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Verdicts Deliver Lesson to Students About Activism
Published on Saturday, June 23, 2001 in the Boston Globe
Plan Colombia
Verdicts Deliver Lesson to Students About Activism
by Jennifer Bayot
 
WASHINGTON - Jacqueline Downing's eyes welled with tears as each of a dozen jurors announced a guilty verdict against her and five other students for unlawfully entering the National Guard Memorial Building here in order to protest US actions in Colombia.

The 21-year-old Downing, from Topsfield, then pleaded; but not for herself.

She pleaded for Colombia. ''People are dying every day! They died this morning,'' the Oberlin College senior said between sobs.

US Superior Court Judge Zinora M. Mitchell-Rankin, a protester herself when she was an undergraduate at Spelman College, said to the defendants: ''You think I don't know your convictions are deeply held? I know.''

Yesterday's decision capped a case that began April 2, when the six Oberlin students chained themselves around a pillar at a meeting room inside the National Guard building to interrupt a conference of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., whose Black Hawk helicopters are deployed in Colombia.

Unlike most cases against protesters, in which charges are dropped, this matter went to trial in the US Superior Court here. The students, ages 19 through 22, defended themselves. And, most striking of all and against the wishes of the prosecution, Mitchell-Rankin allowed the women to describe some of their beliefs while testifying, if those beliefs were relevant to the unlawful entry charge leveled against them.

Having each been detained, if not arrested, at least once at a demonstration, the students argued they acted out of an international tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience to raise awareness and to change policy.

After the arguments, Mitchell-Rankin at one point described when she protested that Spelman did not have a female president.

She told the activists: ''I think it is laudable to stand up for your convictions. But you have to be prepared to accept the consequences ... whether you feel they are fair or not.''

Apologizing for novice courtroom mistakes, the students almost inaudibly presented their case. They mostly argued that they had acted peacefully for something in which they truly believed, arguably defensible under the definition of unlawful entry.

The prosecution pointed out that the six women refused to leave the National Guard building after at least five requests. They stayed in the room more than four hours, while about 100 supporters rallied outside. They unlocked themselves and were then arrested.

Only two of the six women took the stand during the trial, Downing and Sarah Saunders, 20, of Lake Orion, Mich. Each had traveled to Colombia during January with a human rights delegation.

At the trial this week, they tried to testify about the violence and the poisoning of crops there, contending that the calamities are direct consequences of the US aid to Colombia.

Through that aid, the women began to say, Sikorsky will net $221 million by supplying 30 Black Hawk helicopters to accompany fumigation planes and fly American and Colombian soldiers into direct combat.

But Mitchell-Rankin and the prosecution quickly curbed what they viewed as deviations from the allegations at issue.

After roughly an hour of deliberation, the jury declared the defendants guilty of unlawful entry. They could have faced up to six months of jail, but the prosecution then sought a weekend of jail time for each. Mitchell-Rankin instead fined them each $75.

''What we maybe did was inconvenience people for a couple of hours,'' said Sarah Bania-Dobyns, 22, of Denver.

''But that's nothing compared with what the people in Colombia have suffered.''

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company

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