Day 3 of the frac sand trial: The whole truth?


When my name was called by Richmond McCluer, our defense attorney, I walked up before Judge Jeffrey Thompson and told his clerk I would “affirm” rather than “swear” the oath to ” … Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, so help me God.” I affirmed – but was quickly reminded that in U.S. courts, that is virtually impossible if you want to fully inform a jury about your motives and intent.

I was actually the third witness as the defense started its case. Because of the large number of defendants ( even though after another case dismissal this morning winnowed it down to 19 from the original 35), I knew our time on the witness stand would have to be compact. But when one is facing three months in jail, you would hope for plenty of time to have your say.

Dan Wilson, a former member of the Winona Catholic Worker and one of the organizers for our nonviolent witness against the silica (frac) sand industry which took place last April was first on the stand. With his degree in Biology, we hoped he could describe some of the purported health risks of mining and transporting silica sand. He was able to state he was trying to protect the area from full-scale frac sand operation because the sand in the landscape serves as both an aquifer and filter for water which eventually empties into the Mississippi despite the energetic efforts by Prosecutor Mike Flaherty to pretend this should be just and open and shut trespass case. Despite his considerable knowledge about frac sand, he wasn’t able to share the truth as he knows it. When asked about his arrest, he replied, “It’s not something we enjoy but what we feel called to [do].”

James Johnson, another former Winona Catholic Worker, now a special education teacher here, told the jury about the myriad of public hearings and meetings he has participated in and attended in Winona County on the silica sand controversy. He was constantly interrupted by the Prosecutor’s objection but was able to express than he is “saddened that people are profiting of the pain of others.” He also stated that taking this action which entailed risk brought him joy.

I was next to take the stand after my public oath to tell “the whole truth.” No such luck. Time and time again objections to relevance were voiced by Mr. Flaherty. The Judge, cognizant of the long line of witnesses still to go, clearly wanted testimony truncated. Once I broached the Claim of Right provision in Minnesota’s trespass law, the trial came to a screaming halt. The Judge immediately ordered the jury out of the courtroom so the lawyers, judge, and I could attempt to resolve the impasse created when the Judge insisted that the only instruction related to Claim of Right he would give the jury must be related to a property interest. After I reminded him of my reading of the Brechon case ( involving Honeywell protesters) that defendants must be given wide leeway in explaining their motives and intent to a jury – even if that was a mistaken reason – but reasonable, in good faith, and nonviolent, the Judge relented and said he’d give me a maximum of two minutes to give my rationale ( but no legal arguments!) with the jury present. Needless to say, one cannot give ” the whole truth” ( as I understand it) under such constraints. I left the witness stand wondering why I put so much effort into preparing testimony which won’t be allowed by some judges.

But I was followed by Marie Shebeck, a gentle White Rose Catholic Worker from Chicago. She described the reasons she joined the action along with explanations about the values of this movement begun by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurine.

She was followed by Will Hesch-Bruggeman, a local teacher who was passionate about health risks to children posed by mining and transport of this toxic and carcinogenic sand. He told jurors the school he teaches at is less than seven blocks from the site where he was arrested. His wife brought their 5-month old daughter to the courtroom yesterday and Will talked about health dangers to expectant mothers and those in the womb. On April 29th last year, Will had two very personal reasons to risk arrest with us!

70+ year-old Roberta Thurstin-Timmerman is our elder among the arrestees. She did us proud as she proclaimed, “I have a voice and a body – I can speak for those who can’t.” She was clear she was speaking on behalf of not only young children but also flowers, plants, and trees. “I love this world God gave us and the children of this world shouldn’t be subjected to these things which can be stopped. If we can stop this [frac sand mining] so we can study the health effects, it [getting arrested] was worth it.

Joe Kruse talked of his love for the sand bluffs near his boyhood home across the river in LaCrosse, WI but went on to lament the devastation he has witnessed after visited several frac sand mines in Wisconsin and told of spills in a nearby county which destroyed trout streams. “[The frac sand industry] is really a trespass on a common resource – water. “I was glad when the police arrived [at the protest site]”, he said after describing an irate sand-hauling driver who threatened them with his huge truck. But he concluded his testimony stating he was willing to risk this on behalf of children.

