Friends With Conviction(s)

Friends With Conviction(s)
By Steve Clemens. Dec. 12, 2005

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, peace activists were celebrating two consecutive “Not Guilty” verdicts from Hennepin County juries. Today, Judge Lorie Gildea presided over a bench trial for 12 nonviolent peacemakers at the Southdale Courthouse in Edina. All twelve were declared guilty and ordered to pay a fine of $142. or arrange with the probation department to do Community Service or Sentenced To Serve assignments. What accounts for the different outcomes?

After the City of Edina lost three consecutive jury trials because judges allowed evidence and testimony about International Laws and Treaties, the city, Alliant Techsystems, and the city attorneys got together to devise a different strategy to prosecute nonviolent activists who continued to raise legal and moral objections to several of the indiscriminate weapons made by this “defense” contractor. What they devised was to rewrite the local law to include a new trespass ordinance which would deny protestors the right to put their case before a jury of their peers. By passing a new Edina ordinance and changing the penalty to one where a jail sentence was no longer a sanction, the city effectively removed the cases from appearing before juries. The City of Edina was in such a hurry to protect this corporate malefactor (ATK) that members of the City Council adopted the new ordinance without even having the courtesy to allow for community input by scheduling a second reading of the proposed ordinance.

Today’s trial was the first test of this new ordinance and retired lawyer Ken Gleason joined defendant Bob Burns in requesting that the trespass charges be dismissed because the new ordinance limited the rights of the defendants and the city council did not follow proper procedures. It was a noble intent but a little much to ask a newly appointed judge to make one of her first acts on the bench a decision to override a local (and wealthy) government body. After that decision was handed down, it appeared to many in the courtroom that a conviction was almost assured for the trial that followed.

As has been the practice in previous AlliantAction trials, the defendants stipulated to the facts of the case and only testified about why they took their nonviolent action. Three defendants were absent from the courtroom but John LaForge, Bonnie Urfer, and Sam Foster stood by the testimony of their co-defendants. In a simple yet moving procession, 8 of the defendants spoke clearly and forcefully about their convictions and ATK’s indiscriminate weapons. Dr. David Harris, a member of the local chapter of Vets for Peace led off with a clear statement of the illegality of weapons systems later described by other defendants. Pepperwolf testified about the nature of depleted uranium weapons. Bob Burns described the cluster bombs made by ATK. Sister Jane McDonald brought a child’s prosthesis to the witness stand with her to illustrate her concern about landmines. Sister Betty McKenzie talked about civil disobedience and the rich history of those who have blazed this trail before us, talking about the Boston Tea Party, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. Barbara Valle was in tears as she decried the threats to our natural environment by these weapons. John Schmidt added his voice to the choir. Kathleen Ruona reminded us all that these indiscriminate weapons threaten all life on our planet, not just the human species.

Tom Bottolene chose to deliver the closing argument rather than testify. In clear, concise terms, he urged the judge to remember her recent swearing-in ceremony where she pledged to “uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Reading the Preamble to that constitution, Bottolene went on to highlight the supremacy clause found in Article Six which identifies treaties signed by our government as being the supreme law of the land.

The judge, in delivering her guilty decision stated that she was bound by the law and how it has been interpreted by previous rulings. I wanted to ask her how she would rule today if she had Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., or Sojourner Truth standing in front of her. I thought of the moving testimony in a previous ATK trial by Jane Evershed who reminded us that some day [hopefully soon] we will look back on the days of DU weapons with the same horror we now view our world’s history with apartheid, slavery, and the holocaust. How long will we continue to allow ATK to hide behind property laws while profiting from weapons the world community has identified as indiscriminate and illegal? I am blessed to have such friends with conviction(s)!

Why I'm Going to Prison - Pretrial letter. Dec. 2005

Why I’m Going to Prison
Steve Clemens. Dec. 1, 2005

Dear Friends,

Almost 25 years ago, I went to jail for six months as the result of a prayerful protest against nuclear weapons in Amarillo, TX. At that time, it was left up to my Dad to explain to family members why his son was in the slammer. Before I head off to what may be another six month sentence in a Federal Prison, I felt it best to try to share with you the reasons why. In 1981 we didn’t have the luxury of the internet and e-mail and with Wilma conveniently providing e-mail addresses with the Clemens Family Corporation newsletter I now have the ability to do this.

Let me say at the outset, I am not trying to “convert” you to my position and I am well aware that many of you do not share my perspectives on what some might see as “political” matters. I offer the following only in the hope that you might better understand me and my values and actions so that when we interact with each other, you have a better idea of who I am. I trust that as we work to be honest with each other we can also work on healing some of the sharp and bitter divisions that seem to proliferate in our culture. We can only “respectfully disagree” when we take the opportunity to listen to one another. I confess that too often I’ve neglected to speak a word when my silence has implied consent with something I understand to be wrong. Sometimes I’d added my “two cents” into a conversation without the context of my life experience and values and it has seemed to be strange or bizarre. So here is some of “why” I am likely to be headed off to jail (again).

