October 24, 2003

Judge Reserves Decision About Activist Arrests

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“The bombing of Iraq was a wrong so great, I could no longer stay on the sidewalk,” said Elizabeth Dissin ’90, a war protester who was arrested on March 22.

About 25 protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for disrupting the flow of traffic. The dozen protesters who pled not guilty to the violation argued their case in the Ithaca City Court on Monday and Tuesday, after which the Hon. Judith A. Rossiter reserved decision, giving her up to 60 days to render the verdict.

The arrestees, along with about 600 other demonstrators, were participating in a symbolic funeral procession to mourn the victims of the bombing campaign the United States had launched on Iraq two days earlier. The group marched in rows of two from DeWitt Park along a route that included Cayuga, Clinton, Meadow and Buffalo Streets. The arrests were made when a smaller group of activists, including the defendants, stepped off the sidewalk onto West Buffalo Street.

When called as a witness of the prosecution, Sgt. James Herson of the Ithaca Police Department said that “about 40 or 50 activists total were in the road. Maybe half of them listened when I asked them to leave the road, and about 15 or 20 locked arms. A few others lay down. I told officers to arrest those who wouldn’t leave the road, and they did so.”

Though the funeral procession was organized, the movement into the street was not, according to Dissin.

“Going into the street was unplanned — pretty spontaneous,” she said.

For many of the defendants, the funeral procession was just one act of many in a crusade to prevent the United States from going to war with Iraq.

“I had been writing letters to my representative and been making phone calls and visiting representatives’ offices and ‘staying on the sidewalk,’ in a way,” Dissin said. “Then the war began anyway and these other things hadn’t been heard — it was too big, too wrong to stay on the sidewalk.”

“I felt we were in violation of international law, and we had exhausted all legislature,” said Pete Meyers, one of the defendants.

A news release published by some of the defendants in the case described the movement into the street as an exhibition of civil disobedience.

“It’s civil disobedience because we’re breaking a local law, but we’re trying to uphold international law,” Meyers said. “It goes back to the Nuremburg trials — that people have the right to do what they can to uphold international law. That’s the point of doing this sort of thing. There is some higher law.”

In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Prof. Peter Suber, philosophy, Earlham College, explains that activists who practice civil disobedience most often violate the law they are protesting, such as segregation or draft laws, but they may also sometimes violate laws which they find unobjectionable, such as trespass or traffic laws.

Suber states that there are a myriad of reasons for practicing civil disobedience. The activists may be trying to publicize an unjust law or just cause, appeal to the public conscience or get into court where they can challenge the constitutionality of a law.

Some of the defendants echoed these reasons. Meyers said he stepped into the street “to stimulate public discussion around the issues.” He added, “I pretty much knew I was going to get arrested.”

According to Prof. Matthew Evangelista, peace studies, the defendants’ plea was a continuation of their civil disobedience.

“In a case such as this, the protesters are clearly driven by their moral beliefs but also by the desire to see their concerns about war and U.S. foreign policy reach a broad public,” he said. “Going on trial and getting the opportunity to express their views in court would be an important part of their civil disobedience, even as acceptance of their sentence, if they are found guilty, is also an important part.”

Toni Sunderland, another defendant, said she believed the group “was trying to prove that [they] had stepped onto Buffalo Street as a legitimate political protest, but not blocked traffic, since it was not a traffic-bearing street at that point. None of us had any intent of causing public inconvenience.”

As the case unfolded in court, one of the central issues that was identified concerned whether or not the activists were indeed blocking traffic. Meyers said “the police had already blocked the street. We were practicing our First Amendment right to free assembly.”

Charles Guttman, who represented all but one of the defendants, explained that “the charge was an obstruction of traffic, which was not their intention; the police blocked the street off well, and they never left the parking lane.”

To argue that the activists were obstructing traffic on Buffalo Street, the prosecution called more than a dozen police officers to the witness stand to describe the events. The officers involved with the arrests came from the IPD, the Cornell University Police Department, the Ithaca College Police Department and the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department.

There were also two short videos of the activists being arrested that were shown in court. Several of the police officers were asked to identify themselves in the video and describe the events that transpired.

The arrested activists were taken to a processing van where they were photographed with their arresting officers. Records of these arrests were also shown to police officers, many of whom identified their arrestees, who were in the courtroom.

The defense presented its case on Tuesday, at which time they called all the defendants, as well as a few other activists, to testify about the events of March 22.

After both sides had presented their cases and closing arguments had been delivered, Rossiter reserved decision. In doing so, she has up to 60 days to render a verdict.

If any of the defendants are found guilty, the court will determine the penalties at a sentencing hearing.

“In theory, they could get up to 15 days in jail or a $250 fine, plus the state-imposed surcharge, which is like a tax,” said Linda Gafford, the assistant district attorney who argued the prosecution’s case. “There might also be some conditional discharges, such as a one-year period where they can’t be arrested again, or maybe some community service.”

Because the charge was a violation, the lowest-level legal charge, Guttman was surprised the case went all the way to trial.

“It was nonviolent, no one was injured, there were no damages and it was a small violation — so why would the D.A. go to trial?” he said. “I was surprised. I’ve been in Ithaca since the late ’60s; it didn’t make any sense to me.”

Gafford said the procedure was typical for the district attorney.

“It is normal. We prosecute so many violations, the bulk of our cases are violations,” she said.

Some of these violations include traffic infractions and low-level drug charges.

Though she has 60 days, Rossiter promised the two sides she would do everything possible to come to a decision soon.

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo