After having participated in a non-violent direct action to confront Bakken’s boring under the Mississippi River for the Dakota Access Pipeline (read more here), I was arrested and assigned an arraignment date for mid-October. While in Keokuk, I stayed at what was the Mississippi Stand action camp for several days. This reflection touches on some of most poignant moments for me.
About 20 people who had been arrested with me had arraignments scheduled for October 19. We were shuffled in the judge’s room a handful at a time, along with others from Keokuk who were appearing in front of the judge for whatever random things cops had arrested them for.
I had decided to plead guilty because I didn’t want to have to return to Iowa for a trial later, even though the burden would be on the state to prove that what I did constituted a “trespass” conviction—that I was on a specific property at a particular time without a justifiable reason.
About half of the protesters plead guilty to their trespass charges and half plead not guilty. Of those who plead not guilty, all but one requested jury trials. I learned afterward that many people were hoping that if enough people plead not guilty, the Lee County courthouse wouldn’t be able to handle all of the requests for jury trials, and the charges would be dropped. When I heard that, I wished I would have pleaded not guilty.
I later talked with a friend who suggested that clogging up the Lee County court system could lead to some people being further oppressed and trapped in the system. Resources are already strained for public defenders and the court system in general, and when those resources get stretched even further, the people who suffer most aren’t the protesters choosing to get arrested and take it to trial but are instead others caught up in the “justice” system who have no viable alternatives—people who are poor, can’t navigate the complicated system, and a disproportionate number of people who are black or brown.
I think this friend made valuable point. There were two people I watched go in front of the judge that day who were not connected to the protest. One was an elderly man who had shown up to the wrong courthouse twice, and this time he either had the wrong day or the court didn’t have record that he was coming. This person had to sit through an hour and a half of protester bullshit to find out that, once again, he’d shown up at the wrong time or place. Another person who waited through the protesters’ arraignments was a father of five who had several traffic violations. He knew some of them weren’t legitimate, but he couldn’t spare the time away from his family and work and couldn’t risk harsher fines and fees that could result from taking the charges to trial, so he pleaded guilty, again after an hour a half of sitting patiently while protesters took their turns in front of the judge.
I want to be careful that thinking of issues such as these inconveniences for non-protesters (which could be much more severe than the example here) does not lead me to inaction but rather helps me to understand some of the effects of taking particular actions and leads me to more creative and effective confrontations.
Another takeaway from the arraignment was that, as a group, we could have been more strategic. For the tactic of flooding the court system with jury trials to work most effectively, it would have been advantageous for us to discuss the option and its potential results and consequences beforehand as a group, so that some of the people who pleaded guilty might have instead pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial.
We could have also attempted to negotiate with the judge more. One of the last people to go before the judge asked, “Since I’m a water protector and am protecting the water for future generations, could you consider giving me the minimum penalty for trespass?” The judge seemed to be caught off guard and seemed to really consider the request. In the end, he gave the same $250 fine he’d given to everyone, saying he wanted to be consistent. I wonder what would have happened if this question were asked by the first person from our group who stood in front of the judge. Perhaps we could have saved ourselves some money.