Vigil Against Torture Meets the First Amendment


While neither the news columns of the StarTribune nor the idiot box’s news shows ever mention the phrase, a small group of us are demanding accountability for torture. Virtually every weekday since Nov. 12, 2009, we have conducted a daily one-hour vigil in front of the U.S. Courthouse, otherwise known as the Federal Building, in Minneapolis. B. Todd Jones, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, has his offices in that building. Regrettably, Mr. Jones has forgotten we are a nation of laws. Usually the vigil is only a single person, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and a black hood, with a sign and sometimes with leaflets.

Our efforts have had to confront the “what-First-Amendment?” response of court security personnel. I was the guinea pig on the first day of the vigil. After about ten minutes sitting there with my sign that said “I Am Waiting” on one side and “For Justice” on the other, three guards approached me from different angles and asked me to remove my hood. They frisked me, asked for an i.d., refused to let me go retrieve a cap that I had a half block away (it was cold and windy that day), checked me for federal warrants, and told me I couldn’t wear the hood. I told them about the First Amendment and that people had been wearing such hoods in demonstrations all across the country, even in front of the White House. The fellow in charge told me there was a Minnesota law prohibiting it, and that even if a lawyer argued the Minnesota law didn’t apply, I couldn’t wear the hood because it was alarming to people. I asked if my sign and orange jumpsuit alarmed people, would I have to stop using them as well? He said he would talk to those people instead. I suggested that if there were any place that the First Amendment should apply, surely it would apply in front of the Federal Building. Nope.

So we didn’t wear our hoods at the vigil. Until Human Rights Day on December 10th, that is, when we expanded our vigil to a full-blown demonstration, and about a dozen people wore the black hoods.

We were told by court security that they couldn’t guarantee what the Minneapolis police might do in terms of arrests. (City Hall is directly across the street.) As part of our demonstration, we did try to enter the building to go to the U.S. Attorney’s office to confess complicity in the torture that was committed in our names. That wasn’t allowed. But we had made some headway. The First Amendment was being reborn on this plaza in front of the Federal Building.

Since that day, we have consistently worn the hoods. One vigiler was told he couldn’t do so but that of course there were exceptions due to cold. He said he was cold. Two others were asked for i.d.’s. One was told he couldn’t lie down in a fetal position. When asked if that was illegal, the guard said, “It might be.” And then last Friday, three vigilers encountered the Chief of Police of Minneapolis, who was exiting the Federal Building after a swearing-in ceremony of his former Deputy Chief as a new Federal Marshal. They discussed a totally unrelated local case with him, all the time wearing their hoods. Apparently, the Minneapolis Police Department sees nothing wrong with wearing hoods as part of a political protest in front of the Federal Building.

We are not quite ready to re-name this area in front of the Federal Building “First Amendment Plaza,” but it seems as if some people in power have re-read portions of the Constitution. Now if we could only get them to read the Convention Against Torture and the Federal Torture Statute.

Our group would welcome others to join us. It only takes an hour. We usually go during the lunch hour, but you should feel free to vigil any part of the workday. With Obama and Holder and a heads-in-the-sands Congress, we are going to have to demand accountability. For further information, contact WAMM at 612-827-5364, or email