It must sound absurd, perhaps even unbelievable, that four peace women were arrested and put on trial for attempting to deliver a peace petition to the US Mission to the United Nations. But while our arrests reflect the “shoot first, ask questions later” style of George Bush and outgoing UN Ambassador John Bolton, we ended up teaching the government a lesson in diplomacy.
On March 6, 2006 CODEPINK organized a group of about 40 women, including a delegation from Iraq, and held a press conference in front of the United Nations in New York City to call for an end to the war in Iraq and commemorate International Women’s Day. The group then marched a few blocks to the US Mission to deliver a petition signed by 72,000 women from around the world.
The previous year on International Women’s Day, CODEPINK had delivered a similar petition without incident, with government representatives from the diplomatic office coming outside to greet us in a freak blizzard. This year, to our surprise and horror, we found the building had been locked up to keep us out and we were surrounded by armed police and security guards. After an hour of urging them to either let a small group inside or have someone come down to “just accept the damn piece of paper,” the four women representatives – myself, peace mom Cindy Sheehan, Gold Star Family member Missy Beattie, and Reverend Patti Ackerman – were handcuffed and dragged to a police wagon. We were booked and kept overnight in the over- crowded, roach-infested jail called “The Tombs.” We were charged with trespassing, two counts of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and obstructing government administration.
Nine months later, the trial of the “CODEPINK Four” started in the Manhattan Criminal Court and dragged on for over a week. Day after day, the prosecution trotted out police officers, security guards and US Mission staff to testify that we never intended to deliver the petition but instead had planned to get arrested as a publicity stunt. They insisted that we were trespassing on private property (the US Mission is a government office but is currently housed in a commercial building), that we blocked the entrance to the building, and that we resisted when the police swarmed in to arrest us.
The head of communications for the US Mission, Richard Grenell, was the most absurd of the witnesses. While a videotape we introduced as evidence showed a group of about 40 mostly middle-aged women strolling toward the Mission singing Give Peace a Chance, Mr. Grenell testified that he found the group threatening because “they were wearing pink, they were laughing and they were clearly happy.” When one of our stellar lawyers, Robert Gottlieb, asked incredulously how a happy group of women dressed in pink could possibly be threatening, Grenell gravely replied, “You had to be there to understand.”
In a way, he’s right. You had to be there and then in the courtroom to understand how ridiculous it was for the US diplomatic office to refuse our petition, how absurd it was for the private security to lock down the building, for the NY City police to haul us off to jail, for the DA’s office to pile on extra charges, and for the jury, the prosecutors, eleven witnesses, our wonderful lawyers and ourselves to have to waste tens of thousands of dollars on such a frivolous case. It should have been George Bush, not us, being prosecuted for truly criminal actions that are maiming and killing people every day.
If the government intended to use this high- profile case with well-known “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan as a way to intimidate anti-war activists, the tactic backfired.
The jury acquitted us of the more serious misdemeanor charges and found us guilty of trespassing, a violation akin to a parking ticket. After paying a $95 court fee, we were free. The prosecutor wanted us sentenced to some days of community service – an irony for a group of women who have more or less devoted our lives to community service, but the judge required us only to pay a $95 court fee and set us free.
The arrest also backfired because we left the courtroom outraged that we had ever been arrested in the first place, and that we had been convicted of trespassing for being outside a government office that should be open to the public.
So as soon as the court adjourned, we immediately returned to the same US Mission to deliver the same petition.
This time, when we read our petition outside the building, no one threatened to arrest us. This time, when the same four women tried to get in the building, we were ushered in. This time, the two members of the US Mission staff, who only days before had testified against us, were now waiting cordially in the lobby to greet us. This time, they smiled and accepted our petition. No arrests. No hassle. No bad press for the Mission.
Perhaps this new lesson in diplomacy, coupled with the departure of Ambassador Bolton, can help nudge the US Mission onto a more diplomatic path. For CODEPINK, it only strengthens our resolve to promote non-violent conflict resolution, not war.
Medea Benjamin ([email protected]) is cofounder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace and Global Exchange. She was one of the “CODEPINK 4″ convicted of trespassing.