep the heat on toward changiing not only Congress but our whole society.)

Aside from being happy with this outcome, I am joyful that back in July the “Rotunda 11” met and acted together as we did, grateful that Bob Edgar and Common Cause initiated the pray-in, and moved that Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center took part in our pre-arrest prayers, even though meetings he had long been scheduled to lead that day precluded his getting arrested.

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