Resistance is the Secret of Joy

By Michael J. Bischoff | 1998-05-01 12:00:00

I spent a lot of time recently in court. I was one of 79 defendants at a group trial by jury. We were all arrested last April at Hopkins, Minnesota, where we were protesting the production of landmines at the company headquarters of Alliant Technologies, a Honeywell spin-off. All of us pleaded "not guilty" to the charge of trespassing. The prosecutor allowed nine of the defendants to speak for us all. Whatever verdict and sentence they received would apply to the whole group.

I was not one of the nine participants in the trial, but I sat in the courtroom to watch most of the proceedings.This may not be a fully accurate account and the quotations may not be exact. I'm still trying to understand the trial and I hope that telling about it will aid that process.

The juror selection process began when the judge asked the prospective jurors to tell about themselves, such as: "I live alone in an apartment with a cat." The attorneys and three of the defendants then took turns asking questions of each prospective juror:

"What is the most important value you have?" "Is there anything you've felt strong enough about to take a stand on, either through a demonstration, petition, or otherwise?"

"Whom do you admire?"

The process of jury selection seemed to be a form of moral and spiritual discernment. I envied the jurors for having this opportunity, but I also felt nervous for them. Many of them seemed forced to expose more of their lives than they were comfortable with: "Have you ever talked with your brother about his experiences in Vietnam?" "No, we don't talk about that kind of stuff."

Trespass for a Higher Law

Next the attorneys and the judge discussed the ground rules. Our actions were not in debate; we clearly appeared guilty of trespassing. But there is a stipulation in Minnesota trespassing law called "claim of right," which makes it legal for a person to trespass when, for example, acting upon a higher law. Our defense was that international law prohibited the production and use of landmines, and thus an attempt to impede this crime justified trespassing. The judge decided that international law could be used in our argument in this case (an unusual, marvelous decision).

The "claim of right" clause in the trespassing law says that our actions need to be "in good faith," "reasonably based," and "without criminal intent." Our interpretation of the law we think we are acting on doesn't even need to be correct if our interpretation of the law and intent are reasonably based. The trial consisted of examining what the defendants believed they were acting upon and whether that belief was reasonable. Had our actions been consistent with this belief and were they an appropriate extension of it? The case rested on the mind set of the defendants when we went onto Alliant's property.

The first person to testify was one of my fellow defendants - a nun of about 70 years named Marguerite, who had called me before the trial to keep me informed of the planning and preparation. She has been arrested dozens of times before, for actions which were an extension of her faith:

"Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. The main issue at this trial isn't whether you find us guilty or not guilty. What is essential is that we stand together and confront the evils of violence. Acting in that spirit, we can't lose. By thinking through the effects of landmines and what we can do about it, we have all begun to confront the violence."

Marguerite spoke of how she was striving to follow the model of Jesus, who at his trial said, "I have come into this world to witness." The prosecutor, Wynn, began dissecting the logical foundations of Marguerite's beliefs. He questioned her understanding of international law and how it applied to her choice to join the protest. The eloquence and focus of Marguerite's explanations began to fade. Wynn handed her a 50-page document from a U.N. convention and asked her to locate a section she had refered to earlier. Wynn's voice was soft, kind, incisive. Marguerite nervously flipped through the document for several minutes, unable to locate the wording she remembered. She was allowed to leave the witness stand and find the passages. Wynn was hoping to show, with Marguerite and the rest of us, that our understanding that international law prohibited landmines was inaccurate, and unreasonable..As Marguerite left the stand, he seemed to be succeeding.

When you see something wrong

The next witness, Mike Miles, was an experienced activist with an impressive knowledge of international law. My spirits rose as I saw him approach the stand. I thought he could match Wynn's challenges. Mike's easy citings of numerous treaties did hold off Wynn for a while. But Wynn asked, if international law already banned landmines, why would the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (of which our local group is a part) be necessary? And he showed that even if landmines were illegal, no law gave us permission to trespass on private property in response.

Mike Miles cited several examples of how small groups demonstrating (on behalf of international law) on the property of a private military contractor had been effective in sparking legislative change. Mike himself had been part of an action at a military contractor in Wisconsin which was televised live on national ABC news. A week after the demonstration, Congress voted to cease funding that $10 billion project.

As other defendants went on trial, they expressed different compelling reasons for their actions. Wynn's questions became more predictable and less incisive. The testimony went on for two and a half days.. I was moved by hearing people articulate their motives: "I want my kids to see that when you see something wrong, you must act on it."

One of the last defendants, Steve Clemens, integrated a rational appeal based on law with compassionate, intuitive motivation. As an activist and student, Steve had studied international law for the past 20 years. He cited prohibitions against the use of weapons that can't distinguish between civilians and combatants. Landmines, Steve explained, are inherently indiscriminate. They can never tell the difference between the leg of a child and that of a soldier. Steve also explained his under- standing of international law - that general principles (such as the prohibition of indiscriminate weapons) move slowly into more specific, explicit treaties (such as the ban of the production and use of landmines). Before that explicit treaty, international law still recognizes the larger guiding principle. He spoke about the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals and their implications for international law:

"We're responsible as individuals for treating each other with certain basic rights. The U.N. in its charter adopted the Nuremberg Principles, which clearly state that we each have a responsibility to prevent crimes against humanity. Just following orders does not justify contributing to or passively witnessing these crimes."

