A Monona woman was back in the saddle Friday after appearing in court in Washington on Thursday with anti-war icon Cindy Sheehan.
Joy First was one of about 40 protesters appearing in court this week in Washington in connection with the Sept. 26 protest that got Sheehan and about 370 others arrested for protesting without a license.
Joy First (right) leads a group of anti-war protesters to the U.S. Armed Forces recruiting offices at University Square Shopping Mall Friday. First was convicted this week of staging an illegal protest in Washington D.C. with famed activist Cindy Sheehan. (Photo by David Sandell/The Capital Times)
On Friday she joined about 30 activists in a march from Lisa Link Peace Park to the Army recruiting station at University Square in conjunction with "National Stand Down Day," a 15-city action coordinated by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance.
"I'm coming back physically exhausted but spiritually and emotionally strengthened," she said.
Likely wary of a confrontation, recruiters closed the station before their arrival, which organizers said was success enough. The group, which included five members of the clergy, planned to keep the doors closed by standing in front of the office and reading the names of war dead, both American and Iraqi.
At the two-day trial in Washington, which began Wednesday, First was one of a handful of defendants who was designated to speak. And she said she has the distinction of delivering the only statement stricken from the record.
"I believe that Bush is a war criminal and he should be on trial," First said in court as a U.S. prosecutor tried to cut her off by voicing an objection.
First, Sheehan and 27 other anti-war activists were convicted Thursday and ordered to pay a $50 fine and a $25 processing fee for staging the illegal protest, during which they tried to deliver petitions to President Bush, opposing the war in Iraq. The activists argued that the charges infringed on their constitutional right to free speech.
Madison women Janet Parker and Susan Spahn were also arrested. Their court dates were scheduled for January, but since Sheehan and First were in the first of three batches of protesters to go to trial, the media glommed onto the event.
"Even though we were guilty in the end I'm glad we did it," First said. "It gave us a chance to speak out against the war."
First said that after the trial, Sheehan came up to her and put her arm around her shoulder, saying, "Don't worry. We're all in this together and we're going to get through this."
"Cindy Sheehan was just inspirational," First said. "She has such courage and was such a strong leader of the group."
Sheehan, whose son was killed in the Iraq war, and about 370 other protesters were arrested Sept. 26 and charged with demonstrating without a permit. They had marched to the White House to demand a meeting with Bush and to deliver their petitions. When they were turned away, the activists sat on the sidewalk in front of the White House and defied orders to leave.
They were not committing a crime, Sheehan insisted Thursday, a few minutes after she was convicted, according to published accounts.
"We were guilty of nothing," she said outside the federal courthouse. "We were only exercising our First Amendment right."
The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Catharine A. Hartzenbusch, said the Code of Federal Regulations requires a permit for a demonstration on the White House sidewalk by more than 25 people. U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay concluded that Sheehan and the others were demonstrating.
"They violated the regulation, I think, knowingly, intentionally, as a means for obtaining a public forum," Kay told the packed courtroom early Thursday afternoon.
Sheehan, 48, of Vacaville, Calif., was part of the first group to challenge the misdemeanor charge in court. Except for Sheehan, all the defendants represented themselves, and at times the two-day proceeding seemed like a law school class, as Kay tried to accommodate the legal novices appearing before him.
Aided by veteran civil rights lawyer Mark Goldstone and by Sheehan's attorney, Jon W. Norris, the defendants picked a few from among themselves to make an opening statement, question witnesses, deliver closing arguments and make a final, and fruitless, plea for leniency.
Some cases were dropped by prosecutors as the trial got under way. First said that was because the police who arrested them couldn't make a positive identification. That was not necessarily a cause for celebration among those who were off the hook, including a woman who protested, "I don't want to be dismissed."
The judge told her that it was entirely within the government's power to dismiss the charge, with or without explanation.
From start to finish, it was a trial unlike most that unfold in the courthouse, as one defendant after another pilloried Bush from the well of the courtroom and from the witness stand.
Delivering the opening statement for the defendants, Virginia Rodino of Baltimore launched into a denunciation of the war in Iraq, only to be cut off by Kay. "You want to make a political statement, and I'm not going to allow it," he told her.
When defendants took the stand, Kay often was forced to step in, but usually not before the witness-defendant managed a choice comment or two.
Sheehan, who rose to prominence with her vigil last summer outside the president's ranch in Texas, was the last of the activists to testify.
Sitting down on that sidewalk, she said, was the act of a citizen who had - with speeches, faxes and e-mails - exhausted her other options for gaining the ear of the president.
"I have tried to petition my government for redress of wrong, and I have never been answered," she said.
© 2005 Capital Newspapers