Maine Jury Says It's Legal to Protest an Illegal War

The stink leaking out of Ira Katz's office at the Veterans Affairs just doesn't stop. Every day some callous new email shows how little he cares that the stunning statistics about soldier and veteran suicides he is trying to suppress represent real lives that were his responsibility; some flat-footed attempt is made to convince Congress -- again -- that he didn't mean to "mislead." As the widow of a Vietnam vet who took his own life after coming home, all the skulduggery and frightening indifference that agents of this government have exhibited in its attempt to keep it all out of sight has been particularly hard to take. But even given my deep personal connection to these stories, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to sustain an appropriately high-decibel level of outrage. I am so very tired of it all. A little good news would go a long way.

This must be the dreaded scandal fatigue.

But just when I was feeling tempted to settle for the paltry encouragement in something as entirely meaningless as the demise of yet another administration enabler like Katz, who, for all his weasely ways, is finally only the dull instrument of his boss's heartlessness, a story came my way that gave me a moment of hope.

But first, the bad news. The bad news is that this hopeful story -- one that illustrates a constructive and effective direct action for change -- was reported only in the Bangor Daily News. Period.

The good news, which that paper reported on April 30, is that six peace activists were acquitted on charges of criminal trespass for failing to obey a police request that they abandon their sit-in outside U.S. Sen. Susan Collins' office in the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Maine.

The defendants, Doug Rawlings, Henry Braun, Jimmy Freeman, Dud Hendrick, Rob Shetterly and Jonathan Kreps -- dubbed the Bangor Six -- were arrested in March 2007 for protesting Bush's proposed troop escalation and Collins' continued support of funding for the war. According to Rawlings, "Our case was pretty simple: We argued that we believed we had a right and an obligation to stay in that federal building until Collins heard us out and agreed that the war is not only immoral but illegal under international law." Specifically, they based their defense on the First Amendment's "right of the people ... to petition the Government for redress of grievances," and their belief that the war is being pursued in defiance of Article VI of the Constitution ("all treaties made ... under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby"), the Nuremberg Principles and the Geneva Conventions.

After a two-day trial in Penobscot County Superior Court, a jury of 12 citizens agreed and brought back a verdict of "not guilty."

Though Judge Michaela Murphy explicitly instructed the jury to set aside their feelings about the war and only deliberate on the evidence presented during the trial, she did allow jurors to consider whether or not the defendants believed that they had the "license and privilege" to consciously choose to break Maine law because they thought international law was being violated. The jurors decided unanimously that the protesters did, in fact, believe they had that right.

For Hendrick, a Naval Academy graduate and former Air Force officer who volunteered for two tours in Vietnam and who now teaches peace studies at the University of Maine at Orono, the "not guilty" verdict was especially sweet. Hendrick has been down this road before, having been arrested five years ago for protesting the war in front of Collins' office and again three years ago in front of the office of Maine's other senator, Olympia Snowe. In his defense, he told the jury, "My best friend's name is on the wall in Washington, as are the names of three other teammates and nine classmates." Those deaths and the deaths of another generation of soldiers and civilians were on his mind when he refused to leave the Federal Building: "Every life lost is a heinous crime, and we are all complicit. We should all be working to stop a foreign policy run amok without conscience," Hendrick told me.

Penobscot County District Attorney Christopher Almy told the Bangor Daily News that he believes the verdict could be read as an indication of Mainers' disgust toward what he referred to as the "debacle" in Iraq and their impatience with both Maine senators, Collins and Snowe, who have continued to support it. He said he would have to reconsider how to handle such cases in the future.

One option, he suggested, would be to refer such cases to federal prosecutors, but Maine's chief federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby, has said she does not think she has jurisdiction.

Why the feds were not asked to handle this particular case to begin with is unclear -- other than the fact that it would have drawn greater attention to Collins' steadfast refusal, over the past six years, to allow her constituents to express their opinions in town hall-style meetings.

After the verdict was announced, the defendants headed to a local watering hole for drinks and champagne. "We called Collins' office from the bar," Rawlings told me, "to tell her aide about the verdict. We got a terse note back from the office announcing Collins's firm stand on funding the war to 'protect the troops.'"

Collins is up for re-election in November.

Jurors, advised by the judge not to "surrender an honest conviction," appeared pleased with the decision. "A good thing was done here today," said trial juror Emily Herrold, who left the courthouse smiling.

A little good news goes a long way.

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