Day 2 of the Drone Trial in Des Moines


Drone Trial Day 2, With a Verdict by Steve Clemens. June 29, 2014
The jury was out for only 30 minutes – the shortest deliberation I’ve experienced in at least 7 other jury trials. When Judge William Price made clear before the noon break that he wouldn’t permit jury instructions which would allow jurors to consider our justification, it was almost certain to me that we would be convicted. That is why we had started out day 2 of our St. Patrick’s Day 7 Drone Protest trial with what is referred to as an “offer of proof”.
Out of the presence of a jury, the offer of proof is testimony submitted for the record which could be used in the appeal of a case of testimony which is disallowed in the official “evidence” the jury considers in rendering their verdict. Michele Naar Obed was sworn in (actually she affirmed rather than swore the oath which was to tell the truth – but not necessarily the “whole truth”) and took the stand to tell part of her story. She lived in Iraq for three years, working with Christian Peacemaker Teams, first in Baghdad and then in the Kurdish region in the north. She joined CPT realizing saying “No” to war was not enough – she wanted to say “Yes” to something that worked to prevent war and heal its wounds. She told the judge, “I have witnessed drones flying over northern Iraq and I’ve met [extended] family members where an entire family with 5 children were killed in their car after visiting family members in the mountains by a missile fired by a drone. She met another mother whose child was only “pieces” and asked “how can I bury her with so little left?” That woman grabbed Michele’s arm, knowing she was an American, telling her, “Can’t you tell people [in your country] to stop this?” She told the Judge she “has taken numerous opportunities to try to deliver that message from this Kurdish woman and when this [nonviolent] action was proposed, I felt I needed to try to talk about it [to members of the military at the airbase.”
Elliott Adams, followed her powerful testimony with his own. He described volunteering for Vietnam as a paratrooper and had also served in the U.S. Military in Korea and Alaska. After his military service, he traveled to several war zones, including Panama, Gaza, and Grenada to talk to others and see for himself the realities of war. He served in public office for about 15 years, worked in the Fire Department, served on the School Board, done many things in a life-long effort to make this a better world.
“I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I entered the military … and [that oath] has no expiration date. … I went to the Iowa National Guard Base to uphold the law. … to exercise my First Amendment rights and to petition my Government for a redress of grievances. … The rulings of the Nuremberg Tribunals obligates me to act. … Article 6 of the Us Constitution … and Supreme Court decisions uphold International Law as part of our own law.” He went on to cite several US Supreme Court decisions about the relevancy of International Law and referred to the Law of War and the illegality of indiscriminate weapons. He then added that drones also violate US laws as well, citing the War Crimes Act. He referenced the Geneva Accords. As a treaty signed by our government, “It is part of our law, not separate from US law, and it applies in every court.”
His voice cracked and quieted considerably when he got more personal: “When I was in Vietnam, I was tested about whether I would follow small laws – orders from my [military] officers – or follow the big laws,” referring to International laws and norms about warfare. “And I followed the small laws. If someone had warned me, I might not have crossed that line.”  [Referring to that line between acting morally and what has now haunted him for decades since his time in Vietnam – not crossing a property line at the National Guard base.] “I needed to warn my fellow brothers and sisters.”  
The former National President of Veterans For Peace, Elliott Adams, began to list all the ways he’s tried to deliver the message including writing letters to Congress, the President, to the editor. He’s testified before Congress. “The Nuremberg Principles 4 and 7 say I must act.” He described the Hellfire missile [fired by military drones] as equal to 14 sticks of dynamite; it is by it’s nature indiscriminate. Where they are exploded will have “collateral damage.”
He concluded with a plea to the Judge, asking rhetorically, “Where should I try to seek a redress of grievances? At a Starbucks?, at the Salvation Army?, the Post Office since it is a Federal facility? – No, the air base [where these weapons will be operated from].” He lamented the fact that according to the rules of war, if military drones are “piloted” from this Des Moines airbase, this area will become a legitimate military target.
