By Joy First
It was with great apprehension that I left my home near Mount Horeb, WI and flew to Washington, DC on May 20, 2016. I would be standing in Judge Wendell Gardner’s courtroom on Monday May 23, being charged with Blocking, obstructing and incommoding, and Failure to obey a lawful order.
As we prepared for trial, we knew that Judge Gardner has jailed activists found guilty in the past, and so we knew we must be prepared for jail time. We also knew that the government prosecutor had not responded to our latest motions, and so we wondered if that was a sign that they were not ready to proceed with a trial. With this uncertainty in mind, for the first time ever I got a one-way ticket to DC, and it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my family.
And what was my offense that brought me there? On the day of Obama’s last State of the Union address, January 12, 2016, I joined 12 others as we exercised our First Amendment rights attempting to deliver a petition to President Obama in an action organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance. We suspected that Obama would not tell us what was really going on, and so our petition outlined what we believed to be the real state of the union along with remedies to create a world we all would want to live in. The letter outlined our concerns regarding war, poverty, racism, and the climate crisis.
As about 40 concerned citizen activists walked toward the US Capitol on January 12, we saw the Capitol Police were already there and waiting for us. We told the officer in charge that we had a petition we wanted to deliver to the president. The officer told us we could not deliver a petition, but we could go demonstrate in another area. We tried to explain that we were not there to demonstrate, but were there to exercise our First Amendment rights by delivering a petition to Obama.
As the officer continued to refuse our request, 13 of us began to walk up the steps of the Capitol. We stopped short of a sign that read “Do not go beyond this point”. We unfurled a banner that read “Stop the War Machine: Export Peace” and joined the rest of our colleagues in singing “We Shall Not be Moved”.
There was no one else trying to get inside the Capitol building, but nonetheless, we allowed plenty of room on the steps for others to get around us if they wanted to, and so we were not blocking anyone. Though the police told us we could not deliver our petition, it is our First Amendment right to petition our government for a redress of grievances, so when the police told us to leave, no lawful order was given. Why then were 13 of us arrested? We were taken to the Capitol police station in handcuffs, charged, and released.
We were surprised when four members of the group, Martin Gugino from Buffalo, Phil Runkel from Wisconsin, Janice Sevre-Duszynska from Kentucky, and Trudy Silver from New York City, had their charges dismissed within a couple of weeks of the action. Why were there charges dropped when we all did the exact same thing? Later, the government offered to drop the charges against us for a $50 post and forfeit. Because of personal reasons four members of our group, Carol Gay from New Jersey, Linda LeTendre from New York, Alice Sutter from New York City, and Brian Terrell, Iowa, decided to accept that offer. It seems the government knew early on that this case could not be prosecuted.
Five of us went to trial on May 23, Max Obusewski, Baltimore, Malachy Kilbride, Maryland, Joan Nicholson, Pennsylvania, Eve Tetaz, DC, and me.
We were in front of the judge for less than five minutes. Max stood and introduced himself and asked if we could begin by talking about his motion for extended discovery. Judge Gardner said we would hear from the government first. The government prosecutor stood and said that the government was not ready to proceed. Max moved that his case be dismissed. Mark Goldstone, attorney advisor, moved that the case against Eve, Joan, Malachy, and me be dismissed. Gardner granted the motions and it was over.
The government should have had the common courtesy to let us know they were not prepared to go to trial when they obviously knew ahead of time the trial would not go forward. I would not have had to travel to DC, Joan would not have had to travel from Pennsylvania, and others more local would not have bothered to come to the court house. I believe they wanted to mete out whatever punishment they could, even without going to trial, and not allow our voices to be heard in court.
I have been arrested 40 times since 2003. Of those 40, 19 arrests have been in DC. In looking at my 19 arrests in DC, charges have been dismissed ten times and I have been acquitted four times. I have only been found guilty four times out of 19 arrests in DC. I think we are being falsely arrested to shut us down and get us out of the way, and not because we have committed a crime that we will likely be found guilty of.
What we were doing at the US Capitol on January 12 was an act of civil resistance. It is important to understand the difference between civil disobedience and civil resistance. In civil disobedience, a person knowingly breaks an unjust law in order to change it. An example would be the lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movements in the early 1960s. A law is broken and activists willingly face the consequences.
In civil resistance, we are not breaking the law; rather the government is breaking the law and we are acting in resistance to that law-breaking. We did not go to the Capitol on January 12 because we wanted to get arrested, as was stated in the police report. We went there because we had to call attention to the illegal and immoral actions of our government. As we stated in our petition:
We write to you as people committed to nonviolent social change with a deep concern for a variety of issues that are all interrelated. Please heed our petition—end our government’s continuing wars and military incursions around the world and use these tax dollars as a solution to end growing poverty which is a plague throughout this country in which vast wealth is controlled by a tiny percentage of its citizens. Establish a living wage for all workers. Condemn forcefully the policy of mass incarceration, solitary confinement, and the rampant police violence. Pledging to end the addiction to militarism will have a positive effect on our planet’s climate and habitat.
We delivered the petition knowing that we could be risking arrest by doing so and knowing that we would face the consequences, but we also believed that we were not breaking the law by attempting to deliver the petition.
And of course it is utterly essential that as we do this work we keep in mind that it is not our minor inconvenience that should be at the forefront of our thoughts, but rather the suffering of those we are speaking up for. Those of us who took action on January 12 were 13 white middle-class citizens of the United States. We have the privilege of being able to stand up and speak out against our government without serious consequences. Even if we do end up going to jail, that is not the important part of the story.
Our focus always needs to be on our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering and dying because of our government’s policies and choices. We think of those in the Middle East and Africa where drones are flying overhead and dropping bombs that are traumatizing and killing thousands of innocent children, women, and men. We think of those in the United States who are living under the mantle of poverty, lacking such basic necessities as food, housing, and adequate medical care. We think of those whose lives have been shattered by police violence because of the color of their skin. We think of all of us who will perish if government leaders around the world don’t make drastic and immediate changes to deter climate chaos. We think of all those who are oppressed by the powerful.
It is critical that those of us who are able to, come together and speak up against these crimes by our government. The National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR) has been organizing actions of civil resistance since 2003. In the fall, September 23-25, we will be part of a conference organized by World Beyond War (https://worldbeyondwar.org/NoWar2016/ ) in Washington, DC. At the conference we will be talking about civil resistance and organizing future actions.
In January 2017, NCNR will be organizing an action on the day of the presidential inauguration. Whoever becomes president, we went to send a strong message that we must end all wars. We must provide liberty and justice for all.
We need many people to join us for future actions. Please look into your heart and make a conscious decision about whether you are able to join us and stand up in resistance to the United States government. The people have the power to bring about change and we must reclaim that power before it is too late.
For information on getting involved, contact email@example.com