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Civil Disobedience: Four Testimonies

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Civil Disobedience: Four Testimonies

Between March 13 and March 19, 1986, 118 protesters were arrested for non-violent civil disobedience at Congressman Carl Pursell's Ann Arbor office. Agenda asked arrestees to write about their experiences. Here are the four responses we received.

Arrestee #1

Approximately four weeks ago, I was one of the 118 people arrested for trespassing at Carl Pursell's office. This was my first time committing civil disobedience, and I found it to be a positive experience.

One of the most important events that drew me to this conclusion was when the arrests began to take place. The police had already given us time to leave the premises. The door was now closed. Our action executed. The video camera was rolling. As individuals in a group, we began to record our testimonies of why we were there. Our reasons ranged from Nicaragua's right to self-determination to setting examples for one's children. I found it to be a very moving experience. Everything people mentioned captured, expressed--actualized my feelings of why I was there. Things I couldn't even put into words materialized before me. I experienced a oneness with people, something that seldom happens in my life.

Making the decision to commit civil disobedience was not an easy one. I had to weigh its possible consequences, i.e. losing my job. I thought of all the people--children, teachers, doctors, farmers--who have lost their lives in Central America for only wanting a better life; one of peace and equality. I thought of my tax dollars causing those senseless murders and realized losing my job was a small sacrifice. Committing civil disobedience was the most powerful statement I could make to show solidarity with the people of Central America, and to show Pursell I do not approve of the way our Administration is handling the situation. 

My advice to people, although little, is to listen to your hearts. Do what you feel is right for you.

I would definitely do civil disobedience again thanks to my father. Before the action, he felt indifferent to Central America. He had no connection to it. After, he decided to vote for Proposal A, the Peach Initiative in Central America. This was the best response of all. I hoped it helped to shed a little light of hope on someone who felt hopeless.

by Roberta Bernhard

Arrestee #2

Being Jewish, and being born just a few years after the end of World War II, the Nazi holocaust was very much a part of the world I learned about as a child. I often contemplated that had my grandparents not left the "old country," our entire family most likely would have been killed. As it was, the part of my family that didn't come over met the same fate as the eleven million other victims of the Nazis. It would send shivers up my spine to look at the old photos my grandmother showed me of her sisters who were taken away. I wondered why such cruelty was tolerated. I wondered if I would have behaved any better if I had been a non-Jewish German or Austrian. Those "good citizens" stayed within the law, but we know how wrong they were.

In cold numbers, the atrocities we are perpetuation in Central America are smaller than those of the Nazis, but they are still happening. They are being tolerated by "good citizens" and we don't have the excuse of ignorance. Our contras are still mutilating, raping and murdering civilians in Nicaragua - with our backing, voted for by our congressman, Carl Pursell. In El Salvador, fascist death squads still "disappear" people in broad daylight, and villages are relentlessly bombed with our bombs, dropped by our planes.

In Guatemala, despite a civilian figurehead, the military still effectively rules and wages a war of genocide against the Indians and peasants, and here, most painful of ironies, it is done with the help of Israel.

Getting arrested for trespassing is an embarrassingly safe manner of protest considering the monstrosity of the matter. Perhaps I did it for my own peace of mind, to assure myself that I'm not being a "good German." Being easier on myself, I can hope that civil disobedience done together with other moral people will show our government that there are people here determined to call attention to their crimes.

by Gregory Fox

Arrestee #3

As a responsible citizen, I feel it is my duty to stand up for traditional American values like the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people. I think the present administration has gotten on the opposite track, pursuing a policy of government for the benefit of big business, not for people. I don't believe that it is a sign of good citizenship to sit back and approve of this policy.

Our government has presented a simplistic picture to us, a black and white Western movie featuring the good guys (Western Democrats) and the bad guys (Eastern Communists). We are led to believe that they only sovereign nations in the world are the United States and the U.S.S.R.

In fact, the world is a much more complex and diverse place. We are being fooled into believing that the issue is democracy versus communism. I believe that that is not the issue at all.

The United States has economic interests throughout Central America and the entire third world. The Soviet Union has different, but equally significant economic interests in the third world as well. These economic interests are the impetus behind the maintenance of dictatorships and totalitarian states throughout the world.

I don't believe the contras are fighting for democracy or that our government believes they are either. We are backing the contras (ex-Somoza National Guardsmen) in order to reinstate a puppet government that can be bought with U.S. aid money rather than the sovereign government Nicaragua has now.

The Nicaraguan people elected the Sandinistas to represent them and just like us they deserve the right to an elected government. I feel strongly that we have no right to be funding a group whose explicit purpose is to overthrow a legitimately elected government. Like us, the Nicaraguans have a right to self-determination. Moreover, the contras rape, torture, mutilate and murder civilians as a matter of course. I am outraged that Congressman Pursell could vote to continue funding these inhuman monsters.

Of course I committed civil disobedience. I am proud to say I took this small step to stop aid to Pursell's "freedom fighters." I would do it again any day of the week.