Other defendants were willing to add to the “Offer of Proof” but our lawyers felt this powerful testimony was enough to lay an adequate basis for a future appeal if we decide to go that route. At that point, 8:50 in the morning, the State rested its case and our lawyers entered their motion for a directed verdict of acquittal on two grounds: the State’s witnesses didn’t know exactly where the property line was for the base, claiming it was the responsibility of the Civil Engineers; and, the defendants attempted to raise a justification and the State’s evidence did not show we didn’t have justification.
The Prosecutor claimed he just needed to establish the elements of the trespass defense and argued that “without justification” is not an element unless it is recognized by the court as an affirmative defense. He stated they had “proven it was private property” and the Major testified they were at least “50 yards past [the painted line].”
Judge Price said “when someone is there to petition the government, just having [military] officers telling them to leave is not sufficient.” He went on to point out that we were advised to leave by both the military and the Des Moines Police, saying he felt this was sufficient evidence to give the decision to the jury. “At this point, no justification has been raised [since the offer of proof was not delivered before the jury]. The State can’t anticipate all possible defenses. …Reasonable minds can differ on this.” He stated the case should continue to go to the jury and dismissed the Motion to Dismiss. He said both Michele and Elliott could testify about their personal backgrounds and history but his ruling on the Motion in Limine would continue meaning they couldn’t talk about their “philosophical beliefs” in describing their attempts to deliver it [our letter of indictment] to the military.
“The place to petition the Government is not in this Courtroom but rather the halls of Congress and on the streets of America. It does not give rise to justification to being in a particular place,” the Judge stated.  Funny, but I was always taught in high school civics that the Judiciary was a third and co-equal branch of Government and all three should be held responsible for the failings and oversights and excesses of the other two. I guess not in his courtroom!
The Judge had previously noted that some law students serving as interns at the Iowa Appeals Court were present to observe and looked at them when he remarked wryly, “The Appellate Court has given us no guidance in this matter,” referring to the “without justification” language in the trespass law. After the Prosecutor remarked, “We’re not here to punish speech but to punish conduct. We’re not here about the First Amendment,” Michele said, “I have a question. If we carried chains and a lock [to lock the gates of the airbase closed], would the Prosecutor try to use that as evidence against us?” after the Judge stated he would not allow the letter of indictment we carried into evidence. The Judge allowed that we would be permitted to say our intent was to present that document but said what we carried “was a slippery slope. You could carry a book [and what it to be submitted as “evidence” for the jury to consider].” As a sop to the defendants for ruling against all our other motions, he did allow the photos we carried or had taped to our bodies as evidence – over the objections of the Prosecutor.
When the jury entered the room at 9:40, the State officially rested its case and our defense was allowed to begin. Ruth Cole, a 26-year old member of the Rye House Catholic Worker Community in Minneapolis was the first on the stand even though this was her first trial! She talked about her education in the field of Early Childhood Education, teaching in elementary school and her special interest in helping children suffering from childhood trauma. She described the Catholic Worker values and commitment to hospitality as well as advocacy. She said their goal was to “live your life in a way that creates social justice.” When asked by the Prosecutor [attempting to defeat any “necessity defense”] if she felt in imminent danger while at the airbase, Ruth was clear with conviction in her answer: “I represent more than myself, … my “body” was not in danger but I am connected to others who are.” I was so proud to hear a first-timer when pressed in court to have such an insightful answer.
Julie Brown, a Des Moines Catholic Worker, skated as close as she dared to the Judge’s “philosophical” line when she asked, “How can you mourn your own child who is now just in small pieces?” She told the jury she carried the photo of a child who had been killed in a drone strike “in case they [the military personnel] wouldn’t talk to me. I had to find another way to communicate my message.”
Elliott Adams described his military and post-military experience when questioned by our lawyer. After saying he “felt obligated to go to the base to prevent war crimes; it is my responsibility as a citizen,” he was prevented by the Judge from talking about his belief of “small laws” versus “big laws”. He told the jury he was open to more suggestions about ways he could petition his government, recognizing that this Judge wasn’t interested in performing that function in this trial.
