Moral Force: Peace Activists Freed on Conspiracy Charges

October 16th, 2005 - by admin

David King / The North Bay Bohemian – 2005-10-16 23:10:15

(October 12-18, 2005 issue ) — On St. Patrick’s Day 2003, three days before the first American blood was shed in Iraq, Peter DeMott, 58, Daniel Burns, 46, and Clare and Teresa Grady, 48 and 40, respectively, got into two Volvos in Ithaca, N.Y., and drove to a nearby recruiting center. They were not going to sign up to fight in Iraq. Three of them had already been to Iraq on a “peace and mercy” mission. None were carrying health records or letters of intent. Nor were they carrying handcuffs, chains or other means to block people’s entry to the recruiting station. All they carried was four ounces of their own blood.

Ithaca’s Cayuga Mall, which houses the recruiting station, rests between a mess of tangled interstate access ramps across from busier strip malls in Lansing, a nearby suburb. The four knew the way, because months before, they had been part of a sit-down protest in the same center. The parking lot is usually home to more litter and potholes than shoppers and cars. One sign stands out over any other sign in the plaza. It reads, “Army and Marine Recruiting Center” in a harsh red set against the fleshy color of the building. There, in the small office among the cardboard stand-ups of proud Marines and the recruiting literature decorating the bleach-white walls, the four carefully poured their blood, drizzling it like melted chocolate over the door, the carpet and the American flag.

“Killing is not with Christ. Our apologies, dear friends, for the fracture of good order,” began the statement the four had prepared and then read. “As our nation prepares to escalate a war on the people of Iraq by sending hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers to invade, we pour our blood on the walls of this military recruiting center. We mark this recruiting office with our own blood to remind ourselves and others of the cost in human life of our government’s war making. Killing is wrong. Preparations for killing are wrong. The work done by the Pentagon with the connivance of this military recruiting station ends with the shedding of blood, and God tells us to turn away from it. Blood is the symbol of life. All life is holy.”

As their own blood caked and crusted, they knelt and prayed.

Members of the group, now known as “the St. Patrick’s Four,” remember the morning a bit differently. Danny Burns remembers “a cold winter day, with darkness in the clouds that seemed to hang over.”

Teresa Grady remembers it being “particularly warm for a day in March,” and that she put on a pair of overalls, “to be ready to be pulled around the recruiting office.”

“I had rented a sander,” she recalls. “I was planning to start redoing my massage room. I had just finished a study group with some kids. We had a nice lunch, and I remember being very hopeful as we had just finished discussing Alojzije Stepinac, who had risked his life to save Jews during World War II.”

Peter DeMott hazily remembers “being in the car on the ride over,” but very little else, because a few months later, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that some people attribute to the stress he underwent in the days immediately after the demonstration.

Those days, four of them, were spent in jail.

While behind bars, the group had no way to shield themselves from the constant barrage of cable news reports filled with talking heads reporting the start of President Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign. They watched bombs fall and rockets shoot across infrared screens, a constant reminder to them that their action at the recruiting station, no matter how meaningful or shocking, had not stopped the war. Clare Grady remembers the guards periodically walking by, telling the prisoners, “We’re gonna kill ’em. We’re gonna kill ’em all.”

The group was charged with third-degree criminal mischief. “We are all middle-aged parents who are the main moneymakers for our families. I walk dogs for a living and I paint houses; Peter cleans out people’s gutters; Clare works in a soup kitchen, and Teresa teaches Latin dance and does massage. So, like we’re some huge threat,” says Burns, who is married and has two sons, one an infant, the other a toddler. Clare is the mother of two teenaged daughters; Peter is married to Clare and Teresa’s sister Ellen, with whom he has four daughters, ages three to 19. Teresa, who says she was radicalized to protest societal inequalities after spending some years living in San Jose, has a teenaged son and regularly shares her home with pregnant with women who would otherwise be .

The four decided that, for financial reasons, they would have to represent themselves. They used a defense based on the Nuremburg principles. They claimed that they had a duty as citizens to stop their government from committing what international law sees as the greatest crime a nation can commit: the unprovoked invasion of another sovereign nation. Article VI, Clause 2 of the US Constitution, known as the “Supremacy Clause,” grants international treaties the same status as federal law and the Constitution itself.

Chargs Dismissed but New Chargs FIled
From the backlash faced by the Dixie Chicks and Bill Maher to generally one-sided reporting from almost all major news agencies, public sentiment at the time seemed solidly pro-war. But in April 2004, New York’s Thompson County District Attorney George Dentes dismissed all charges against the four, as the jury had deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of acquitting. But they weren’t in the clear yet.

Their legal saga could have ended with the hung jury. Instead, Dentes chose another route. Feeling that justice had not been served and that he could not get a fair trial in Ithaca, Dentes asked the US. District Attorney to prosecute the case. What ensued was the first federal conspiracy trial against war protesters since the Vietnam War.

While Burns and DeMott suggest that the authorities may have misjudged the public’s and the jurors’ feelings about the war, others, including Dentes, suggest that it was the location of the first trial that determined the positive outcome.

