Mercenaries In Our Midst?

Mercenaries in Our Midst? By Steve Clemens. July 29, 2009

It looked like they were expecting trouble. The two Eden Prairie police officers each wore the following: a handgun, two additional clips of ammunition, a taser, a collapsible baton, a canister of chemical agent (likely pepper spray), two sets of handcuffs, plus a couple items around their waists I couldn’t readily identify.

Who were they protecting, and why?

Every Wednesday morning from 7-8 AM, a group of 20-40 people, most of them years, if not decades, beyond 50, gather to vigil by the entrance to Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Minnesota’s largest weapons manufacturer. Ever since this war profiteer moved from Edina to Eden Prairie a little more than two years ago, this maker of cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions has hired cops from the local city government to be stationed at the driveway entrance to their corporate headquarters off Flying Cloud Drive, just to the north of Valley View.

Typically, the contingent of two uniformed cops seem armed primarily with just their service weapon holstered at their side so I was quite taken aback by the plethora of weapons displayed around their waists today. Over the past two years there have been several arrests for trespass, most notably the past two Augusts when the company hosts its Annual Shareholders Meeting. All of those arrested at those events were shareholders who had received invitations to attend the meeting only to be told when they arrived that they could not attend and would be arrested if they didn’t leave. Those who were arrested have consistently remained nonviolent.

It is the contention of many of the regular weekly vigilers that some of the weapons made by ATK are illegal under International Humanitarian Law (aka “the rules of war”) because of their indiscriminate nature – weapons which kill or injure civilians, poison or pollute the environment, continue killing long after a war has ended, and/or cause inhumane suffering. The language of international treaties, many of which our nation has not only signed and ratified but in many cases had a major hand in drafting, identify the manufacture, sale, stockpiling, and use of such weapons as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity”- thus making Dan Murphy, the retired Admiral and CEO of ATK a “war criminal”.

So, if the company is hiring “armed enforcers” (off-duty police) to help protect a criminal enterprise and its leader, is it morally different than a drug or mafia kingpin using his thugs to “protect his turf”? When police are hired in this case, is it significantly different than a mercenary, a “hired gun” in the service of a corrupt dictator?

But it still begs the question: why the “overkill” of weapons when “protecting” this company from a group with a long record of nonviolent protest? Does carrying all those weapons encourage their use at some point?

(Thanks to Tom Bottolene of AlliantACTION for the photos)

What I Meant To Say.

What I Meant To Say by Steve Clemens. July 23, 2009

In all my 35 years of civil disobedience actions, until this week I had never pled “guilty”. Usually I would defend myself if there weren’t a pro bono lawyer representing other defendants. Often the charges have been dismissed prior to trial and three times I’ve been found “not guilty” by a jury. When a Judge or jury finds me guilty, there is an opportunity to make a statement to the Court prior to sentencing. When I accepted a plea bargain arranged by our pro bono, National Lawyers Guild lawyer this week, I didn’t realize I wouldn’t have an opportunity to explain to the Court why I chose to be arrested. So, for the record, here is what I meant to say.

I don’t feel guilty and I am not ashamed of my actions on May 6th, the day 31 of us nonviolently blocked the driveway at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deportation Center in Bloomington, MN. Our action was to put political and moral pressure on President Obama to stop the practice of deportation and workplace or community raids on those identified in our society as “undocumented workers”.

Please note that identity. These are not “illegal aliens”. No person should be identified as “illegal” solely based on where he/she was birthed. We are talking about fellow human beings, created in the image of God, not some strange, alien life form of some science fiction imagination. These are people seeking gainful employment so they can support their families in the face of the new economic realities impacted by the corporate domination of local economies often passing as “globalization”.

It has become abundantly evident that the political pronouncements by American Presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan about how NAFTA, CAFTA, and other “free trade” arrangements have not brought the promised economic benefits to average Mexicans, Central Americans, or others in the western hemisphere – with the notable exception of the elites within each of the affected societies. When new economic realities forced small farmers off their lands, there has not been readily-available options for those displaced to support their families outside the booming trade in illegal drugs.

For citizens of the United States to “hunker down” behind national boundaries, pretending that we don’t bear responsibility, is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst. Some of us are deliberately uninformed about the economic dystopia being created in our name while others are struggling themselves to keep their own little financial ship afloat while frantically bailing it out by working second and third jobs. Our political system tries to scapegoat and blame the victims, whether they are born here or “immigrants”.