Chet Guinn, a retired Methodist minister, had worked for the church for 44 years and continues to function in ecumenical and interfaith circles. When he attempted to read an excerpt of a statement from the World Council of Churches condemning military drones, he was prevented from doing so by the Prosecutor’s objection. Stating that his birthday was only 6 months different from Martin Luther King, he claimed, “I wanted to inject King’s values into our society today.” As soon as he tried to continue that he believed King would be protesting drones with us today, he was cut off and he wasn’t able to continue about his wealth of experience during Freedom Summer 60 years ago and his life-long work for peace and justice. It was an honor to have this man with us. He told us during our trial prep gathering, “I know I came late [to the demonstration] but I felt it was necessary to have the church present.”
Michele Naar Obed told of her degree in medical pathology as well as her commitment to nonviolence. She told of her decision to join Christian Peacemaker Teams and spending 3 years in Iraq during the recent war. However, she was cut off and not allowed to talk about her witnessing the use of drones and meeting with victims’ families when the Judge ruled in favor of the Prosecutor’s objections.
Eddie Bloomer, another military veteran and member of Vets for Peace told how he has been a member of the Des Moines Catholic Worker family for 21 years. “As a former member of the military, I love my country,” he stated while trying to explain his participation that cold St. Patrick’s Day morning last March.
The Judge called a recess at 10:40, leaving me as the final defense witness. When I got to the stand 15 minutes later, when asked by our lawyer what I carried with me that day, I showed the indictment, and described the blue scarf I wore that day, saying it had been given to me by friends in Afghanistan. I then held up the large photo of Abdulhai that I carried and told the jury he and his friends gave me a letter to carry back to the US to deliver to the President via Keith Ellison, my Congressman, three years ago this Spring. It called on our President (and all other combatants) to end the use of military means and use diplomacy instead. They have never heard back from either the Congressman or the President. I wanted to carry their message to the airbase that morning. I also talked about 4 presentations by a Pakistani Federal Police Officer, Mubarak Zeb, who described how drones make his law enforcement job much more difficult in his home country, especially in the tribal areas.
The lawyers and Judge discussed jury instructions while five of the defendants went to lunch with some local supporters. After lunch, despite our objections, the Judge allowed the State to present a rebuttal witness – a Lt. Colonel who is the Base Civil Engineer to officially establish the base property line. Although none of us testified in any official capacity as to where the property line was, thus no “rebuttal” was warranted, The Judge let him say the property line was 70’-80’ from the fence (not the more than 50 yards testified to the day before by the Major) but he had to admit on cross examination that all of the “Federal Property” keep out signs were posted on the fence and gate, a line we did not cross.
The closing statements were next and jurors were forbidden from taking any notes during them “since they aren’t evidence.” The Prosecutor said “This isn’t the ‘Crime of the Century’ but it is a crime. It is not less of a crime if no one is hurt. … Liberty can only be maintained when laws are enforced. …Motives are immaterial to the fact that they [broke the law].” Michele quoted from the Bible where she said she was instructed that if she had a disagreement with a brother or sister to go to them directly, then go with another, before you go to court. That was what she was trying to do in speaking directly to the National Guard. “Which is more important,” she asked, “property or life? We came to humanize, to bring life, to bring hope. We walked down that drive to change hearts and minds of the people behind that fence. We tried to uphold the Spirit of the law.”
Elliott told the jury that he remains haunted from his experience in Vietnam because he followed only the “small laws.” Glenn Downey, one of our pro-bono lawyers concluded by again talking about lines and boundaries. Finally, in rebuttal, another Prosecutor said they [the State] must prove 3 elements of trespass – “everything else is smoke and mirrors. … The only thing that matters is that they were on that property. We need to take all laws seriously. They chose to get arrested.” No word, apparently that, for him or the State, “all laws” might include the “bigger laws,” International Law, which Elliott and others of us wish the court (and jury) would address.
30 minutes later we had our answer and off we went to jail for reasons of conscience and compassion.   

