Several friends of mine were arrested recently and convicted of federal crimes. Two were sentenced, and a retrial was ordered for the other one. Their crimes? One laughed during Attorney General Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearing during a peaceful protest against the nominee. The others defended her. Seriously.
Desiree Fairooz, Lenny Bianchi, and Tighe Barry, all members of Code Pink, attended the hearing in January 2017. At one point, Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Sessions' home state of Alabama, said that Sessions' record of "treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented." Fairooz giggled at the absurdity. She said later that it was "spontaneous. It was an immediate rejection of what I considered an outright lie or pure ignorance." Fairooz went on to say that when a Capitol Police officer approached her, she expected to be warned. Instead, she was taken into custody. Bianchi and Barry were arrested for wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits and for defending Fairooz.
The government, of course, said that Fairooz "let out a loud burst of laughter, followed by a second louder burst of laughter." The police, the government added, "then tried to quietly escort Ms. Fairooz from the room, but she grew loud and more disruptive, eventually halting the confirmation hearing." That was nonsense. An eyewitness seated near Fairooz told The New York Times that Fairooz's laugh was little more than a "reflexive gasp" that was no louder than a cough. "I would barely call it a laugh," she said.
Still, the Trump administration, in the form of the Sessions Justice Department, ordered that the three be brought to trial in federal court in Washington, DC, and in May they were found guilty of federal crimes, including disorderly conduct and "parading or demonstrating on Capitol grounds." Both are misdemeanors, but the punishment could have been up to two years in prison, as well as fines and probation.
In the end, Fairooz's conviction was thrown out, while Bianchi and Barry received suspended sentences. The Justice Department, though, ordered that Fairooz be retried. Amazingly, nobody at the DoJ has yet felt compelled to explain to the American people why their tax money is being spent to prosecute people for giggling and for exercising their right to protest peaceably.
But this is the Department of Justice under Sessions. Sessions is ordering his minions to pursue these inconsequential cases. Worse, he's backtracked on sentencing reform and mandatory minimums, on prosecuting undocumented workers, and on expanding the use of private prisons. The dismantling of Obama-era judicial reforms is well underway.
The future may seem dark, but there are several things that we can do, even if the road will be rough. First, and I know I sound like a broken record here, we must demand accountability from our elected officials. As a veteran of Capitol Hill, I can tell you that members of the House and Senate really do react to constituent emails and letters, and they're easily influenced on issues on which they don't have strongly-held feelings.
Second, we have to take to the streets. Mass action attracts the attention of the media, word spreads quickly on social media, and the next thing you know, you have an honest-to-God movement on your hands. Get out there and demonstrate.
Third, and this is tough, but we need to jam the courts. Get arrested. Plead not guilty. Go to trial. Most charges coming out of civil disobedience are misdemeanors. There is rarely any jail time. When the courts are overwhelmed, the authorities often back down and change policy. It has happened in the past and it can happen again. And I can tell you from first-hand experience that jail and prison aren't as bad as you may think they are. (Indeed, I know an 85-year-old member of Code Pink who has been arrested some 185 times for her activism. She has never spent more than one night in jail, and she has never been charged with a felony.)
Finally, it may be prudent to focus on change at the state and local level. I can't imagine Sessions changing his mind on any of these issues out of the goodness of his heart. But real change can be effected further down on the food chain. We can change policy through a thousand cuts. A win is a win. As the great folksinger and activist Pete Seeger used to say, "Take it easy, but take it."
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