Steve described how we, as concerned international citizens, had a legal responsibility to be at Alliant Tech. Minnesota recognizes this responsibility in its trespassing law with the claim of right exemption. But whether or not the state law explicitly recognizes that right and responsibility, Steve said, we are impelled by a higher international and moral law to prevent crimes against humanity.

As the testimonies concluded on Wednesday morning, I was increasingly sure that we did have a legal right to block the doors at Alliant Tech. Before the closing statements, the judge conferred with the lawyers about the instructions he was going to read to the jury before sending them off to begin their deliberations. He said he would not allow the jury to arrive at just one verdict for the entire group. Rather, they would need to come to a separate verdict for each of the nine people who testified. However, in keeping with the earlier agreement that we be tried as a group, the prosecutor said that if any of the nine was found not guilty, than he would dismiss the charges for all 79 of us. If all nine were found guilty, then we would all be found guilty.

Some of the defendants disagreed with this plan. Being tried as one group in solidarity with each other was important to many of us. In addition to that, many defendants didn't want the case to be dismissed. In their minds, that would leave things unresolved and ambiguous. The wanted either a clear guilty or not guilty verdict. But the lawyers and the judge advised us to worry about these concerns only if the situation arose.

In his closing arguments Wynn emphasized that this case is not about land mines but about whether "their belief in international law is reasonable." He went through each of the defendants' statements and attempted to undermine their credibility and reasonableness. He insinuated that if protesters won, it would be impossible to draw firm lines in other areas. Would it be all right if they entered the Alliant offices? If they destroyed property? Wynn told the jurors, "the state is asking you to draw a line."

Deciding with the heart

Ruth McDonald, one of the defendants, prepared her own closing statement, which she delivered before our lawyer gave his. She started by lighting a candle (after asking permission from the judge):

"It is better to bring light to the world than to curse the darkness. We usually make decisions in the courtroom from the neck up. I'm asking you to use your heart and the rest of your body. We obeyed the spirit of the law and didn't act with criminal intent. "

Ruth mentioned that Bishop Desmond Tutu had heard about our case and sent his blessings. The judge interrupted and warned her not to bring new evidence into the case, but just to restate and reframe the evidence already presented. She appeared derailed, but collected herself. She closed by singing a song written by another defendant about banning landmines. Her voice was both confident and shaky at the same time.

In his closing statement, Peter Thomson, our defense lawyer, said,

"I was looking for a profound theme to tie my closing statements together, but what kept coming to me was the bumper sticker, "Think Globally, Act Locally." That is what the defendants did. They thought 'This global problem is rooted in our community. How can we bring light to it in a nonviolent manner?'"

Based on the number of casualties, Peter calculated that Alliant made approximately $2,000 for each landmine victim. He said, "the wrong people are on trial here."

Although I didn't entirely buy all of Peter's closing arguments, I had a lump in my throat while he was talking. I don't know what the "right" verdict is. International law hadn't been foremost in my mind during the protest. My conscience was the motivating factor.

From this trial I learned an immense amount about the court process, international law, the history of nonviolent resistance, and the activist community in the Twin Cities. Thanks to the sharpness of the prosecution, I was reminded just how valuable it is to critically think through the implications of an action beforehand. I also saw many examples of how a rational and emotional approach to activism can be integrated and complementary.

Transforming everybody

The trial was also one of the times I've most acutely experienced active nonviolence. Transformation seemed possible (and actual) for all of the parties involved - defendants, jurors, judge, lawyers, and those watching. A juror who sat through all of the testimony, but did not participate in the deliberation (because she was an alternate), was quoted in the newspaper: "Before I came here, I didn't know anything about land mines. Now I'm eager to share what I've learned here with people I work with. It was a powerful experience."

The jury began their deliberations on Thursday morning. The day passed without any word from the courthouse. After 7:00, I heard on the NPR news that the all charges in the landmine protester case had been dismissed. The jury had found eight of the nine people who testified guilty, but in keeping with the prosecutions agreement, the charges for all 79 would be dropped because of the one not guilty verdict.

I felt confused. The trial still feels incomplete to me. In what ways was it effective? Ineffective? I still don't know if my arrest was the best use of my energy. How did we alienate workers at Alliant and others who aren't already sympathetic? Where did my ego enter into my decision to get arrested and to tell this story? Am I disappointed that the trial is over? Were we open to seeing where we were wrong and adapting?

Part of something larger

There are still many other weapons besides landmines for indiscriminately destroying each other. But it is in the struggle to find our own ground to stand on, to live in harmony with our own consciences, where I feel most alive. Collective struggle makes me aware that I am part of something larger than myself. I could feel that in Marguerite's grip on my shoulder and tears as she told me she was grateful that younger people like me were part of the trial.

Several months ago I read Alice Walker's novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy. The main character discovers that "resistance is the secret of joy." Much of my life has been about resistance that has not been joyful: resistance to self-knowledge, resistance to opening my heart, resistance to accepting the people around me. When I read Walker's celebration of resistance I squirmed and inwardly disagreed with her conclusion. But in the courtroom, I experienced a kind of resistance that affirmed joy. I'm grateful for the experience.

Michael Bischoff is director of Friends for a Non-Violent World in Minneapolis.

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

Peace Magazine May-June 1998, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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