I’m under no illusion that our collective act of resistance to our present cruel, broken immigration system will bring significant political change. Maybe the greatest effect will be on ourselves - the 31 who sat, kneeled, or stood in the driveway until the police hauled us off. I spent 7 ½ hours in police custody. Some spent up to 9 hours. It gave us some time to reflect, prisoners of our own design. Maybe if our Members of Congress or in the Administration sat on hard concrete benches with each other, with no other distractions, maybe they would come up with a more humane policy than one which divides families and criminalizes ingenuity.

I was first offered (through our attorney) the possibility of accepting an offer from the Bloomington prosecutor called a CWOP, an acronym for Continuation Without Prosecution. The CWOP is a legal maneuver to hold a charge over one’s head for a period of time (often 6 months or a year) with the promise to erase the record of your arrest if you aren’t arrested for “the same or similar” during that probation period. It is also usually accompanied with a fine that they claim is for “court costs”. I told the attorney to inform the prosecutor that I couldn’t accept any such agreement unless the government also agreed to forgo any “same or similar” behavior –i.e. meaning a halt to all deportations and ICE raids during that same period. Needless to say, that condition wasn’t not acceptable.

So, the next offer was a plea bargain to accept a reduction in charge from a misdemeanor to a petty misdemeanor (equivalent to a traffic ticket) coupled with a fine of $100 and court costs of $78. In lieu of the fine and court costs, I could agree to one day (8 hours) of STS, “Sentenced To Service”. Our attorney thought this offer was likely to be the “best” offered as a plea bargain and it was being offered to all of us appearing that day, including those with prior arrests and convictions. Often the courts make distinctions between “first-time offenders” and those with some or many “priors”. Our prosecutor couldn’t guarantee that other codefendants from our group would get the same offer if they had a different prosecutor and it was the consensus of the defendants from the previous trial group meeting to try to have all of us treated equally.

Our lawyer told us that if someone with numerous prior convictions were to accept the plea bargain offered, it would put pressure on the other prosecutors to offer the same deal to all the other defendants, most of who had no previous records. It was my original intention to go to trial, seeking to defend myself. However, with the change of the charge from trespass to presence at an unlawful assembly, I would have less ability to argue a “claim of right” defense based on the copy of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that I carried with me when arrested. We also faced the probability that the city would lower the charge to a petty misdemeanor before trial to save the costs and time of a jury trial. While there is still some satisfaction in speaking in court, even if only to a Judge, it is always preferable to have your political case argued before a “jury of one’s peers”.

So why did I accept the plea bargain? If we went to trial, it would be about the 7th of October. I have a tacit agreement with my wife to try to have only one court case at a time (although this was already an exception since the Vets for Peace/RNC trial still hasn’t happened and has been postponed until Sept. 14th). By resolving this case, (and the RNC cse will be “resolved” with that trial), I am now free to chose to act on conscience again in early October when our AlliantACTION group has its annual Gandhi’s Birthday Action at the local war manufacturer’s headquarters.

I’m not under any illusion that STS has anything to do with “service”. It is designed to punish and to identify a punishment as “service” is to bastardize a glorious community-building concept. However, STS or court-ordered “Community Service”, while misnamed, is certainly better than locking folk up in our jails and prisons that are already shamefully over-crowded with nonviolent offenders.

So, on August 21st I report to the parking lot at Ridgedale Service Center for my STS “adventure”. If you pass a group of people wearing orange vests picking up trash alongside the highway - or doing some other task (for which we could pay someone a livable wage!), honk and waive – and then think about a creative way you can work with me to change our immigration policy in a way that promotes human dignity, protects workers, and helps feed the victims of international economic systems which crush the poor.

Conflicted about Michael

Conflicted about Michael by Steve Clemens. July 8, 2009

Anabaptists have been historically known as iconoclasts. Ever since the rise of the Anabaptist movement in the Zurich area of what is now Switzerland and southern Germany in the early 1500s and soon thereafter in the lowland area of the Netherlands under Menno Simons, the group of Christian theological dissidents nicknamed “re-baptizers” by their Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran critics and persecutors had a reputation of walking out-of-step with the popular culture and ethos of their day.

To embrace the blogger name of Mennonista, I have signaled my own identity as a radical who sees at least part of his values and ideas in league with the movement that spawned the present-day Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Sojourners, and others. However, once you let that iconoclastic cat out of the bag, it is difficult to know when/where to stop the critique of the theology and culture and when to join the culture wars or consensus.

