Courtroom camaraderie

Jun 18, 2003 at 12:00 am

What could very well be a historic first took place at the U.S. District Court in Detroit last week. Following the conviction of four people accused of “unreasonably obstructing” access to that same court during a March anti-war protest, the federal prosecutor trying the case walked over and gave one of the defendants a warm hug.

Consider that image a moment: A prosecutor embracing someone just convicted of committing a federal crime. It just does not happen. Ever.

That hug said a lot about the people who were on trial. So did the standing ovation a group of about 30 supporters offered the quartet.

Twenty-seven people were arrested for lying down on the steps of the courthouse during a protest held March 16, on the eve of the Iraq war. Twenty-two of them pleaded guilty. One case has yet to be resolved. But the four who went to court last week — Judith Burkhardt, Deacon Robert Delbeke, Al Fishman, and the Rev. Thomas Lumpkin — saw the trial as a platform.

Representing themselves, they focused on the allegation that their blocking access to the courthouse was “unreasonable.” For them, their action was entirely reasonable. President George Bush was about to launch a war they considered both illegal and immoral. Because their protest was coordinated with others taking place throughout the United States and around the world, they hoped the combined show of outrage might actually cause Bush to reconsider his attack plans. In other words, they didn’t consider it an empty gesture.

Some protesters sought to present a judge with an indictment of Bush, but officers denied them entry. (News Hits thinks maybe the wrong people were on trial for unreasonable obstruction, since the protesters showed no hint of violence or threat.) When denied access, they got down on the steps and did not move until arrested.

In the end, U.S. Magistrate Donald Scheer ruled that no matter how “admirable” the motivation may have been, the violation referred to “reasonable” ease of entry, not the motivation behind the protestors’ action.

Given the choice of a $15 fine plus court costs or performing eight hours of public service plus costs, the four opted to spend a day helping the community. Despite the conviction, they considered their court appearance a resounding success.

“We wanted to publicize the reason we protested in the first place,” said Fishman. “Especially now that the wheels are coming off the reasons Bush used to justify the war.”

When asked afterward about the prosecutorial hug she gave Burkhardt, assistant U.S. attorney Diane Marion explained that she is the daughter of peace activists and was a demonstrator herself during the Vietnam War. Despite her obvious soft spot for protesters with principle, she also indicated her admiration had its limits.

“If I see you back here again,” she warned, “don’t expect things to be so nice next time.”

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