During November 16 and 17, I stood trial with Cindy Sheehan and 39 others, the first batch tried on charges of "demonstrating without a permit" at the White House on September 26.
Here is a photo of Cindy, several other defendants, and me awaiting trial:
The defendants were offered a fine of $25 and court costs of $25 if we pleaded guilty. The alternative was a possible fine of $500 and a possible six months in prison. Only one person out of 41 accepted the plea bargain.
The government later took the prison possibility off the table – not out of compassion or concern but to deny us the right to have the government pay for us to have lawyers.
Our defense was that we were attempting to deliver petitions – as provided in the Bill of Rights, "Congress shall make no law abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble to petition the government for redress of grievances." AND that we were doing that with utmost urgency because people were dying each day that our previous petitions were ignored.
As Cindy had been asking for months, we were petitioning the President to meet with us to explain "what noble purpose" had led the Cheney-Bush Administration to bring about the death of Casey Sheehan and [then] almost 1900 other Americans -- in an illegal, immoral, disastrous Iraq War --and to end that war before others died. In Jewish law, pekuach nefesh -- saving a life -- transcends all other legal obligations.
The White House refused even to accept our petitions and refused to meet with us. We left them on the ground at the White House. Many of us stayed in the White House area to become "living petitions," since the paper ones had been ignored both in process and of course in substance.
The police, far from acting as if we were criminals, brought by hand across Pennsylvania Avenue water and pizza given them by our supporters on the other side of the street, in Lafayette Park.
Some of us had been on the White House sidewalk before, and had never had the absence of a permit thrown at us. Many of us never heard any police command to leave the sidewalk, nor were given any chance to leave by the officer who arrested us.
In short, we had no reason to know that the US Park Police, which often allows just such events without a permit (especially when those present are applauding the President's policies), had decided that this time, the place had become a Forbidden Zone, like the ill-famed one in Beijing.
So now our grievances are even more grievous. The American dead are now nearing 2100. The allegedly democratic Iraqi government that we were allegedly trying to install to replace the murderous, torturous Saddam Hussein government has now been shown to be complicit in its own murders and tortures – and so has the US government itself.
We intended – and mostly were able – to get all these matters into the trial record. We did much of this by acting pro se, in our own defense. Among us, only Cindy had a formal lawyer, John Norris. The rest had excellent legal advice from him and from Mark Goldstone. (Mark heard I was from Philadelphia and had occasionally worked there with Ted Mann, an independent-minded free-speech-oriented lawyer and leader of the "official" Jewish community who was blacklisted by parts of it when he criticized Israeli government policy. Mark told me Ted Mann was his hero and model as a lawyer and citizen.)
We divided up the major roles of a defense lawyer—opening and closing statements, cross-examination, etc. (I led the direct examination of defense witnesses.)
The pro se process worked well in bringing us together as we worked out the roles and practiced them.
The judge refused to consider these defenses. He ruled that we had demonstrated without a permit, and were guilty as charged. He sentenced us to a $50 fine and $25 charges, though he could have sentenced to the time already served in handcuffs. and /or to community service. We will probably appeal.
As the judge left the room, we sang several rousing verses of "We Shall Overcome," and the third verse of "America the Beautiful":
"O beautiful for patriots' dream
That sees beyond the years –
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
"America, America –
God shed Her grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brother/sisterhood,
From sea to shining sea."
For me, that is the definition of what it means both to be a patriot and to keep faith with God.
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