Jail, Part 2


Doing Time in Des Moines, Part 2 by Steve Clemens. June 28, 2014
Judge William Price bragged about the new, “at least 3 star”, jail that Polk County, Iowa runs. He smiles and exchanges pleasantries with us and our lawyers as the deputies are collecting the paperwork to haul us off to his self-described plush accommodations. Obviously he has never entered as a “paying customer”! I’d love to see if he has the cojones to spend 2-3 days inside, incognito, before he sends anyone else to that jail. Same for the Prosecutor (although, in fairness, he only recommended a fine for our conviction on trespass) as well as all the COs (Corrections Officers) and staff at Polk County’s “finest”.
I write about my jail experience to demystify it, hoping to embolden others to consider civil disobedience and jail witness as another tool in their repertoire of working for peace and justice. 
After 20 hours in the “cooler” (I understand more clearly the street slang for prison/jail after my first frigid stops within the jail), I was handcuffed and chained again to be moved to “BarneyLand”, the euphemism given to another holding way-station in the jail before entering general population (referred to as a “pod”). The name came from its early days when the TV there only played PBS and because of the prevalence of cartoon character shows like the purple dinosaur, Barney, the name stuck; even the guards use it. It has 2-person cells on the upper level and more on the lower level which also includes 3-4 single person cells. My cell had a rolled steel bunk with mattresses on each bed with a built-in pillow device – a great improvement from laying directly on cement! Don’t get too excited – its not a posturepedic or any other chiropractic-approved bedding! The toilet and sink are separate and porcelain. A stainless steel 18”x18” shelf serves as a desk/table with a stool bolted in front. A stainless steel “mirror” completes the ensemble. The cell door has a clear window so I can see the clock outside the COs station, located between two identical “BarneyLand” units.
I am assigned a lower bunk (hallelujah!) and after unpacking the “bedroll” I received before entering the unit, I begin to arrange my new residence by placing my nearly threadbare sheets and blanket on the mattress. I also now possess a towel, washcloth, a plastic cup and a spork. I had asked the night before and again for a Bible but I am told “you have to wait until you get to a pod before you can have one.” After being told by others that you could be in BarneyLand for up to 24 hours, I figured I’d probably remain there to finish my sentence. Of course not. After getting close to 2 hours of needed rest on my bunk (since we were locked in the cells), the CO yells to us, calling us by last name to “come down and get your uniforms – you are going to a pod tonight after dinner.”
I am issued 2 sets of two-toned green pants and shirts, another T-shirt and boxers, and another pair of socks. We are told to change out of the orange jumpsuit and return it to the laundry workers who gave us the clothes. We are again unlocked to come to the main level for dinner to eat at the stainless steel tables and stools bolted to the floor. A ham bologna slice with bread is complemented with cooked carrots, Frito-like corn chips, canned pineapple, blueberry pie, and milk – served on the same molded plastic trays.
By 6:30 we are assembled again, re-handcuffed and chained for the march to our respective pods. I’m assigned to a lower bunk, 630, in North 6. It holds about 60 inmates in 4-man, 2-bunk bays on two levels. Each bay has 3 walls with the front completely open, facing the day room. At the end of the bays on both levels are 4 toilets and 4 sinks on each level. Opposite the bay area are showers and a TV room with hard plastic chairs designed to look like cushioned, living-room-type chairs. The CO has his desk on that wall opposite the bays directly in the middle. In the day area are both phones for expensive calls and video screens for visits. I wasn’t there long enough to see how they work but with others milling about, it didn’t seem to afford any privacy except over the handset.
After I made up my bunk, I took a stroll around to see my new digs. Four guys sitting together at one table ask if I’m in for DWI. Another laughs and said, “I recognize you” and points to a picture of the hefty banker with a mustache on the Monopoly Board Game. When I tell them about drones, only two of the four have ever heard of them and they didn’t see them as a necessary problem. As I explain about my friends in Afghanistan and my friend in Pakistan and their experiences, you can see a light go on in their imagination. When I tell them I chose to go to jail instead of paying the $100 fine (I put it, “I chose to do the time instead of paying the fine”), they each gave me a fist bump and said, “Alright!”
In traversing the pod, I see one guy open a cabinet door and start rifling through paperback books. When he is done, I quickly check to see if there is anything I’d like to read since I’m sure I won’t sleep soundly on my steel bunk – even with a mattress. I find a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and even though I read it years ago, it is well worth and read. Christine and I had just seen a play at the History Theater based on it a month or two ago.
One guy approaches me and offers some instant coffee – a generous offer here since coffee is only available from the commissary in a cost-cutting effort by the jail. I’ve never been to a jail or prison where coffee hasn’t been a staple of the inmate diet! Other ways of taking it out on the vulnerable are evident with the posted notice that any visit to the nurse will incur a charge of $5, to the Doctor $10, Mental Health visit $10, as well as charges for any prescriptions. The big surprise awaits check-out time.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. I was pleased to see the guys had rolled one of the large Brute trash receptacles right in front of the toilet closest to the COs desk. If you need to take a dump, roll the trash can between you and anyone walking by; at least a modicum of privacy. If you want more, wait until after lights out at 10:30 PM and before 5-5:30 AM when they are back on for breakfast. At night only lights at both far ends of the pod are lit. Or, after breakfast and cleanup, most of the guys go back to sleep for several hours so there is less traffic by the toilets.
There are no windows to the outside in the entire prison except two louvered ones about 15’ high on the outside wall of an enclosed rec room. The room itself consists of cement block walls, several Plexiglas windows on the side facing the CO desk, and a cement floor. Some guys use the area for walking exercise but unless you buy some shoes at commissary, walking in the shower shoes is not the best experience. The windows in our rec room are obscured, one louver open in a way you can tell if it is daytime or night but not the weather. But Mother Nature has its own way: early in the morning a loud boom of thunder erupted and I could hear the driving rain. Later in the early afternoon, the thunderstorms returned during time for commissary and a nearby lightning strike darkened the entire prison for about 5 seconds. Several inmates yelled, “jail break!” and the two women distributing commissary got up to run out of the pod – reacting much quicker than the CO. We laughed when the lights came back on as they sighed with relief.  With only the two obscured windows at the end of the pod, it was very dark!
Although the Judge’s order stated I was to be jailed from 4 PM until 4 PM two days later, 4 o’clock came and went. I had all my stuff packed, ready to go since 3, thinking I should walk out the door in my street clothes at 4 and it would take some time to check out of this bed and breakfast. Finally, as the clock ticked on, at 4:08 the phone rang and the CO yelled out, “Clemens”. He patted me down and took me to the pod door where I was once again handcuffed and chained for the march back to the release area. We stopped en route for Eddie to join me and then had to sign to get our property and clothes back. We put on our street clothes and then Michele and Ruth arrived as well. I was asked to sign a form which acknowledged I received my invoice for room and board charges - $195! I told them there was no way I was going to pay such an absurd bill and I’d refuse to sign it. They said, “We’ll bill you anyway.” So, go figure – go to jail for two days because you won’t pay a $100 fine for reason of conscience only to be issued a bill for $95 more than that amount to undergo such indignities.
What do you expect from an empire in the throes of decline and desperation?

