I tried to be law-abiding during an illegal war


Judge Edward Wilson looked down from on high. The Judge’s perch in the Ramsey County Courthouse is designed to give the impression that the one who occupies the “high ground” in this legal battlefield has the superior position. So that September afternoon when he was about to pass his sentence on me after the jury dutifully found me guilty for my nonviolent protest at the Republican National Convention, he looked down on me as he followed exactly what the prosecutor had recommended: “The City of St. Paul sees no purpose served at this time in jailing [the defendant]… The State is asking the Court to stay the imposition of sentence of this misdemeanor conviction for the period of one year – on the condition that [the defendant] pay a $100. fine, plus the other fees and assessments required by law [$81], and the Court orders [the defendant] to have no same or similar violations of the law in the next year.” Judge Wilson added “and remain law-abiding in all respects” as he issued his edict from on high. 

I had tried to be law-abiding – recognizing that there is a hierarchy of laws and in my estimation, International Law and Treaties need to be weighed in the balance when one is considering how to behave in a responsible manner as a citizen as well as as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth – a responsibility I see as more important than even my civic responsibility. There was an illegal war in progress then – and two wars continue today. I continue to remain willing to accept the consequences when those loyalties conflict. 

But my question is: does “no same or similar” also apply to our Presidents who continue to claim one can succeed with military solutions to “counterinsurgency” situations – despite all evidence to the contrary? Vietnam was our “Vietnam”; Afghanistan was the Soviet Union’s “Vietnam”. “Vietnam” has become a pejorative term which is short-hand for an unwinnable situation. Historians tell us you can’t “win hearts and minds” with military firepower. But first Bush, now Obama, seem determined to commit a “same or similar” act. I would call it a mistake if it were just an innocent error of judgment. But when the President surrounds himself with “the best and the brightest” who continue to get foreign policy wrong, one has to wonder if it is not deliberate. I would like to believe President Obama is sincere when he tells the troops he addresses that he doesn’t want to send them into “harm’s way” unless it is “absolutely necessary”. I try to believe him but I have my doubts. Is it “absolutely necessary” for us to continue the economically and environmentally unsustainable “American style of life”?

So why do I continue to do “the same or similar” in defiance of the Judge or even in the face of disappointment from the apparent lack of change in our national policy? Is it worth risking three months in jail or prison just to participate in a symbolic action that few are likely to see and the media will likely dismiss as unworthy of notice on the evening news? [When the Judge “stayed” sentencing back in September, it means if I violate the “no same or similar” edict, I am liable for the maximum sentence on the first offense (trespass at the RNC), up to 3 months – plus any additional sentence the current Judge might impose when arrested.]

Mennonista is the blog of Steve Clemens, a Twin Cities peace and justice activist who writes about his convictions that often lead to arrest and [occasional] convictions.

Actually, the real question is: what do I risk by not acting? What part of my life-spirit shrinks when I respond out of fear of the consequences rather than following the clarity of conscience? Is taking a risk for peace and justice only worthwhile when one has a larger audience or a greater likelihood of “success”? The action in question is being part of “die in” this week in front of an Arms Bazaar in Omaha – the shopping mall where the merchants of death hawk their latest ways to facilitate killing to the world’s most-addicted military. 

Besides, risking arrest gives me the potential opportunity to spend several days with the legendary Franciscan activist, Father Louie Vitale who has been arrested more than 200 times in his quest for peace with justice; and Frank Cordaro as well, the ex-priest and Catholic Worker activist from Des Moines. Others pay good money to hear these seasoned activists tell inspiring stories at conferences; going to jail with them is like auditing their courses in nonviolent action at no tuition – and you get room and board to boot! Granted, one never knows what to expect when locked up by the authorities. Sometimes the noise and commotion allows little energy for those discussions. Sometimes “co-defendants” are deliberately split up from one another in different parts of the jail. But knowing that for even a short time one was not complicit with the Empire can embolden one to continue on the journey toward peace.