Binghamton, NY, Sep 21 - Anti-war activists are on trial in a federal court here this week for a controversial protest at a military recruitment center, charged with conspiracy to impede a federal officer. Attorneys working on the case believe it is the first federal conspiracy charge against civilians protesting the war in Iraq, and the first such indictment against anti-war protestors since the Vietnam War era.

In a trial that has attracted national media attention and hundreds of people demonstrating outside of the courthouse, the defendants in United States v Demott, Grady, Burns, and Grady face accusations that they conspired to force, intimidate and threaten federal officers after entering a recruitment station near their hometown of Ithaca, New York on March 17, 2003 and pouring their own blood on recruitment materials and the American flag.

In an unusual twist, the defendants were already tried in a state court on charges stemming from the same action. In April 2004, after only three of twelve jurors found reason to convict, the judge in that case declared a hung-jury mistrial and the lawsuit was thrown out. But nearly a year later, the case was referred to the federal courts and this week the "Saint Patrick's Four" are once again defending their actions as a legally justified means to try to stop the US-led war in Iraq.

In interviews with The NewStandard, lawyers familiar with the case questioned the government's motives for such an aggressive prosecution of the four protesters and speculated that the Bush administration is trying to quell dissent against its policies.

If convicted, the defendants each face up to $250,000 in fines and six years in prison.

[Link: The St. Patrick's Four Speak- The St. Patrick's Four co-defendants, and their deeds, in their own words and voices.]

In opening statements Tuesday, prosecutors told the jury of seven women and five men that the government would prove with evidence and testimony from law enforcement officers that the defendants did conspire to use force, intimidation and threat to impede an officer of the United States from performing his duties, and that the defendants' "reason for conspiracy was to damage US government property."

The defendants, representing themselves, admitted outright in their individual opening statements that they did pour their blood in the lobby of the recruiting center. But they emphasized that the trial "is about how their actions are not a crime," and that they were "morally and legally required" to speak out to the recruiters, recruits and the public about the then-impending war in Iraq "in the hopes that a public outcry would prevent the war from happening."


Vigorous Pursuit of Conviction
Attorney Peter Orville, advisory counsel to the defendants, said he does not believe the St. Patrick's Four were even a "blip on the radar" of the federal government until Tompkins County District Attorney George Dentes admitted he could not get a conviction in the county in which the defendants lived. Dentes asked the US Attorney's office to look into the case after the mistrial was declared in the state court trial, pointing out that the crime was committed on federal property. A grand jury indictment soon followed.

"Why make a federal case out of it?" asked Orville, a Binghamton attorney and professor of criminal justice. "It was a simple trespass with a little damage done, and it should be tried… in a state court. And the jury was nine-three for acquittal, so it's hard to understand why [federal prosecutors] would get all riled up about it."

Others familiar with the case believe it is an outright attempt by the federal government to silence dissent. The American Civil Liberties Union told TNS the fact that the US Attorneys office initiated a separate federal prosecution for a "clearly nonviolent protest suggests that the government may be more motivated by the message than by the conduct of the defendants."

Law Professor Scott Horton, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly worked at the Department of Defense, agrees that the federal prosecution is abusive. "There should have been no action brought against them," he said. "What they are doing is punishing citizens expressing displeasure to what their government has done."

Horton, who is speaking at a community-based "Citizen's Tribunal" event scheduled to coincide with the trial, said the chain of command at the Department of Justice that brought the federal charges – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former head of the Criminal Division Michael Chertoff, and current head of the Criminal Division Alice Fisher – are people who themselves are involved in criminal conspiracy.

The August 2002 memorandum prepared in the Justice Department appears to condone the use of torture and degrading, inhumane treatment on prisoners, and, according to Horton, is documentary evidence that the department violated the Anti-Torture Act.

"If we're allocating prosecutorial resources in the proper and responsible fashion, it's Al Gonzales, Michael Chertoff and Alice Fisher that should be in the dock right now facing charges," said Horton.

