This morning I attended the trial of Joy First, Janet Parker and Bonnie Block who were issued citations on February 15, 2008 for trespassing (Madison Ord. 23.07). In an unofficial capacity, I went to observe what a trial for antiwar protesters would be like in Madison, WI in 2008.
The courtroom was quiet. There were no members of the press there. Two bailiffs, the judge, the three protesters and the city attorney filled their roles. Nine observers sat in the gallery in silent support. Judge Daniel Koval began the proceedings by inviting the City Attorney, Marcie Palmer, to read her statement of the facts surrounding the purpose of the citations given at the Hilldale Mall in February. She stated clearly that the three defendants lay down on the floor, covered with white sheets, were asked to leave and refused, accepting the citations before they quietly left without resistance.
The gallery observers read along with the printed statements that composed the defendants’ testimonies. Bonnie Block was the first to read.
“You have told us each time we have appeared before you that you are bound by the law,” said Block. “The case you have cited as controlling your decision is Jacobs v Major. However, I would argue that your finding us not guilty could allow the Wisconsin Supreme Court a much-needed opportunity to review the balance it struck between property rights and Constitutional rights over twenty years ago.”
Block went on to site the dissenting opinions by Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice Abrahamson in which she argued that speech in a “public forum” might include shopping centers in a country where commercial areas like malls and WalMarts are becoming the “new downtown.” And Justice Bablitch went on to hold the opinion that “government was not the only entity that can substantially infringe on individual liberties (and that) accumulations of economic power by nongovernmental entities can, by the use of that power, pose as great a threat to individual liberty as can government.” A threat that could be exercised by the Hilldale management – Block said in her statements that the management told their security officers that if protesters came back, their names and addresses should be given to the management in order to issue and mail “ban” letters. Block ended with a plea to find her not-guilty.
Joy First was the second protester to read a statement. She said that she didn’t seek to be arrested but that she felt that as a citizen, doing nothing would make her “complicit in war crimes and violations of the Nuremburg principles.” First’s voice quivered with emotion as she described wanting to make the world a better place for her children and grandchildren. The bailiff even delivered Kleenex. First concluded by saying that if her government “continued criminal policies against other nations… civil disobedience was more important than following the law of trespassing.” She asked the judge to find her not-guilty.
Janet Parker was the last to give her statement. She described how after watching the Oscar-winning documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side", she could not forget hearing the first-hand accounts of torture carried out by US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. She defended her dissent and asked the judge to find the protesters not guilty.
The city attorney gave her final statement which included a short summary of the events in February. She stated that the city would ask for the minimum punishment.
Judge Koval then closed with his decision. He gave thanks to the defendants for their heartfelt statements and compelling arguments for challenging Jacobs v Major. But despite his sympathy with their views, he said that he took an oath to uphold the Wisconsin State Constitution and the law as well as the decisions made by the Supreme Court. He explained that even if he agreed with the court’s dissenting opinions, if he ruled today that the protesters were not guilty, the city would appeal the decision and send the case to a circuit court and then on to an appellate court and even up to the Supreme Court. He noted that given the current make up of the highest state court, the protesters would not be likely to find a similar sympathy through honoring a not-guilty verdict.
He concluded by saying that law enforcement is nuanced by discretion. Police use discretion when they issue citations. City attorneys use discretion by the cases they choose to prosecute and the punishments they request. Judges use discretion in their judgments and in the severity of punishments issued. Koval then chose, as requested by the city attorney, to give the protesters a guilty verdict with the minimum fine of $109 or eleven hours of community service. Service that will no doubt be meted out through volunteerism for peace.
How different a trial of protesters is in 2008 in Madison. A far cry from what was animated in the tragically hip film “Chicago 10” on the eight arrestees accused of conspiracy after the DNC riots of 1968, today’s trial was about mutual understanding and respect. The protesters had no lawyers. Gallery supporters were quiet (until giggles broke out over how quickly these women would be able to fulfill their community service hours as they are leaders of the peace movement, community gardens, local churches and more). A round of applause was the only sign that something important happened there today.
Where was the press? Students were no doubt buried in books and studying for finals. But who would know that this happened today without the attention paid by the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice? Dissent is certainly not dead in America. However, on what Parker noted as a beautiful spring day in Madison Wisconsin, dissent is certainly quiet.