Adventure to Obama’s White House, part 5

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After 28 straight hours in four different jails, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. We had been arrested the day before as part of a civil disobedience action against the wars in front of Obama’s White House the day before his first State of the Union speech. I think all 13 of us who had been arrested had been traumatized by witnessing the continual crushing of the human spirit by the cruelly named “justice system.”

So when I was led into the courtroom with leg irons, and a waist chain attached to the metal handcuffs, I looked like a hardened criminal facing murder or kidnapping charges. Was the overkill on the part of the Washington, DC Metro Police strategically designed to demoralize and denigrate the “criminals” caught in it’s web or merely a bureaucracy gone amuck with no idea how to discriminate and apply sufficient restraints where needed?

Not having the time to strategize as a group nor having access to our volunteer attorney (who was on jury duty this week), we didn’t know exactly what to expect when we faced the judge for our first appearance. We assumed we would have the charges read and then have an offer to “settle” the case by paying a forfeiture bond for $50 or $100 or say we want to be released on our own recognizance for a later court date/arraignment. It is possible that the charges could just be dismissed if I/we didn’t pay the forfeiture with a “time served” sentence since we had already endured two days in the DC jails.

They called us into the courtroom in groups of five so the rest of us were kept in the dark as to what happened to those ahead or behind us. The 5 Minnesota women went in first and after about 20 minutes the guard then took four local women with traffic charges before calling my name along with two co-arrestee women from Massachusetts, Ceylon, a guy from Memphis, and Joe Palen.

Shuffling into the courtroom with our leg and hand shackles rattling about, we are able to see some of our friends in the back of the room. Our attorney is not in sight, just a man we’ve never met is introduced as “defense counsel.” The Judge addresses all 5 of us stating that each of the previous five arrestees paid a forfeiture bond in exchange for having the charges dismissed. The city prosecutor was asking $150 in exchange for dropping the charges or we could go to trial on three charges: failure to obey a lawful order, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct! We certainly weren’t disorderly at anytime during this whole ordeal so my tired, aching body and mind was swimming with this new information; it was hard to concentrate as the judge intoned from on high about the jail time and fines associated with each of those charges.

Then the prosecutor announced another bombshell: two of us would not qualify for release upon forfeiture but no reason was given. Immediately I assumed I was one of them – they probably had my prior arrest record even though I had not given my Social Security number during the booking procedure. But Joe had and it is likely that Lori Blanding had as well since they were the ones singled out as ineligible. When they asked “Why?” the prosecutor said it was due to their prior arrests in DC. I have two prior arrests here so this made no sense to me. They were told they had to return for trial since the appointed defense counsel had already entered “not guilty” pleas on our behalf without consulting with us first.

My initial plan was to enter a “Nolo Contendre” plea and ask for time served or community service — but that was before learning of the additional two charges. After that news, my first reaction was to ask Joe if he wanted me to come back and stand trial with him and Lori. He said he’d appreciate that. We tried to consult with the defense counsel but were told we’d have to consult with another lawyer for advice. The man who stepped forward was again someone unknown to us — and he was more interested in making sure I didn’t get a conviction on my record by paying the fine than helping me figure out what was happening.

None of this was aided by Judge Richard Ringell who was bound and determined to rush this proceeding along. He made it very clear he was angry that these “out-of-towners” were taking up the court’s time before he got to the traffic cases of local residents. So much for the notion of having one’s “day in court”. The judge was rushed and rude and insisted that I make the decision then and there or he’d send me back to the jail until the other 30+ local cases could be heard. Since it was after 4 PM already, that meant another night in that DC jail on a metal bunk with no mattress, pillow, or toothbrush and the requisite white bread “sandwiches” — if they were offered at all. Since that is all I had to eat for more than 30 hours, it was hard to clearly consider all the implications of which way to choose in response to the arrest and charges.

I was thinking: if I pled not guilty and returned for trial in May, it would cost at least $200 for a plane ticket and there was no guarantee the charges wouldn’t be dropped the day of the trial after purchasing the ticket. Also, the environmental costs of another plane ride had to be considered. If I entered a nolo plea with the new charges and a clearly angry judge, there is no telling what I’d get. I wanted time to consult with my VCNV friends and others from our Minnesotans for Peace contingent but could not get the court’s permission to do so. I asked if the government’s offer of the fine in exchange of dropping the charges was available anytime prior to trial and was told it was “now or never.”

The judge had also added another proviso at the prosecutor’s request: until the case was resolved, we were banned from the entire area near the White House under threat of felony charges. If the fine was paid, the ban was lifted. If you go to trial, the ban remains in effect until a verdict. So, with a sense of regret, shame, and a sense of abandoning Joe, I chose the “easy way out” and agreed to the requested bribe. I was angry with both the prosecutor and the judge for their failure to see this case as one based on the principle of “peaceable assembly” guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But then again, I have encountered very few judges or prosecutors in my illustrious criminal career who were so inclined.