Assistant US Attorney Miroslav Lovric, the federal prosecutor in the trial, did not return calls for comment. However, during opening statements Tuesday, Lovric said the jurors would find "that government property was destroyed" and the defendants had conspired over a period of more than two months to commit the crimes in the recruitment center.

Meanwhile, the judge on the case has limited the scope of what can be covered during the trial, initially promising to bar the defendants from talking about international law and principles, the conduct and criminality of the Bush Administration, or any details about the war in Iraq that do not directly relate to the defendants' motivations for entering the recruitment center.

The Action
Three of the four defendants had demonstrated at the military recruitment center in the Lansing town mall once before. In December 2002, they entered the premises along with ten others, laid down on the floor and "symbolically died." They were arrested and charged with criminal trespass. After collectively refusing to pay $100 fines, each eventually served several days in jail.

Nearly three months after that action, when millions of people around the world participated in coordinated demonstrations against the war in Iraq, the Bush administration continued to build up momentum toward war against Iraq. Peter Demott, Clare Grady, Daniel Burns, and Teresa Grady decided they needed to make, in the words of Demott, a more "personal statement" than their previous demonstrations.

On Saint Patrick's Day 2003, after the activists, having each previously drawn about four ounces of their own blood, they poured it on the walls, recruiting literature, cardboard cutouts of soldiers, and the American flag, according to Demott, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran. Demott said they then knelt, prayed, and read a prepared statement. Shortly after, police arrested them and held them in jail for four days.

The co-defendants say they were alone in the recruiting center lobby during the first part of their action. The US officer on duty, Sergeant Rachon Montgomery, was in his office, located down a long foyer and that was not visible to the lobby. After hearing the front doors open, but not seeing anyone come down the hall, Montgomery said he went out to the lobby and recognized them as the same people who had demonstrated there several months prior.

On the witness stand Tuesday, Montgomery recounted telling the defendants they had to stop what they were doing and leave, which they refused to do. He later added that the defendants "are friendly people; we just have different views."

Following in Others' Footsteps
Well known in the small town of Ithaca for their anti-war organizing and dedication to social justice issues, the St. Patrick's Four – all members of the Catholic Worker movement – say they are part of a long history of nonviolent civil resistance to "government injustice," like the many abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights activists who came before them.

"We see ourselves continuing in that tradition," said defendant Peter Demott, "that we're speaking out against genocide, against war-making, against the slaughter of the innocents, against the destruction and pollution and environmental degradation of the Iraqi landscape and of whole world really."

The use of blood in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience has a long history in the Catholic Worker movement, especially at US military centers and weapons factories. In 1967, Catholic priest Phillip Berrigan poured his own blood on Selective Service records stored in a customs office in Baltimore – an act for which was sentenced to six years in prison. In 1980, Berrigan, along with his brother Daniel, used blood again at a nuclear missile site in Pennsylvania. Demott himself, who has been arrested numerous times for his participation in civil disobedience acts, was charged with "depredation of government property" after pouring blood on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War.

Forty-six-year-old defendant Clare Grady said this symbolic tradition cuts through a simple conversation about war, and broadens the discussion to its ramifications. "It goes to a level that connects all humans, which is blood, which is the source of life," explained Grady. "It's being shed wantonly and that part of the conversation is not present at all in the recruiting center."

Clare's sister Teresa, a 40-year-old mother of one, massage therapist, and dance instructor at Cornell University, said putting blood on the life-size cutouts of healthy, young people in military uniform was an eye-opening experience.

"To see blood running down their faces spoke volumes to me, which is 'war is perverse.' Because these are beautiful people, to look at them as human beings, and what we will see in war…. It was helpful for me to have the image and the visual to remind me about what was imminent," said Grady.

The fourth defendant, filmmaker Daniel Burns, says the action was a necessary resistance to injustice, and their arrests and subsequent trials are now bringing the discussion to a broader audience.

"I was there to carry a message, and I was there to give that message to as many people as possible," explained Burns when asked by TNS why he stayed around to face arrest. "If I left [before being arrested] that message wouldn't be getting out; if I left I wouldn't be speaking to you right now, to the people of the United States, about the illegal actions of our government to recruit our young to go to fight in an illegal war."