Civil disobedience is an act I would highly recommend to others. Not only is it the moral thing, it is empowering. Having handcuffs on made me feel more important. It made me feel that a mere trespass at my congressman's office was a significant thing. It made me feel powerful that my friends and I could scare Carl Pursell, Cynthia Hudgins and staff away from their office for a week, just by standing outside their office door singing songs of peace and remembering all the men, women and children who have died at the hands of the contras.

I just hope that more of you out there will take the same small step and show our representatives in government as well as the people out there in TV land what's what.

by Laurie Wechter

Arrestee #4

I didn't follow the format you requested because I don't want this printed as my personal statement. Please use as much as you choose, but only as background for your article on civil disobedience.

I'm certainly comfortable with what I did and willing to defend it and my opinions if necessary. But the importance of the event rests in the fact that 118 people were willing to get arrested to oppose aid to the contras, and to some extent in the diversity of those people--workers and professionals alongside students and academics--rather than on the individual personalities involved. I don't need any personal aggrandizement for doing what I feel is right, necessary, and only significant for me if it persuades others to act in the future.

(cont. on next page)

I'm sure the action had greater personal significance for first time CD'ers. Deciding to break the law is difficult when you have obeyed it all your life. You ask yourself all kinds of scary questions: will I meet with physical harm? Will my family and friends accept my decision? Am I destroying my future? When you finally decide to act despite the possible consequences it can be a very liberating experience. Laws, governments, and jails no longer hold the same mystique. And the personal satisfaction of overcoming your fears and standing up for your convictions can be immense. Those for whom this was a first act of resistance deserve a lot of credit for their courage.

I was arrested on Wednesday along with 39 other people. It was a rather mild event as such events go. And considering Judge Alexander's comments at the arraignment, it seems likely the penalties for conviction will be either 36 hours of community service and $90 in court costs or 15 days in jail. While Nicaraguans face death at the hands of U.S. puppets, the consequences for our opposition seem pretty insignificant.

Everything about the sit-in and arrest was terribly civil. I'm not used to being called "Sir" so often under normal circumstances, let alone by cops while under arrest. They seemed to be extremely concerned about not providing any opportunity for charges of misconduct, let alone brutality.

A couple of hours in wrist bands with your hands behind your back is very uncomfortable and seemed unnecessary. The new plastic baggie tie-tab wrist bands are much more uncomfortable than the old steel handcuffs. It's hard to avoid having blood circulation reduced. I was arrested last fall at Pursell's too, under similar circumstances with even more people and we weren't handcuffed. There were no undue consequences to the cops. It would seem to make sense from the city government's perspective to have an ordinance providing for a different procedure for handling people engaged in non-violent civil disobedience--no handcuffing and no frisks. (Not surprisingly, they didn't turn up any weapons.) It would reduce the radicalizing effect of the experience on the participants. Of course from a left perspective it is probably beneficial for the participants, most of whom have never had a previous run-in with the law, to experience at least some of its more negative aspects, hopefully to appreciate a bit of what non-political arrestees experience regularly. A good test of the humanity of a society is how it treats its lawbreakers.

Why was I arrested? Was it Thoreau who said "in an unjust society, the only place for a just (person) is in prison?" Our government is spending our money to kill people who have done us no harm. That seems clearly and grossly unjust.

I find it ironic that people who are opposing injustice at minor personal cost are so often asked why (although in this instance your motivation to educate is clear). There's the Emerson-Thoreau exchange when Thoreau chose jail rather than pay his war tax: "Henry, what are you doing in there?" answered by, "Waldo, what are you doing out there?" "Why not?" might be better asked of those who are doning nothing to oppose growing U.S. military involvement in Central America.

And in the word of Harvey Cox, "Not to decide is to decide." I don't choose to align myself with the good Germans of the Nazi era or the good Americans of the Vietnam era who turned a blind eye to the atrocities being perpetuated against innocents by their governments in their name. If there's any why to be asked it should be, why aren't we all taking greater risks and breaking more serious laws before U.S. involvement in Central America gets even more deadly?

Do it again? I expect to as long as it seems to be necessary. Advice for people considering CD? Do it if your personal circumstances permit and if the issues seems to warrant it. But don't assume one misdemeanor arrest alleviates your obligation to the Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans, or whichever people the U.S. chooses to victimize next. We are all responsible for all actions governments take in our name with our acquiescence. To assume that through one action you have washed your hands of the crimes of your government is to permit governments to continue to perpetrate injustice in the future. Opposing injustice is the lifelong responsibility of a decent human being.

A word to our prospective jurors: What we did may have been illegal, but it was right. We broke a minor law in an effort to save lives and keep the U.S. out of war. You have the power to decide on the basis of what is right rather than what is legal. A not guilty decision would be a strong message to those politicians who vote for war that they are going against the will of their constituents and that the community endorses civil disobedience to stop U.S. aggression in Central America. A not guilty decision is a vote for peace and justice.