They came, they shuffled, they conquered.
Eighteen "grannies" who were swept up by the New York City police, handcuffed, loaded into police vans and jailed for four and a half hours were acquitted yesterday of charges that they blocked the entrance to the military recruitment center in Times Square when they tried to enlist.
After six days of a nonjury trial, the grandmothers and dozens of their supporters filled a courtroom in Manhattan Criminal Court to hear whether they would be found guilty of two counts of disorderly conduct for refusing to move, which could have put them in jail for 15 days. The women call their group the Granny Peace Brigade and said they wanted to join the armed forces and thus offer their lives for those of younger soldiers in Iraq.
Members of the "Granny Peace Brigade" outside Manhattan Criminal Court today. (Photo:Dima Gavrysh/Associated Press)
The women — from 59 to 91, many gray-haired, some carrying canes, one legally blind, one with a walker — listened gravely and in obvious suspense as Judge Neil E. Ross delivered a carefully worded 15-minute speech in which he said his verdict was not a referendum on the Police Department, the defendants' antiwar message or, indeed, their very grandmotherhood.
But, he said, there was credible evidence that the grandmothers had left room for people to enter the recruitment center, and that therefore they had been wrongly arrested.
He then pronounced them not guilty, concluding. "The defendants are all discharged."
The women, sitting in the jury box at the invitation of the judge, to make it easier for them to see and hear, let out a collective "Oh!" and burst into applause, rushing forward, as quickly as women their age could rush, to hug and kiss their lawyers, Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Earl Ward.
"Listen to your granny, she knows best," crowed Joan Wile, 74, a retired cabaret singer and jingle writer who was one of the defendants.
Outside the courthouse minutes later, the women burst into their unofficial anthem, "God Help America," composed by Kay Sather, a member of a sister group in Arizona, the Raging Grannies of Tucson, which goes, "God help America, We need you bad, 'cause our leaders are cheaters, and they're making the world really mad."
The trial was extraordinary, if only because it gave 18 impassioned women — some of whom dated their political activism to the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — a chance to testify at length about their antiwar sentiments and their commitment to free speech and dissent, in a courtroom that attracted reporters from France and Germany.
Despite the judge's demurrals, the verdict was one in a series of victories for protesters who have been arrested by the New York police since the invasion of Iraq.
While more than 300 people were detained for minor offenses during demonstrations at the 2004 Republican National Convention, few were convicted. Also, earlier this year, a state judge rejected the city's efforts to quash Critical Mass, a monthly bicycle rally in Manhattan.
"I was sure we were sunk," said Lillian Rydell, 86, a defendant who testified during the trial that she went to "the school of hard knocks," instead of college.
"I love everybody," she said. The defendants called themselves "grannies" because they are all old enough to be grandmothers, even if some of them are not, and because in their view, grandmothers are a core American value, as patriotic as mom and apple pie.
Essentially, Judge Ross had found himself with grandmotherhood on trial in his courtroom. He seemed to acknowledge his dilemma when he said, in his decision, "This case is not a referendum on future actions at the location in question, on police tactics nor the age of the defendants or the content of their message."
He said he did not fault the police for making a decision in the heat of the moment to arrest the women last October, but he said that as a judge, he had the "luxury of time and hindsight" in which to consider events.
Before the verdict yesterday, both sides delivered their closing arguments.
The youthful prosecutor, Artie McConnell, allowed that it would be foolish of him to "cross swords" with a veteran civil liberties lawyer like Mr. Siegel on the First Amendment. "Luckily for me," he said, "I don't have to, because that's not what this case is about."
The case, he continued, was about breaking the law. "These defendants do not get a pass for who they are, no matter how noble their cause may be," he said.
If Mr. McConnell stuck to prose, Mr. Siegel did not hesitate to offer poetry. The defendants, he said in his closing, "tried to alert an apathetic public to the immorality, the illegality, the destructiveness and the wrongness of the war in Iraq." The grannies could not be punished for failing to obey a police command if that command violated their constitutional right to protest, he said.
When it was over, the grannies seemed ready to do it again. "The decision today says the First Amendment protects you to protest peacefully," Mr. Siegel said, addressing his clients outside the courthouse after the verdict. "So — go do it!"
And the grannies cheered.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company