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A conspiracy of conscience; Michigan's peace protests.

Peace activists who have demonstrated on the property of one of Michigan's largest defense contractors could wind up spending years behind bars. "It's the first time in the U.S. that antinuclear activists who have committed minor crimes are charged with multiple criminal offenses," points out Julie Hurwitz, an attorney who represents several protesters. "It's obvious that the prosecutor is using those charges to quash the peace community."

Peace groups in Michigan began taking to the streets early last year, shortly after they discovered that Williams International, a firm based in suburban Detroit, makes the jet engines used to power the cruise missile. One Christian group, covenant for Peace, had been involved in other protests, but the Rev. Peter Dougherty, a member of the group, explains, "We decided to concentrate our efforts on Williams, since they were in our own backyard."

Protesters began putting pressure on the firm by using civil disobedience tactics. As their first act, five demonstrators cut through the Hurricane fence surrounding Williams's sixty-three-acre site in Walled Lake and wrote "Christ Lives, Disarm" in ashes on one wall. They also poured ashes on the plant's driveway and dropped photographs of victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in the ashes.

Nobody was arrested, but williams obtained a permanent injunction from the circuit court in Pontiac barring protesters from trespassing on the company's property. In addition, the injunction prohibits activists from blocking the plant's driveway and from encouraging, inviting or enticing anyone else to do so.

Since then dozens of protesters have been arrested, the largest roundup occurring in the fall of 1983, when fifty-three were sent to jail after blocking the plant's driveway. Oakland county prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson, who achieved statewide prominence by championing the revival of the death penalty, charged many of those protesters with conspiracy to trespass, obstruct traffic and disturb the peace. The conspiracy charges elevated simple misdemeanors to felonies, carrying jail sentences of up to two and a half years.

Patterson's action was condemned by the Detroit Free Press and by the Michigan State Bar Association's civil liberties committee. "We felt that Patterson abused prosecutorial discretion," said Leonard Grossman, former chair of the committee. "He acted out of vindictiveness and threatened free speech." Several of the people charged with conspiracy had simply made speeches advocating civil disobedience as an act of conscience.

Civil libertarians also criticize the methods Patterson used to obtain evidence. Last December, undercover detectives from the sheriff's office raided a local church where many peace groups met, seeking evidence against Covenant for Peace. They took Father Dougherty's files, which included his diary and a sign-in book listing names and addresses of activists. The prosecutor also used undercover agents to spy on demonstrators. As Hurwitz asks, "Who knows what information they were collecting, and how it will be used to prevent people ffrom participating in peaceful, legal protests?"

Patterson's methods aren't the only thing worrying civil libertarians. They are concerned about the punishment meted out to demonstrators who violated the injunction Williams obtained banning protesters from trespassing. In June Oakland county Circuit Court Judge James Thorburn sentenced a group of protesters to an indefinite jail sentence for violating the injunction. They were guilty of civil contempt, he ruled, and would have to remain in jail until they promised not to violate the injunction again. Some appealed and were released from jail pending the court's decision. Others were released after they staged a twelve-day fast.

Critics charge that the judge's civil-contempt citations violate the activists' civil liberties. Civil contempt is normally used in situations where a defendant holds the keys to the jail cell. For instance, a father who fails to make child-support payments can win his freedom by paying up. Criminal contempt, on the other hand, is applied to cases where individuals violate a court order. The penalty is up to thirty days in jail.

By citing the protesters for civil instead of criminal contempt, the judge attempted to deny them the right to follow the dictates of their conscience, says Bill Goodman, an attorney who represents several of them. In their appeal the demonstrators claim that by requiring a promise not to violate the injunction, the judge abused his discretion. Currently, the case is before the Michigan Court of Appeals. A ruling is expected in the next six months.

In the meantime, protesters say the campaign at Williams will continue. "Our goal is to stop the engines," says John Zettner of the Detroit Peace Community. To accomplish that, activists will continue to hold weekly vigils outside the plant gates. And there is likely to be more civil disobedience, as well as efforts by those in Michigan to link their movement to campaigns in other parts of the country. Currently, such protests are taking places in Bangor, Washington, and Groton, Connecticut, where activists are demonstrating against the Trident submarine. Other groups are applying nonviolent pressure to defense contractors in Minneapolis; Toronto, Ontario; and Orlando, Florida.

The Michigan protesters hope that eventually a national peace movement will grow out of those campaigns. "Most of us feel that political parties are bankrupt and that we need alternatives to that," says Father Dougherty, adding, "Soon, we hope to see the emergence of new resistance communities, based on real human values."
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Author:Schwartz, Jim
Publication:The Nation
Date:Dec 8, 1984
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