Going To Jail As Solidarity


Going to Jail as Solidarity by Steve Clemens. June 27, 2014
I spent 20 hours on the boundary between discomfort and pain. I thought of Martin Luther King writing about redemptive suffering and offered my time in the noisy, cold, boring void of the Polk County Jail on behalf of my despondent and discouraged friends in Afghanistan.
I had watched a nearly 4 minute video Hakim had made of my friends Abdulhai, Faiz, and Zekerullah in Kabul before I left for the second day of our drone protest trial. I wept as I heard the despair they experienced in the wake of the recent election run-off and the continued violence and terror in their occupied nation. Listening to and watching them helped me make the decision to take the road less traveled –well, less traveled by most, except the Catholic Workers. Who else would choose 48 hours in jail over paying a $100 fine?
I had a premonition of what was to come well before the jury returned with its verdict when the Judge ruled he would not allow a Jury Instruction to include the words “without justification” in the charge of Criminal Trespass, despite the wording of the law as passed by the legislature, before the lunch break on the second day of trial. I took off my wedding band and placed it on the key ring with my car’s remote and my house key. As soon as I was found guilty, I gave Frank Cordaro, my friend from the Des Moines Catholic Worker, my iPad, cell phone, keys, wallet, comb, notebook and pens I had used during the trial so I wouldn’t have to book them into “property” at the jail – after quickly texting my wife that I was headed to jail.
I must admit this wasn’t the first time I’ve chosen jail over paying a fine or doing community service without talking to Christine first. I had at least told her it was a possibility - if the sentence was fewer than 72 hours -because I wanted to be able to continue donating blood platelets every two weeks. Jail time for more than 72 hours would mean I couldn’t donate blood again for a year. 
At the last moment before being hustled out of the courtroom I remembered I still was wearing my hearing aids so I handed them to fellow defendant Elliott Adams (who had agreed to pay the fine) to give them to Frank. It is a good thing I kept my Driver’s License since the paperwork generated from the court on my sentencing listed my name as “Douglas Clemens Stephen.” Might be good to have my proper ID to get out of jail on Thursday late afternoon!
We were escorted out of the courtroom by Polk County Sheriff deputies, taken to the lower level of the courthouse, were padded down, surrendered our belts, everything from our pockets (including my “Get out of jail Free” card from the Monopoly Game), handcuffed us, attached a waist chain to the cuffs and added leg shackles on our ankles. We shuffled off to a waiting police transport van with two opposite benches in the rear compartment. The three women had been separated from us in the courtroom so Eddie Bloomer and I ducked and shuffled up and into the van to join two other male inmates who were returning to the jail after court appearances. Noticing my dressier clothes (I had already removed my necktie and given it to Frank), they asked me if I was in for a DWI (Driving while intoxicated). 
When I told the men I was headed for jail for protesting Drones, the first reaction was “You must be one of the Illuminati!” When I laughed as said I wasn’t sure what that was, the guy said, “Of course you would deny it if you were one of them!” As the conversation continued with what military drones were and that the protest was organized by the Catholic Worker, his face lit up and he told us his brother used to go over to that place. He, too, had eaten meals there. And when Eddie told them he had been living and working at the Des Moines Catholic Worker for more than 20 years, I knew we had just made two allies on the inside.
