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.