Has Maine Set a Precedent on Anti-War Protests?

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Has Maine Set a Precedent on Anti-War Protests?

A unanimous verdict that freed six protesters of trespassing charges may show respect for dissent.

by
Leigh Donaldson

In late April, six peace activists stood victorious in front of Maine's Penobscot County Superior Court.

A jury had acquitted them on criminal trespass charges for failing to obey a police request that they end their sit-in protest at the closing of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins' office in the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building.

It should be noted that six other protestors also had been arrested, but pleaded no contest, paid fines and were released.

These men, dubbed the "Bangor Six," believed that the Constitution was being violated by the Bush administration's involvement in Iraq and sought redress of their grievances as provided by the First Amendment.

According to several e-mails in response to a related article that appeared in the Bangor Daily News, actual trial witnesses stated that all of the defendants took the stand and expressed their opinions regarding their actions and the Iraq war in a calm, deliberate manner.

They were protesting President Bush's proposal to increase U.S. combat troops in Iraq to support a military effort known as the "surge."

Universally, they asserted that they had made numerous attempts to communicate directly with Sen. Collins, to no avail. Their consensus was that the Constitution prevailed over local ordinances.

The jury was instructed to set aside their feelings about the war, and was also allowed to consider whether or not the defendants believed they had "license and privilege" to consciously choose to break Maine law because they thought international law had been violated.

Unanimously, the jury decided in the protesters' favor.

Surprisingly, this precedent-setting case remains below the national radar, even though it's not the first time that Maine anti-war activists have stepped up to the plate.

According to Pax Christi Maine, a Catholic peace movement affiliate, "There have (to date) been 25 peace activists arrested at Sen. Collins' Bangor office and 36 arrested at Sen. Olympia Snowe's office since the beginning of the (Iraq) war."

Local opposition to the "Bangor Six" and other war protesters remains alive and kicking in Maine, despite controversial statements made by Penobscot County District Attorney Christopher Almy, who expressed to the Bangor Daily News his belief that this verdict was an indicator of Mainers' disgust toward the Iraq "debacle."

Almy and others have since suggested that these types of cases might be handled differently in the future, perhaps within the federal court system.

Along with widespread praise, these men have had to withstand rigorous public scrutiny. They have been challenged as being draft dodgers with too much free time, typical liberal elites and so on.

Interestingly, at least two of the six are war veterans, including Dud Hendrick, a Naval Academy graduate and former Air Force officer who volunteered for two tours in Vietnam and who now teaches peace studies at the University of Maine at Orono, and Doug Rawlings, a veteran of combat in Vietnam and an active member of Veterans for Peace.

Other arrested advocates include a college professor, retired school-teacher, a college administrator, a farmer, a carpenter and a nationally known artist.

A prevailing complaint is that, in the eyes of some, these people simply broke the law and should be punished. In their opinion, doing something illegal to make a point doesn't hold water. Trespassing on government property is illegal. Period.

Opponents to this view might suggest that government buildings belong to all Americans, and, as taxpaying citizens we have the right to express our convictions on these properties.

My mind takes me to those 12 selected citizens who arrived at this unanimous verdict. There is no way on Earth to pick 12 people who agree about anything. Consensus is the order of the day in the courtroom.

The reality is that in general, human beings don't like the idea of being arrested for voicing their opinions. Nor do they appreciate being cordoned off to a "protest area" far removed from the officials who should hear their grievances.

Could this trial have been avoided? I think so. All these peaceful citizens were trying to do was express their concerns to elected representatives.

They were denied an opportunity to speak with them and then treated as criminals.

Elected officials, in any office, are accountable to the people who put them there. And, the actions of peaceful objectors do not make them any less American or patriotic.

Public servants from all states must be more responsive to their constituents. They should not ignore the voices of any one of us, especially if they disagree with our views.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book about the antebellum African-American press in the Northeast is due for publication in 2009. He can be contacted at:leighd@lycos.com

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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