However, when we arrived at the jail, they had us separated from the other two. They had already received either the two-toned green or the orange-and-white outfits with “Polk County Jail” prominently stenciled on both the pants and shirt. They shuffled into one area while Eddie and I, still in our street clothes –minus our belts – were placed into what felt like a refrigerated holding area after our leg irons were removed. We remained handcuffed to our waist chains for this first stop into the bowels of the belly of the beast. It was a room about 12’ x 20’ with concrete benches attached to the two outside walls which were deep enough to lay down. In the corner was the requisite stainless steel sink/toilet combo. Cement floors, cement block walls on three sides with a large glass window on the fourth, brightly lit – this was where we remained over the next 2 ½ hours as others came and joined us. They removed one handcuff so we could eat our supper of 2 hot dogs with rolls, cooked peas, coffee cake, and milk. We each told a guard if we had any medical issues (and that we weren’t suicidal) and then just waited and waited. Eddie and I made a good team together – he told me what to expect as he’d been locked up here for civil resistance many times – and I helped him pull up his way-oversized jeans that he wore from the Catholic Worker donation box. Without a belt and with such baggy pants, the guard had placed the waist chain through a back belt loop and they constantly made his pants sag in such a way that he’d be welcomed at a hip-hop convention. This for a Veteran in his late 60s!
Next, we were herded into a large area where our cuffs and chains were finally removed, we surrender our street clothes and got orange jumpsuits, brown boxers and a T-shirt, socks, and a 3” toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and a comb. We had already received bright orange plastic shower shoes at the jail section of the courthouse so at least we were fashionably coordinated!
Eddie and I briefly saw co-defendant Michele Naar Obed across the room in her two-toned green outfit; no sight of the other two women she left the courtroom with. After our photos were taken, Eddie and I were separated for the duration. He told me to try to get a roll of toilet paper to use as a pillow and I was grateful for his advice.
I was placed in a 9x11 cell with a stainless toilet/sink, a 3’ high partial block wall along its side for minimal privacy, and an 8” raised  cement “bench” that was 2’x5’ where another inmate was trying to sleep in a fetal position with his blanket. (Each of us was told to grab one blanket as we entered this cell.) Throughout the next 17 ½ hours up to 7 other men came and went with most of the time leaving 4 of us in this cell with no mattresses, a bright florescent light overhead, and our blanket. I claimed the white painted “bench” after the first guy got bonded out and tried to make do with the roll of toilet paper he had been using.
It was cold, noisy, and the bright light was constantly on. One inmate was singing loudly next door; another screaming curses and obscenities at the guard because he claimed he hadn’t gotten his phone call. All night long the heavy metal doors opened and slammed shut, people coming and going, and you could hear the guards chatting away loudly outside the cell door. I was miserable. I was cold, I ached. It was impossible for me to sleep but some of the others were soon snoring loudly.
But I kept thinking of the privations and challenges of my friends in Afghanistan to put my plight into perspective. I had selfishly hogged the toilet paper “pillow” for the night hours. About midnight I was told to see the nurse about my medical history and then back again to my cell. I was disappointed that it was only midnight after seeing a clock en route – I assumed at least several more hours had elapsed. I couldn’t read the clock from the cell as the time crawled on slowly.
While struggling to remain warm, trying to nap on the hard concrete with my aching muscles and bones, I thought of my toilet paper pillow as not much better than the rock the Biblical Jacob used during his vision of the ladder rising to heaven. I didn’t have a dream as vivid or insightful but what went through my mind, over-and-over-again, was the song “By Breath” by the perceptive and passionate Sara Thomsen. “By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit – we are all one …” It connected me to the Afghan Peace Volunteers and my co-defendants – now in other cells. Ruth Cole had so insightfully answered the Prosecutor when asked if she felt in “imminent danger” while standing outside the gate at the Iowa National Guard base. She boldly stated she couldn’t separate her “body” from the bodies of all others around the world who were being threatened by drones.
Breakfast came about 5:30 AM as the cell door opened and we were handed a molded plastic tray with Froot Loops, milk, OJ, two pieces of bread and two tubes of peanut butter. Finally, after lunch, 20 hours after being taken into custody, I was cuffed and chained again and told I was to be taken to “BarneyLand”, my next stop in the belly of the beast we call the Prison-Industrial-Complex.