Ithaca is a liberal college town among liberal college towns. A number of its stop signs have been graphically altered to protest corporate America. They read “Stop: spending,” “Stop: corporate greed,” “Stop: mall culture.” Some also read “Stop: the war in Iraq.”

Dentes told a news reporter, “I called the US Attorney and said, ‘Would you be willing to take this prosecution?’ because I know in federal court things will be more down to earth.”

The federal attorney offered the four a plea deal, which they turned down. “I told them if I pled to this then it’s like I’m saying it is OK to go to war and kill these kids,” says Burns.

Clare remembers the morning the FBI dropped by to give her a summons for the federal trial. “I was lucky in that I had time to prepare, because others had called me to let me know they had been visited,” says Clare. “They knocked and were polite and handed me the paper. I got inside the house and thought, ‘This is important. I better ask questions.’ So I ran back to them as they were getting into the car and I asked them, ‘How can you work for this immoral administration?’ One of them was polite enough to answer me. He said, ‘Ma’am, that’s not our job.'”

Family Histories
Each of the St. Patrick’s Four has an impressive history of personal or family activism. DeMott served as a Marine in Vietnam. After he got out, he joined the Army, trained as a linguist and was assigned to Turkey in a post with NATO. In 1979, fully disillusioned with the military machine, he became part of the Catholic Worker movement. He now has a long arrest record for civil disobedience. In the ’80s he drove his car onto a nuclear submarine docked in Connecticut. His involvement in the movement brought him to Iraq in 2003 as part of a Christian peacemaking team.

Clare and Teresa Grady’s father, John Grady, was a member of the Camden 28, a group of protesters who burned draft cards during the Vietnam War. John faced trial and was acquitted. Teresa is a massage therapist and a founding member of the Catholic Worker group in Ithaca. Clare has coordinated the local Loaves and Fishes community kitchen for over 17 years and was also part of the Swords to Plowshares movement of the 1980s, a group that hammered and poured blood on U.S. weapons of mass destruction. Clare was arrested for her actions with the group in 1984. She also traveled to Iraq, and vividly remembers her trip and the people she met. “We met with Iraqi mothers, and [trip leader] Kathy [Kelly] dropped to her knees and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ People forget that something so simple can mean so much.”

Daniel Burns remembers his father, John, a former mayor, as one of the first Democrats to come out against the conflict in Vietnam. Burns, a member of the Directors Guild of America, has also spent time in Iraq.

Their convictions aside, they are a varied group. Burns’ upturned sunglasses, brown, curly locks and piercing blue eyes scream Hollywood. Despite his movie-star swagger in public, Burns comes off as the most grounded. At times it would seem he is the group leader, simply by default. Burns brings levity to meetings and speeches that can simultaneously draw understanding from a crowd and whip up its fervor. He’s been known to joke about how the group got its name: “We just needed a name.” Within the first day of the four’s federal trial, Judge Thomas McAvoy had threatened to throw Burns out of the courtroom for verbally challenging him. At times, Burns is defiance personified.

DeMott is soft-spoken. His deep voice swells up in his throat like an echo in a cave. It takes little more than for him to explain that he served in Vietnam and then signed up to serve in the Army afterward to captivate a crowd, to seemingly convince them that his reservations about war are genuine.

Before an audience, Clare Grady generally comes off as passionate, yet somehow tortured or conflicted. At a talk at the New York state university Binghamton, Clare was asked by members of the crowd to describe her time in Iraq. She hesitated, asking others in the crowd who had been to Iraq to recall what they saw. “So much has happened since then. You can probably recall better than I can,” she implored.

At the same lecture, Teresa explained to other Catholics how pouring their own blood could be justified by the Catholic faith. “How could you just run in and throw your blood everywhere?” demanded a girl from the audience. “We poured it prayerfully. We did not just run in,” began Teresa. After the meeting, Teresa was surrounded by girls from the crowd who wanted to know more about connecting their faith to their political beliefs. She gave them all a list of authors to go home with.

What Is the Real Crime?
In the second court case, the group was charged with conspiracy to impede a federal officer, a felony that is punishable with up to six years in prison and $250,000 fines, plus three misdemeanors: damaging federal property, which can be punishable by a year in jail and up to $100,000 in fines; entering into a military facility for an unlawful purpose, a misdemeanor punishable with up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine; and entering into a military station after being removed. The trial began on Sept. 19.

“The real crime, as we’ve always stated, is that our government conspired against the American people and lied us into an illegal and immoral war,” said DeMott. “The task is now upon us all to better understand the criminality of our government’s aggression and, as citizens, to act accordingly to demand that our government adheres to international law.”

With Bush’s approval ratings hovering around 40 percent and Americans’ support of the Iraq war at an all-time low, some initially thought the four would have a better chance of beating the charges in the federal trial than they did in the county trial.