Self-Representation and Limitations on Testimony
The St. Patrick's Four are representing themselves in their trial, as they did in the state hearing. Self-representation gives each one of them the chance to make their own jury selections, to give introductory and closing statements, and to examine and cross-examine witnesses – a much greater presence than if attorneys were speaking for them.

However, as in the state trial, the federal prosecutors succeeded in limiting the scope of testimony to preclude some statements about the defendants' motivations and testimony about international law. The judge has barred witnesses who would have testified about the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements that protect citizens from prosecution for committing lesser crimes if they are trying to prevent larger crimes from taking place.

In a decision issued just one week before the federal trial, Northern District Court Judge Thomas C. McAvoy reiterated an earlier decision that stated the war in Iraq and international law are irrelevant to the trial.

"This court specifically held that it is immaterial whether the defendants acted because of their beliefs concerning the Iraq war… and whether defendants thought they were lawfully acting under the principles of international law," wrote McAvoy. "The focus is not whether they believe they were acting for lawful purpose in furtherance of international law, but whether they had the mental resolution to impede an officer of the United States or otherwise engage in conduct alleged in the indictment."

The defendants are concerned that these limitations on the testimony will limit the jury's understanding of the motivations behind the demonstration.

"If someone was on trial for abducting a child, it would be relevant to tell the jury that the act was committed when rescuing a child from a burning building. In such circumstances, extreme actions are not illegal; they are justified," said Teresa Grady in a statement issued Tuesday. "Well, Iraq is ablaze, and our children are being abducted by the government to serve in an illegal war. We did our best to intervene, as is our civic duty as defined in the Geneva Convention. For justice to be served, the jury must hear this contextual information."

David Meyer, professor of sociology at the University of California–Irvine, has written extensively on social movements, civil disobedience and their effect on politics and public policy. He says what happens in the courtroom is only a small part of the story.

"When [civil disobedience defendants] go to trial, usually these people get convicted, usually they can't present a full defense, usually they're not allowed to talk about their reasons for doing these things, and it turns on whether or not they committed trespass or threw their blood all over the place," Meyer told The NewStandard.

However, said Meyer, the way you lose with a civil disobedience action, is if people talk about parading without a permit, instead of issues of concern. "The way you win is if you get people talking about the issue that spurred you to do what you're doing," explained Meyer. "And the legal system is set up to do the opposite, to focus on the narrow issues."

After the jury was dismissed Tuesday, Judge McAvoy suggested that some witnesses could issue statements for the record, including author and historian Howard Zinn, former US attorney general Ramsey Clark and former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. He also agreed to let the defendants call some character witnesses who would speak about non-violent philosophies and the Catholic Worker Movement. However, he continued to insist that several of the defendants' proposed witnesses could not be heard during the proceedings.

Citizens Tribunal
In response to the exclusion of some witnesses on civil disobedience and international law, during the trial, the defendants and their supporters have organized a Citizen's Tribunal to take place each evening at a nearby church in Binghamton. In addition to Horton, other participants include human rights activists Kathy Kelly and Medea Benjamin, Iraq war veterans and conscientious objectors Camilo Mejia and Michael Blake, and long-time foreign-service diplomat Ann Wright, who resigned in March 2003 in protest of the Iraq invasion and other Bush administration policies.

"I think it's very important that Americans stand up, that they speak out when they see that this government is doing something illegal," Wright said in an interview with The NewStandard. And what is on trial is whether or not the voices of opposition to major policy decisions are going to be heard. The trial is essentially on whether or not citizens – if they take responsibility for trying to end what they think is an illegal war – can they be put on trial for doing that?"

Defendant Clare Grady, whose own father was tried and acquitted of civil disobedience actions during the Vietnam War, believes that risking arrest for her cause was worth it, because "arrest doesn't mean you were acting criminally."

"When you put your body where your mouth is," she said, "that's when the police are brought in. It's always taken people putting their bodies down to move this along, and we know that laws exist now to uphold these kinds of actions. The courts have a real hard time recognizing it, but it can't move unless we push it."

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