Many of the aforementioned groups have been notorious (to me) for their blind homophobia, which, coupled with a healthy (at times!) distain for popular culture, would lead me to suspect there was not a lot of mourning for the loss of Michael Jackson in those circles recently. I don’t think it will be a lead story on Mennonite Weekly Review’s next issue. But how would I know? I’ve left those circles because I didn’t want to waste my time arguing over whom God loves or condemns. For my two cents (and theology), there is no question God loves the androgynous Michael Jackson (as well as his critics). God’s grace and love have been so distorted by Bible-thumpers, Moral Majoritarians, and TV evangelists that I tire easily of those theological bigots who hide behind a Scripture verse or three to justify their exclusions.

But I still come back to the Anabaptist identity as iconoclasts. Parallels have frequently been made between the Hebrew prophets like Micah, Amos, Ezekiel, Jonah, and Isaiah and the early Anabaptists like Michael Sattler, Menno Simons, and Conrad Grebel. Both groups critiqued their societies and found them wanting. Both groups acted out of moral fervor hoping to reform or renew the theological devotion of their people. They were seen as iconoclasts because they spoke and acted against what they thought were perversions of the message of what God demands of his/her followers.

In the past two weeks since his untimely death, the popular corporate media has obsessed on the life and death of Michael Jackson, calling him the “Pop Icon” of our time. Although there are numerous additional uses for the term icon today, in the more distant past, the term was usually reserved for an image of the divine or saints that was to be venerated. So maybe the language of pop culture is correct in identifying this musician/artist/entertainer as an icon. All the enormous attention his death has received give evidence that he was “worshipped” by many.

Jackson’s death has obviously struck a chord within American (and the world’s) pop culture – enough so that our celebrity-driven media has worked overtime, falling over itself trying to cover all the angles: was MJ “black enough” or did his multiple plastic surgeries evidence his self-loathing? Was he a pedophile or merely “strange” when it came to his obsession of sleeping with young boys in his bed? Did his father abuse him and, if so, would that explain some of his behavior?

Yet the tributes aired by fellow celebrities, actors, musicians and common folk has shown what a deep connection he made for some. His music and dancing clearly brought joy and celebration to millions. Should we celebrate the art as distinguished from the artist himself? Much has been made of his generous charitable donations while others have focused on his lavish purchases for Neverland, including his $500,000 + shopping spree filmed by the BBC.

The maestro who helped write “We Are the World”, who also wrote “Black or White” and other cultural touchstones is also the artist who solidified his fame with the celebrity lament (?) – it is hard to call such a danceable tune a lament – with his best-selling hit, “Billie Jean”. “She’s not my lover, … the kid is not my son” seems to sum up the People Magazine/National Enquirer/Entertainment Tonight celebrity-scandal-driven cultural morass we still find today, 30 years later. Besides the questions raised like “Is Michael really the father of those kids?”, “Who is the birth mother of his third child?”, … we also are fixated on the recent Republican “affairs of State” of the philandering Senator Ensign and Governor Sanford, two Presidential “hopefuls” who have recently crashed and burned because they let their genitals lead instead of their heads.

But last night when I turned on the TV to watch the CBS Evening News, the first 20 minutes of the 30- minute broadcast was devoted to Michael Jackson’s memorial/funeral. This took place on a news day when the recently coup-deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had come to the US to meet with Secretary of State Clinton, our President was negotiating a partial nuclear disarmament proposal with the Russians, and the Chinese government was killing protesting Uighur minority people in the streets. I guess Michael Jackson’s continued unresponsive state is more important news than the Israeli governments continued jailing of a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Mairead Maguire) and a former US Congress Member (Cynthia McKinney) for attempting to take humanitarian aid to Gaza – even though they were arrested and detailed by the Israelis in international waters! Oh, and Robert McNamara had just died – one of the prime architects of the Vietnam War debacle.

To give 2/3 of the evening news to a dead celebrity over these pressing issues makes me want to cry “Basta!, enough!” My friends Bret Hesla and Linda Breitag just released a new cd of some of their music (“What We Do”) that includes Linda’s “Basta!” song. Maybe as fellow musicians and artists they, too, have joined in mourning the loss of Michael Jackson – but as social critics and strong voices for peace and social justice, I can’t help but wonder if they too aren’t saying, “We’ll remember you, Michael, but it is time to move on and work together to make a better world where democratically elected Presidents aren’t arrested by military coups at the behest of corporate oligarchies.

Basta, enough! of celebrity worship which distracts us of the important work we need to do. Yes, we can take some time to sing and dance (if one is so inclined) and celebrate the gifts and talents of creative artists but it cannot be allowed to be an excuse for inactivity on the social/political front lines. The empire wants to keep dispensing the “bread and circuses” to prevent a revolution of the masses being left behind.