Burns was not so optimistic, and said before the trial, “They are doing this to quell dissent. The lowest form of life in the federal prosecution office is in Binghamton. . . . [W]e don’t believe they came up with these charges. We believe it came from the attorney general’s office, from [Alberto] Gonzales. It’s sort of like Catch-22–so you’re prosecuting me for going in, pouring blood and literally in language and action begging them not to commit these war crimes . . . when you are the one who dismissed the Nuremburg principles, when you were the attorney for the White House.” Established in response to Nazi crimes committed during WW II, the Nuremburg principles state that citizens can be held responsible for crimes of their government.

Burns was not alone in thinking the charges were being used to quash dissent. Loyola School of Law professor and Saint Patrick’s Four legal advisor Bill Quigley stated during the trial, “The effect this will have on the public’s right to nonviolent dissent is chilling.”

Court Bans Legal and Moral Arguments
While the charges themselves were daunting, what made the trial even more of a challenge for the four was that the judge ruled that the defendants were not allowed to bring up the Iraq war’s legality or morality as a defense, nor were they to cite international law. Also, the jury this time was drawn from more rural areas around the upstate New York college town of Binghamton.

Facing what seemed to them to be a stacked deck, the four decided to hold a simultaneous trial on the Iraq war itself. They rallied supporters of all kinds, from their own lawyers to such renowned activists as Medea Benjamin, Cindy Sheehan, Kathy Kelly and Ray McGovern. In the evenings during the first week of the trial, they held what they called “the Citizens’ Tribunal on Iraq,” which drew hundreds.

Take a drive through Ithaca today, and it’s likely that besides politically conscious stop signs, you will see large green lawn signs that read, “Stop the Iraq War & Acquit the St. Patrick’s 4.” The SP4 signs far outnumber candidate yard signs, despite the fact that the November elections are drawing near. Like Cindy Sheehan, the St. Patrick’s Four have begun to take on celebrity status among members of the antiwar movement, and that status is slowly spreading (at least in their immediate community) to mom-and-pop America. Some attribute this to the four’s middle-aged, soccer-parent image, and to their strong faith.

In their motion to dismiss all counts against them, the four tapped into historical examples of civil disobedience that might resonate with a wide range of people. Responding to the prosecution’s description of their action as meritless, the group asked the judge, “Would it be meritless to try to interfere in the trading of slaves? Would it be meritless to try to vote if you are a woman and prohibited from voting? Would it be meritless to insist to refuse to move to the back to the bus? . . . Would it be a crime to break into a house and ‘abduct’ and save the life of a child if the house were aflame?”

University at Albany professor of history Lawrence Wittner notes that it is common for a government to want to squash dissenters. “I would guess what the Bush administration is saying now is, ‘We can’t let them get away with these things, we have to discourage people from taking part in widespread civil disobedience.'”

Held in Contempt of Court
As the recent trial began, things looked bleak for the St. Patrick’s Four. Not only was their defense strategy rejected by the judge, but the charges they faced seemed tailored to convict them. Judge McAvoy ruled three days into the trial that the prosecution did not actually have to prove force, intimidation or threat. Rather, according to Quigley, McAvoy ruled that “they have to only prove that there was damage and that they got together to plan to get together to do some damage, and so it’s not damage by force, intimidation or threat — it’s just damage.” Also according to Quigley, the statute under which the four were prosecuted has been utilized so rarely that there was little precedent to go on, which left most decisions completely up to McAvoy.

The four gave testimony and questioned each other, trying to get their points across despite McAvoy’s restrictions. In some ways they were very successful; in others they were not. Teresa and DeMott were held in contempt of court for alluding to the previous trial during their testimony, and Burns was held in contempt for not revealing who drew their blood.

Ultimately, however, the St. Patrick’s Four were acquitted of the conspiracy charge because, they believe, they successfully appealed to the jurors’ consciences. As for the lesser convictions, they say their hands were tied because they weren’t allowed to frame their actions as a response to an illegal and immoral war.

The jurors have refused to comment publicly on the case.

Some people say the government’s decision to pursue a federal conspiracy conviction only raised awareness of the four’s actions. Wittner says he isn’t sure if the government will come to regret its actions. “It depends how the mass media plays it,” says Wittner. “If they continue to gather enough attention, the government may certainly rue the day they decided to press federal charges against the four.”

The government may certainly have made a mistake, says Clare, but that mistake was definitely more than just an inconvenience for the four. “I spent time in jail away from my family,” she points out. “All our lives have changed. We could go to jail for years.”

Even though they were acquitted of conspiracy, the group still face the possibility of up to 18 months in jail and $105,000 fines each. The group will have to wait until January for their sentencing for the lesser charges and have not yet been assigned penalties for the contempt of court charges as of print time.

While the stakes are very real, the four seem to be driven by their beliefs to seize the chance they have been given, to speak their minds while the camera is on them. The question is, should they be the only ones to pay? According to Burns, it’s a responsibility we as citizens share.

“The tax bill you pay is going to fund the bombs that are dropped on Iraqi children,” says Burns. “The taxes I pay are going to fund those bombs. . . . If you don’t do something you are guilty. You are an accomplice.”

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.