On December 27 and 28, 2016, radical Christian pacifists from the Atlantic and Southern Life Communities gathered for a Faith and Resistance Retreat at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Each year there is a gathering to commemorate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and to speak out about the massacre of children from the past and the present. This retreat honored Dan Berrigan, SJ, who died on April 30, 2016, a friend and mentor to so many peacemakers.
A part of the retreat is an early-morning pilgrimage to the Pentagon, which happened at 7 AM on December 28. The pilgrims carried life-size cardboard cut-outs of Dan, made by the Ithaca Catholic Worker, and a banner with the statement of the Catonsville Nine: “The violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of truth stops here, this war stops here." Sixteen of the participants gathered on a sidewalk heading to the Pentagon, while others went into the pen set up to hold protesters. All involved sang “The Vine and Fig Tree.” The sixteen were arrested, and charged with a failure to obey a lawful order. The U.S. Attorney at the Pentagon, Paul Embroski, does not prosecute first-time offenders, so just ten of the resisters went on trial on March 2, 2017 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA.
The prosecutor hoped the defendants would plead guilty. Instead, after some dialogue, the defendants came to an agreement to plead no contest, to stipulate to the facts, thus negating a need for a police witness, and to make a pre-trial motion for dismissal. Magistrate Judge Ivan Davis would preside at trial.
In 2013, six of us were arrested at the Central Intelligence Agency after delivering a letter, from the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance condemning killer drone strikes, to a CIA representative. Five of us then appeared before Davis for trial. A police witness was given a copy of the letter, and he corroborated the fact that it was delivered to a representative of the CIA. However, Davis would not allow us to enter the letter into evidence. What gives? Of course we were convicted, and then Davis placed us on a year’s probation. He did not impress me as a jurist.
The next time I observed Judge Davis was at a trial of a group of activists arrested at the Pentagon on September 26, 2016. This action was the culmination of a World Beyond War conference the weekend before. His courtroom resolve in that case was as unimpressive as it was in the CIA trial.
The Holy Innocents Ten gathered in Davis’s courtroom, and for the third time I got a chance to observe this magistrate judge. In a pre-trial hearing, defendant Carmen Trotta of the New York Catholic Worker presented his motion for dismissal. He implored the judge to take action against the U.S. government for its illegal confinement of prisoners at Guantanamo and the use of torture. He pointed out that President Obama signed into law the indefinite detention bill embedded in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In other words, the due process clause of the Bill of Rights is irrelevant. Such a law is unconstitutional, and the judge has a responsibility to protect the Bill of Rights. Davis was not swayed by the argument, indicating the defendant did not cite any court cases for him to consider. So the motion was denied.
After the court proceedings were completed, Carmen was still looking for a way to convince a legal authority that indefinite detention was legally horrendous. He pointed out that the indefinite detention provision is still contained in the 2017 NDAA.
Another pre-trial argument was made by defendant Steve Woolford. He explained that the defendants hoped to enter nolo contendre pleas. Davis asked why. Steve explained they were not contesting the elements of the police report. The prosecutor then read a statement of facts which would not be contested. However, Davis did not allow a no contest plea, “as it is not in the best interest of the public.” This made no sense to me. After some discussion, the defendants entered not guilty pleas.
The prosecutor’s case was the statement of facts. He emphasized they were arrested for the obstruction of access, not for their speech. The defendants stipulated to the facts presented by Embroski. The judge than found them guilty. Each defendant then made a statement before sentencing.
Steve Baggarly of the Norfolk Catholic Worker argued that the U.S. government war making in Yemen was illegal. He provided the gruesome details of a U.S. attack there which killed many non-combatants, including children.
The judge urged the defendants to limit their statements for the purpose of judicial economy. I suspected that the defendants would not let this warning inhibit their right to speak.
Kathy Boylan of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in D.C., which has organized a Monday morning vigil at the Pentagon for decades, explained that the protesters bring with them the God of Love. The government has gone to war many times based on lies--from the Gulf of Tonkin to the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The government violates with consistency the constitution. However, it is the protesters who are brought to trial.
Beth Brockman from North Carolina told the judge about the Dan Berrigan cut-outs. She then informed the court that at the retreat the poem “Prayer For The Morning Headlines” by Daniel Berrigan was read. On the Metro, she witnessed a fourteen-year-old being arrested by four police officers. She and others stayed to observe. Why do we act? For the children.
Carol Gilbert, O.P., a Dominican, just celebrated her fiftieth anniversary. She said forty of those years were spent challenging the military-industrial complex, and reminded the judge of the court’s importance. Judges can obviously be a bulwark against government misconduct, but so few rarely rise to the challenge.
Bill Ofenloch from New York spoke about the Holy Innocents and the need to stop the violence against the children. He quoted from Dan Berrigan that the wealth of the resources was provided by God. But war is the great disrupter. He asked the judge to consider giving the defendants community service.
Ardeth Platter, O.P. said she has been a Dominican sister for 63 years, and will soon complete her 81st year. She did not think she has many more years left to work for justice, civil rights, the farmworkers and women and against homophobia. She has been living for years near Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. There is violence in Baltimore, as well as in Sudan. It must all be stopped. Finally, she brought to the judge’s attention the book and film COMMAND AND CONTROL, which is about the madness of nuclear arms.
Janice Sevre-Duszynska grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Milwaukee. Her Uncle Hank fought in the Battle of the Bulge and came home with PTSD. He had the job of picking up body parts from the battlefield. As an ESOL teacher, she encountered students from 65 countries, including many where war was ongoing. She sees the devastation in Baltimore, and wonders why funding is unavailable to save the city. Janice was greatly offended by Donald Trump wanting to increase the military budget by $54 billion. She had to say no more war at the Pentagon.
Bill Frankel-Streit of the Little Flower Catholic Worker in Louisa, VA, indicated the court was getting a picture of the passion of these defendants. They actually could say so much more. As a father he has the responsibility of taking care of his six children, three of whom are adults. This responsibility extends out to protect other children. He indicated Dan Berrigan said no grand scheme is worth the taking of one life.
Carmen suggested that the defendants should not be punished, but instead should be thanked.
Woolford reminded the court of the dangers of depleted uranium, a very dangerous toxin, which U.S. forces are using in Syria. He recognized the diligence of the judge, but urged him to look at this case in a different light. Growing up in Massachusetts, he was taught in school that the Boston Tea Party was an honorable action. And of course, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, despite the rightness of his cause. was sent to jail. The Holy Innocents group did not threaten anyone at the Pentagon. An appropriate sentence would be community service and time served.
Judge Davis appreciated the suggestions, but indicated it is his responsibility to prevent these violations from happening again. Community service is not a viable option and is ineffective as a deterrent. The defendants were ordered to pay $200 plus court costs, and were given 120 days to pay.
Carmen apologized for the vigor he used in arguing to have the case dismissed. Davis said there is no need to apologize, as he is from the streets.
According to Baggarly, “After leaving the courtroom, the assistant prosecutor, who had been nodding in agreement during much of our time speaking, thanked us very much for the education.” Embroski also indicated he would try to return the Dan Berrigan cut-outs and the banner which the police confiscated. Unfortunately, the defendants did not file a Motion to Preserve the Evidence. This would have forced the police to bring the banner and the cut-outs into court. It would have been a sight to see Dan Berrigan back in a courtroom.
The eloquence of the defendants’ sentencing statements seemed to have an effect on Davis. I sensed that he was touched by the sincerity of the statements. And for sure, there was a lot of speaking truth to power in a courtroom in Alexandria, VA, on March 2, 2017.