Drone Protest Trial in Des Moines - Day 1

Drone Trial for St. Patrick 7, Des Moines, IA – Day 1

Judge William Price, Iowa District 5C, greeted the 7 defendants facing trial for Criminal Trespass at the Polk County Courthouse. Built in 1902, his regular courtroom was so small that he couldn’t fit in all the defendants or the lawyers – not to mention the 70 prospective jurors and any members of the public coming to support us. Judge Price huddled with our two pro-bono defense attorneys and the two prosecutors while the prospective jurors watched a movie about service as a juror. Next thing I saw was 30 of those jurors filing out of the courtroom and back to the jury pool office. It was discovered that in our type of misdemeanor charge with multiple defendants, we will each get only 2 strikes rather than the 4 we were expecting after a pre-trial discussion yesterday afternoon. With defense and prosecution each getting 14 strikes, and needing a jury of 6, with a reserve in case any jurors were struck for cause, it was decided that we would question 40 jurors rather than 70.

The Prosecution would be handled by David Albretch and Jim Hathaway and our pro-bono lawyers for five of us are Larry James, a former Prosecutor who now handles mostly pro-bono (no charge to the defendants) cases and Glen Downey, a recent resident of Iowa, having moved here from the Pittsburgh area where he was an English Professor before becoming a lawyer who handled many protest/free speech-type cases. He is not a member of the Iowa bar yet but has been given permission to handle our case with Larry’s presence in the courtroom. James is a gregarious and enthusiastic lawyer who also was a former military officer at the air base where we were arrested! Downey shared some of his work defending Greenpeace and other protestors in Pennsylvania as we walked to lunch. Two defendants, Michele Naar Obed from the Hildegard Catholic Worker House in Duluth and Elliot Adams, former National President of Veterans For Peace have asked to go “Pro-se” (represent themselves) so they can retain the right to ask questions of the other witnesses and make their own closing statements. The Judge warned them at the start that they should be aware that we all face a maximum sentence of 30 days in the Polk County Jail so they had better weigh that before proceeding on their own. Both Michele and Elliot are very experienced as defendants in civil resistance cases so they weren’t surprised at the Judge’s attempt to discourage them in going this route.

Voir Dire, the legal term for questioning prospective jurors didn’t start until a few minutes before 11 and the Judge’s questions took us up to a lunch break. Of the 40, there were 4 people of color and the pool seemed to include younger people than my last trial in Winona in February. Normal questions like “do you know any of the lawyers or defendants?, have you ever been a juror before?, and do you have any family members or friends who are police officers?” also included some others likely unique to this case: “have any of you participated in a demonstration?, and do any of you subscribe to ‘Jury Nullification’?” Three or four admitted to the former, including an older man who stated he marched for civil rights in the 60s and was in “peace demonstrations” in the 70s. Later we found out he served in the Peace Corps two years and had helped out at “the Catholic Worker” community in the past! (Can you guess who was the first prospective juror struck by the Prosecution?)