Judge Ringell was the worst judge I’ve faced — and I’ve faced a few in my 43 years of peacemaking. He was not only rushed and rude but dismissive and contemptuous. Maybe he didn’t mean to come off as such but that was the message I received. Remember the urban legend about your free phone call after you are arrested? We didn’t see a phone or have an offered phone call during the entire time.

We wanted the focus of our action to be on the wars and occupation, not the quality of DC jails and “justice”. But there is a connection. If our nation wasn’t squandering billions, even trillions, on the so-called “war on terror,” we wouldn’t have to rob “the Commons” of the money and resources needed for our own quality of life. The courts, jails, and police wouldn’t be strapped for time and funds; people desperate to survive would have a better shot at housing, food, and necessities if our nation’s priorities weren’t so skewed. Some turn to “crime” to survive and then are abused by the system determined to keep the poor “in their place.”

As I walked out of the Courtroom, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Most of the others were quickly trying to arrange rides in a taxi back to Anacostia to get their property and money before it closed at 5 PM. Joe was going to try to catch his scheduled 7 PM flight and others were leaving early the next morning. I called my son Micah (who is on Congressman Ellison’s staff) and asked him if he could drive me down to get my stuff before he went to work the next day. When I asked him I had been told we couldn’t get our cash returned after 2 PM so I didn’t want to make two trips. He said he was almost finished at work so I told him I’d walk over to his office from the Courthouse. I had no keys to get into his apartment, no money to take the bus, and I needed the fresh air and the physical walk to begin to decompress. (Of course I had no shoelaces either so the walking was slower than usual.)

I felt a sense of regret and betrayal as I walked. I continued to process the options in my mind, regretting my hasty decision based on cost and expediency to not join Joe, Lori, and Father Bill in a May trial. (After I was finished with my appearance, I discovered that Fr. Bill was also prevented by the Prosecutor from being offered the cash release deal.) I had a really good sense of solidarity with both Joe and Bill. Once I got my bearings and realized the walk was more than twice the distance I thought it was, I arrived near the Capitol to discover the myriad of cops preparing for the State of the Union speech that would happen in the next 4 hours. A tan Hummer drives by with gun ports by its doors and windows. What a metaphor for a society drunk on “security” which, in turn, makes everyone else insecure.

It was much easier getting into the Longworth House Office Building to go to the congressman’s office this time: I had no possessions to trigger the metal detector but I wondered if the building guards would notice the two flexicuffs still around my ankles where the guards had attached the metal leg irons because my ankles were swollen. When they removed the shackles in the courtroom, they left the flexicuffs on each ankle. Fortunately I passed without incident and Micah handed me a knife to cut them off. Most of the office staff was present, waiting to say farewell to a colleague who was leaving and Kari Moe, Ellison’s Chief of Staff, greeted me warmly. Other staff members smiled and said they were glad to see me released and I apologized for the way I looked and smelled.

I just wanted to sit down and rest and decompress. Keith came by, shook my hand and told me to tell him about my experience. As I started to talk to him and Kari, my voice broke and tears started to well up in my eyes. It was so good to be out – but what about all those others I met these past hours who continue to be ground up by this system? Who will advocate for them? Who will greet them as a “hero” when they are released? Why am I so fortunate to have a family and friends who support (or at least tolerate) my “crazy” choices? It’s embarrassing to cry in your Congressman’s office, blubbering about your ordeal and hoping he can help make a difference – not only opposing these wars but also giving leadership to stopping the war against the poor. I know he has already led or supported others in these battles and for that I’m grateful.

I walked the 6 or so blocks with Micah back to his apartment. He gave me a glass of cold apple juice – heavenly! Then he cooked us supper as I enjoyed a shower and clean clothes! Afterwards I sat down to write. It becomes a sort of therapy to re-tell the stories, to remember. I want to share my experience with others to help de-mystify an arrest witness so others might be willing to join in next time. This time was harder than most. Maybe it’s because I’m almost 60. Maybe it’s the cumulative impact of years of this work.

There is no guarantee that if we stop funding war and the illusions of “defense” that our government would also care for those left behind -but, if we continue to see the Pentagon’s budget as sacrosanct, there will not be any money left. Dr. King reminded us during the Vietnam War buildup: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Spiritual and psychic death is what we encountered in our tour of the DC jails. We continue to sow death and reap the whirlwind.

Peacemaking is difficult at times and comes with a cost. Of course, the real easy way would be to remain silent in the face of war — but that is not an option I can live with. It is not an option our world can live with.