Barb Kass, an activist grandmother, said “silica sand is the wrong answer. It allows us to think we can continue to over-consume oil and gas products.” She tried to talk about the importance of “invitation” in standing in solidarity with others but when she tried to briefly illustrate her point with a personal example from her family’s powerful solidarity action with indigenous spear fishermen in Wisconsin, the prosecutor quickly objected and the judge told her to “move on” to another topic. Many of us in the courtroom came to Winona at the invitation of local residents who needed our solidarity to pull off such an ambitious public witness. She reminded the audience that the local Catholic Worker community “has been doing this hard work for a long time”, making it clear that we were primarily standing behind and alongside them. Her granddaughter turned 4 the day of the arrest and Barb beautifully described her resistance act as a “present” to that precious child. (She also shared ice cream with the younger generation she was protecting.)

Stalwart Quaker/Buddhist activist John Heid kept the courtroom mesmerized with his passionate (and compassionate) explanation to the jury of why nonviolence is “a way of being” for him, not just an interesting philosophy or tactic. He said, “I don’t use the term ‘protest’, this [action] was a prayer. The heart of what we were doing is nonviolence. I felt invigorated, very alive” when going to the site for the vigil. He drew a distinction between law, authentic law, and conscience. After our lawyer told him (while John was on the stand, in front of the jury) that he advised John not to take the witness stand since the prosecution’s evidence against him was muddled at best and insufficient, John quipped, “I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with lawyers!” The judge roared with laughter because he had already faced Heid in his courtroom for previous acts of nonviolent resistance where he represented himself.

While many others (including myself) tried to slip in references to great practitioners of nonviolence in recent history, John quickly reminded the jurors, ” [Martin Luther ] King and Gandhi were all criminals – they all broke the law. We idolize the law,” he lamented. He described some of his fellow Quakers as ” mystics with feet”, saying that this is a prophetic vocation. He described his action as “putting my feet where my heart and soul are.” Suddenly the hard pews in the courtroom were mystically transformed into church pews – if only our churches were as committed to peace and justice as John continues to model it for us! His testimony made the boring tedium of yesterday’s prosecution witnesses worth sitting through to get to the heart of the matter.

Becky Lambert, a farmer like Barb Kass, talked about the huge threat to the soil this mining entails. “These mines are getting closer and closer to our [Lake City, MN Catholic Worker] farm. If our landscape is destroyed, so is what we do.” She described the Catholic Worker passion for sharing food, breaking bread with others. She described carrying food to the demonstration site saying, “we hoped to share our food with the workers and police officers.” It was a sign of intended reconciliation. When asked if risking arrest was a kind of last resort after trying other legal means to stop frac sand mining and transport, Becky said, “this is what I could do at the time. We stopped the work for one day. This [appearing in court for the trial] is part of the witness.”

During one of our courtroom breaks, Rachel Stoll, the next witness, told me she is younger than my youngest son! When she took the stand she eloquently described the benefits of leaving the sand in the ground as a means to protect our river and the water table. She told how all the planning meeting for the action were open to the public and stated our flyer advertising the faith and resistance retreat before the day of action called our plans for Monday, April 29 as “Gospel Obedience” rather than civil disobedience. She felt “compelled to act” and she “felt joy knowing we were doing the right thing.”

Matthew Byrnes was the last defendant to take the stand on this long day in court. Again, he was told by our lawyer that he risked conviction by taking the stand because he, too, had poor evidence presented against him by the prosecution witnesses. But he strode confidently to the witness stand after affirming his oath like two other Quakers before him did. He observed that the City of Winona seems to listen more to protests than listening at meetings. The previous city-wide moratorium on frac sand facilities (which had expired before our April 29 witness) was only first discussed by the city after a dramatic protest by Catholic Workers and supporters raised the issue to their agenda. The moratorium was put in place so health effects of silica sand could be studied but no information was ever released to the public. Since our mass arrests, an air monitor has been installed on the downtown YMCA and the Governor traveled to Winona to state that frac sand as an industry was not good for southeastern Minnesota. The judge told Matthew that he couldn’t draw causal effect from our actions to these but Matthew concluded his testimony stating about his arrest, “It was the only decision I could do as a moral person.”