In contrast, a construction worker volunteered that he was responsible for “readiness” with his military unit and felt “harassed” by people opposed to the military mission with which he was engaged. When asked by the Prosecutor how he would respond to someone on his property “who refused to leave”, he quickly smirked and said he’d “turn the hose on them.” The Prosecutor quickly tried to turn his remark into a joke by saying something to the effect of recent “hot” [temperature-wise] days but the man’s demeanor didn’t waiver from grim determination. (He earned his place on our list of those to strike.)

By 2:30 we had selected a panel of three women and three men and the Judge began to instruct them about the procedures for the case. Don’t talk to anyone else (including each other) about this case; don’t do any research on your own about this; don’t watch the news, don’t read the newspaper.   

The trial resumed after the 3 PM break with opening statements by a Prosecutor and a Defense Attorney. Albrecht painted the case as an issue about the right to “exclude others from your property… their decision to break the law has consequences.” Downey countered by observing that there are many boundaries and lines in our world today and they sometimes change. “What or where the line is today may not be where that line is tomorrow, or next year, or even next century… Where one person sees a hard line or boundary, another sees an opportunity for change or advancement.” He concluded that the jurors should listen to all the facts and evidence … “and then you follow the law and your conscience and do what is right” because in a democracy, that is what you do.

Day 1 concluded with 3 witnesses for the Prosecution. Chief Master Sergeant Jeff White was in charge of day-to-day security at the 132nd Iowa Air National Guard Base on the blustery St. Patrick’s Day morning that we were arrested. He described his duties and how he called a higher-ranking officer on duty to issue the order for us to leave after 7 of us stood in front of the closed gate by the base entrance. When asked if the people who were later arrested were “peaceful”, he would only grudgingly say, “they were non-compliant”. When pressed further by Elliot Adams, one very schooled in both military procedure and principled protest, Chief White admitted that no one attempted to go over the fence, under the fence, through the fence or around it. Even though he stated the “defendants blocked the gate”, he later admitted that the military had already closed the gate before the demonstration started and instructed all base personnel to use a different entrance/exit than where the anti-drone protestors were. When pressed about exactly where the base property began and public property ended, he admitted that was the responsibility of civil engineers rather than security forces on the base.

Major Ken Hartman, the Wing Executive Officer who also serves as the Public Affairs spokesperson for the airbase told the jury that he served as “the voice of the Commander” at any protests outside the base. He said the 7 of us were creating a “safety hazard” in that we were “impeding traffic flow” but later admitted the gates were already shut before we “stepped over the line” and no one attempted to enter or leave the base from that entrance while we were there. He was the one to issue the formal warning to us to leave or we would be arrested and he then asked the Des Moines police officers to arrest us. He admitted that it “was all very cordial” and He didn’t remember us asking him to speak with the base commander or to deliver the letter of indictment we carried with us. When pressed, he agreed his did not wish to engage in any conversation with us.

However, Lt. Russell Schafnitz, the Des Moines Police Department Commander of the STAR (Strategic Tactical Response Team) Unit was the arresting officer on the scene. After identifying all the defendants from their photos taken during the arrest and then locating us in the courtroom, he told the jury that the defendants told him they “would leave if they were able to have a dialog with the National Guard members first”. He said we discussed the First Amendment with him as well as our desire to “seek a redress of grievances”. He made a point to shake Michele’s hand after he left the stand while exiting the courtroom after she asked him, “Did you handcuff me?” He replied, I didn’t handcuff anyone that morning and Elliot Adams added how appreciative all of us were by the way we were treated by Schafnitz and the other Des Moines police at the scene.

As the clock approached 4:30, the Judge called it a day, stating we should be in the courtroom by 8:15 tomorrow. Our lawyers want us to gather at 7:30 to discuss an “Offer of Proof” we will submit to preserve some testimony in the event of an appeal since the Judge previously granted a Motion in Limine which states “The defendants may present before the jury the general reason that they were present at the place of arrest (eg; to object to the presence of drones) and the general outcome they were seeking but are prohibited from expounding on the reason they harbor the belief as to why the conduct they were protesting was wrong. This Court finds that as a matter of law the philosophical reasons for the conduct of the Defendants is not justification as a matter of law and is therefore not relevant to the trial of these cases.”