My Dad always instructed me as I was learning to use a gun before hunting season to “never, ever point your gun in the direction of a human being” and “never aim your gun at something you don’t wish to kill.” Although I was only twelve when I learned to fire his old German mauser rifle prior to my first deer hunt, those words stuck with me and ultimately led (in part) to my declaration to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. That decision in the fall of 1968 set me on a path which has led me to understanding the Gospel and the way of Jesus as a commitment to nonviolence, ironically returning me to some of the same Anabaptist heritage that most of my relatives abandoned in the aftermath of World War II.

That conviction, that Jesus’ life and teaching are a call to love one’s enemies as well as one’s neighbor has been both a challenge and growing edge in my life. One of the biggest challenges for me in recent years has been to re-image God in light of those teachings. For me, to confess Jesus as Lord has meant to work for a more just society, praying and working for peace and reconciliation. Because many wars are initiated over economic reasons, the many years I spent building homes for low income families at Koinonia and with Habitat for Humanity was part of my commitment to peacemaking.

While living in Georgia in the ‘80s, I often helped drive a bus to the Texas-Mexico border or from Georgia to the Canadian border filled with refugees from the wars in Central America. From those refugees I learned about the atrocities committed by their own militaries (and paramilitary units), many of whom had been trained by the U.S. Army at the School of the Americas (renamed but with much of the same content in 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation). I heard first-hand (via a translator) of stories of rape, torture, disappearances, and murder committed by graduates of the SOA. Twenty-five years ago, one of these graduates ordered the assassination of the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, a man who I have come to love and deeply respect for his faith, his compassion for the poor, and his commitment to justice. Other SOA graduates have been named by the UN Truth Commission as being responsible for murders of nuns, priests, teachers, union members, and others working for a more just society in their countries in Central America.

I helped start a weekly silent prayer vigil at the entrance to Fort Benning (home of the SOA/WHINSEC) back in 1983 and traveled regularly over the next 7 years to be present there. After moving to Minnesota in 1990, a growing nationwide movement to shut down the SOA was begun and I’ve traveled to Georgia for an annual protest and vigil each of the past 12 years. (Over the years, Christine, Micah, and Zach have joined me; Zach went with me again this year.) Several times I joined other people of faith in “crossing the line” – entering the base in an act of symbolic civil disobedience to protest against the continuation of a school and national policies which promoted the use of rape, torture, and other human rights abuses in the name of anti-communism, the drug war, and/or the “war on terror”. Because I was among hundreds, and later thousands of others taking this step, I was not prosecuted for the civil disobedience when only a handful were singled out each year to be sent to trial and jail. However, since 9/11, everyone who has “crossed the line” (now 3 - 12’ high fences) has been prosecuted and most have received 3-6 month prison sentences. [Note: the fences are only up for our annual vigil. Other days of the year one can drive on to the base without interference.]

Having traveled to El Salvador this past March with my eldest son, Micah, to commemorate the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, and having met with some of the survivors of the Copapayo massacre in their new “base Christian community”, I decided this was the year I should consider risking my freedom to stand with these humble peasants to say no to a national policy which winks at torture in Abu Ghraib and continues to support regimes in places like Columbia where peasants are being killed in wars fueled by American tax dollars. My understanding of Jesus’ call to be peacemakers necessitates taking risks for peace in a similar manner to the witness for racial justice by Martin Luther King, the stand for women suffrage by Susan B. Anthony, and the nonviolent actions which, I believe, helped end the Vietnam war.

Many people view such acts of civil disobedience to be political statements. However, my choice to carry my witness to Fort Benning was/is primarily a result of my faith rather than my politics. My intention was to walk to the location of the School of the Americas to both pray for peace as well as a prayer of confession for my complicity in the violence symbolized by that training school for Latin American military personnel. To the degree that my lifestyle and consumption patterns continue to create hunger and economic disparity in our world, the mere fact of my identity as a citizen of the U.S. has made me complicit in the actions taken by our elected leaders. Our nation spends more on its military than the next 25 nations combined because our leaders think we want them to protect our excess consumption of the world’s food, energy, and other natural resources. My “crossing the line” is an attempt to “put legs on my prayers” by putting my body in the way of “business as usual”. [More info about SOA is available at]

I am scheduled for trial on Jan. 30 and face up to 6 months in prison and/or a $5,000. fine. I am immensely grateful to have a spouse, sons, and a faith community who support me in taking these steps for a better world. If in some small way, my action (along with 36 others, mostly also people of deep Christian commitment) helps lessen our readiness to use military force against the poor of the world, the probability of 6 months in a federal prison is worth it. I pray that attempting to act on my faith will be seen as an acceptable offering to our loving Creator who longs for all peoples to be reconciled.