Above: December 28, 2016 protest at the Pentagon with life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Daniel Berrigan.
On December 27 and 28, 2016, radical Christian pacifists from the Atlantic and Southern Life Communities gathered for a Faith and Resistance Retreat at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Each year there is a gathering to commemorate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and to speak out about the massacre of children from the past and the present. This retreat honored Dan Berrigan, SJ, who died on April 30, 2016, a friend and mentor to so many peacemakers.
A part of the retreat is an early-morning pilgrimage to the Pentagon, which happened at 7 AM on December 28. The pilgrims carried life-size cardboard cut-outs of Dan, made by the Ithaca Catholic Worker, and a banner with the statement of the Catonsville Nine: “The violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of truth stops here, this war stops here.” Sixteen of the participants gathered on a sidewalk heading to the Pentagon, while others went into the pen set up to hold protesters. All involved sang “The Vine and Fig Tree.” The sixteen were arrested, and charged with a failure to obey a lawful order. The U.S. Attorney at the Pentagon, Paul Embroski, does not prosecute first-time offenders, so just ten of the resisters went on trial on March 2, 2017 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA.
The prosecutor hoped the defendants would plead guilty. Instead, after some dialogue, the defendants came to an agreement to plead no contest, to stipulate to the facts, thus negating a need for a police witness, and to make a pretrial motion for dismissal. Magistrate Judge Ivan Davis would preside at trial.
In 2013, six of us were arrested at the Central Intelligence Agency after delivering a letter, from the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance condemning killer drone strikes, to a CIA representative. Five of us then appeared before Davis for trial. A police witness was given a copy of the letter, and he corroborated the fact that it was delivered to a representative of the CIA. However, Davis would not allow us to enter the letter into evidence. What gives? Of course we were convicted, and then Davis placed us on a year’s probation. He did not impress me as a jurist.
The next time I observed Judge Davis was at a trial of a group of activists arrested at the Pentagon on September 26, 2016. This action was the culmination of a World Beyond War conference the weekend before. His courtroom resolve in that case was as unimpressive as it was in the CIA trial.
The Holy Innocents Ten gathered in Davis’s courtroom, and for the third time I got a chance to observe this magistrate judge. In a pretrial hearing, defendant Carmen Trotta of the New York Catholic Worker presented his motion for dismissal. He implored the judge to take action against the U.S. government for its illegal confinement of prisoners at Guantanamo and the use of torture. He pointed out that President Obama signed into law the indefinite detention bill embedded in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In other words, the due process clause of the Bill of Rights is irrelevant. Such a law is unconstitutional, and the judge has a responsibility to protect the Bill of Rights. Davis was not swayed by the argument, indicating the defendant did not cite any court cases for him to consider. So the motion was denied.
After the court proceedings were completed, Carmen was still looking for a way to convince a legal authority that indefinite detention was legally horrendous. He pointed out that the indefinite detention provision is still contained in the 2017 NDAA.
Another pre-trial argument was made by defendant Steve Woolford. He explained that the defendants hoped to enter nolo contendre pleas. Davis asked why. Steve explained they were not contesting the elements of the police report. The prosecutor then read a statement of facts which would not be contested. However, Davis did not allow a no contest plea, “as it is not in the best interest of the public.” This made no sense to me. After some discussion, the defendants entered not guilty pleas.
The prosecutor’s case was the statement of facts. He emphasized they were arrested for the obstruction of access, not for their speech. The defendants stipulated to the facts presented by Embroski. The judge than found them guilty. Each defendant then made a statement before sentencing.