Claiming Their Rights

Claiming Their Rights: When Nuns, Social Workers, and Librarians Confront The Military Industrial Complex by Steve Clemens. September 11, 2009

It wasn’t the usual group of criminal defendants in Hennepin County’s Courtroom 14D this week where Judge Lloyd Zimmerman presided. Minnesota judges are used to facing defendants who have been charged with drunk driving, burglary, assault, and even murder. And it is a rare occurrence when defendants who face up to three months in jail agree to “stipulate to the facts” of the charges against them before any evidence is presented by the prosecutor. In fact, after the stipulation was entered into the court record, the prosecutor for the City of Eden Prairie rested her case.

After all, the stipulation said both the defense and the prosecution agreed to the “facts”: The nine defendants went on the property at 7480 Flying Cloud Drive on March 4, 2009; they had not been invited and, in fact, were asked to leave; they refused; and the police were summoned and arrested them on the charge of criminal trespass. Only one element of the case was disputed: did the defendants have a reasonable belief that they had a “claim of right” to be on that property despite the wishes of the owner?

The youngest defendant is 52. Three were nuns in their seventies. An elementary school librarian. A retired social worker. An environmental engineer. At least four defendants are grandparents. And not a lawyer among them – they chose to go “Pro-Se”, to defend themselves. An old saying is often heard in the halls of most law schools: “He who defends himself has a fool as a client”. But these defendants thought this was no laughing matter. They sat before their jurors facing fines and jail because of conscience and conviction.

It was where the alleged trespass occurred that holds the key to understanding their determined and principled resistance – the headquarters of the largest Minnesota-based military contractor, Alliant Techsystems. Some of the defendants in the courtroom had begun their protest of the manufacture of illegal, indiscriminate weapons (especially cluster bombs) in the 1960s when Honeywell made them. After nearly twenty years of protest, vigils, and arrests, Honeywell chose to spin off their weapons products into another company, Alliant Techsystems – which is often referred to as ATK, their abbreviation on the stock exchange. That is significant. There is a lot of money to be made in selling both bullets and high tech weapons to a nation whose military budget grossly outpaces the rest of the world. But ATK doesn’t stop there. It markets its deadly products to more than 40 other nations.

Besides the deadly cluster bombs that one defendant told the jury “kills more children” when the “duds” are picked up by them thinking they might be toys, this war profiteer also makes depleted uranium munitions and land mines. Defendants testified about the effects of some of these weapons and cited International Treaties that ban their manufacture, sale, and use.

This is the lynchpin of the defendant’s case: did they have a “claim of right” to be on the property? The testimony from the stand connected the dots. The US Constitution states that treaties signed by our government become the “supreme” law of the land. The Hague and Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Tribunals signed by the U.S. declare weapons which are indiscriminate and kill civilians, damage the environment, and keep killing years after a conflict has ended are illegal. The Nuremberg Principles declare that “complicity” with war crimes and crimes against the peace or crimes against humanity is itself a crime. The defendants spoke about therefore having a solemn responsibility to take nonviolent action to try to prevent the manufacture, sale, and use of these illegal weapons.

What the defendants readily admit is on March 4th, they marched forth – right into the lobby of ATK carrying with them a notebook with the title: Employee Liability of Weapons Manufacturers Under International Law. They intended to hand this loose-leaf notebook to CEO Daniel Murphy or one of several other corporate officers and it contained a letter to him, sections of relevant International Treaties, and some case studies of weapons manufacturers who were prosecuted as war criminals under the Nuremberg Tribunals at the end of World War II. They requested to schedule a meeting with one of the corporate officials but were denied that as well. It was at that point they refused to leave.

Rita Foster, one of three nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, gave the opening statement for all the defendants. She described the actions and intent of the defendants on that morning in March.

Marie Braun was the first defendant to take the stand in her own defense. An indefatigable leader and organizer of the local anti-war movement and member of Women Against Military Madness, she told about meeting a German woman about her own age in the 1970s at a conference. When they were talking about their experiences growing up, the German woman told Marie that she had asked her parents why they hadn’t done anything to stop the Holocaust. Her parents told their daughter they “didn’t know” what was going on. Marie’s new friend told her, “I think they did know something.” They were afraid to act and now their daughter experienced the shame and guilt many Germans still feel today. Marie told the jurors she is now a grandmother and doesn’t want them to feel ashamed because of her failure to act – she knows what ATK makes.

Char Madigan, a nun who has worked with thousands of mothers and children who have suffered domestic violence, took the stand next. She talked about commonwealth versus corporate wealth and greed. She talked about taking responsibility rather than “hiding behind private property or trespass laws”. She said, “Just as property rights don’t protect from domestic abusers, nor should property rights protect weapons makers who violate international law. [Speaking] as a nun, property rights should not protect church officials from covering up pedophilia.” Char was clear that there should be some property rights but they have to be balanced and weighed with other important values, in her case with the value of international law to protect people during war.

John Hynes used to work at Honeywell until quitting in 1971. He was on the inside when Sister Char was vigilling outside! He told the jurors, “I wish someone had given me a copy of ‘Employee Liabilities’ when I worked at Honeywell.”

Kathleen Ruona only testified briefly and reminded the jurors that these weapons endanger all species, not just humans. John Braun, described the design and effects of cluster bombs. When he declared that civilians, especially children, were often victims of “dud” cluster bombs, the prosecutor objected, saying his statement was inflammatory.

Betty McKenzie, the third nun to address the Court testified about the effects of depleted uranium. She told the jury she was not a doctor or scientist but she had read plenty and heard experts talk about the horrendous effects the heavy metal poisoning and toxic radiation released from this newer super-weapon favored by the military. The judge instructed the jury, as he did for most of the witnesses, that her testimony was allowed not as “fact” but rather as to her “state of mind” when the defendant was arrested. It was up to the jury to determine if her beliefs and intent were “reasonable”.

The school librarian told a story about a children's picture book where the main character observes various children in her school being picked on or bullied. When none of her friends come to her aid after being poked fun of, her older brother reminded her that she also didn't " say something." Pepperwolf told the jurors, “I couldn't go back to school and face my students if I had this knowledge, this common knowledge of what these weapons do, and not ‘say something’. That is the title of the book: Say Something. “

Tom Bottolene gave the closing statement for all the defendants. He stated that the US Constitution was written for all the people not “we the corporations” or “we the government”. Since the case hung on whether the defendants had a reasonable belief they had a claim of right, Bottolene asked, “Is it reasonable to believe that this document has any meaning?” He went on to discuss the basis of international law and the rules of war. These were ratified by our government. And again he asked, “Do these documents have any meaning?”

He reminded the jurors that the Nuremberg Tribunals ruled that corporations were liable for their acts; that being told to or asked by the government doesn't excuse those actions. He explained how the Nuremberg rulings became part of the United Nations Charter, another Treaty signed by the United States government. “Is it reasonable to believe that document has any meaning?” he asked again. Then he told the jurors about his friend, the late Sister Rita Steinhagen. When she was on her way to prison for a nonviolent protest, she said, “I have the burden of knowing.”

For Tom, for the other eight defendants, and now the Judge and the Jury –all have the burden of knowing. We can’t tell our children like some German parents did after the Holocaust, “We didn’t know.”

[Just after I finished this article, the jury found all 9 guilty of trespass. The Judge sentenced them to a $300. fine or 24 hours of community service. In my opinion, they have already performed a service to the community with their acts of conscience.]

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