Minneapolis, MN - On January 14, a jury found a group of seven anti-war protesters not guilty of trespassing at a Minneapolis National Guard recruiting office last March. The charges stemmed from an incident that was part of a series of demonstrations organized to mark the 5th anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq. On March 27, 2008, hundreds rallied and marched against the war on the University of Minnesota campus. That afternoon, a group of protesters organized by the Anti-War Committee attempted to enter the National Guard recruiting center located on the second floor of 825 Washington Avenue SE. After finding the doors locked and police waiting, they remained in the hallway and continued their demonstration. Police informed them that "the building owner doesn't want you here," but they refused to leave. Sixteen people were arrested for trespassing.
Seven of those arrested opted to take their cases to trial. The defendants, who range in age from 27-78, each testified on their own behalf with the assistance of attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild. They admitted to remaining in the building after being told to leave, but used a "claim of right" defense to legitimize their reasons for doing so.
The defendants pointed out that preemptive war, like the U.S. war in Iraq, is illegal under international law and that Article 6 of the Constitution compels the United States government to uphold international treaties as the "supreme law of the land." Those who demonstrated also cited the First Amendment, which guarantees the "right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances."
"I believed when I went to that building that I had every right to be there," said Bill Drebenstedt, a former U.S. army reservist and National Guardsman. "I was obligated to express my opposition to an illegal and immoral war." Throughout the trial, the defendants described the impact of the war on both Iraqi and American families, and shared personal stories that compelled them to risk arrest.
Jess Sundin, a defendant who has traveled to Iraq, described conversations with an Iraqi man who was later killed by U.S. soldiers. Her testimony also criticized deceptive recruiting practices meant to entice low income youth with promises of financial rewards and career advancement.
"The reality is that less than one third of National Guard soldiers ever receive money for college," said Sundin. "Veterans make only 85 cents for every dollar that non-veterans make. And one third of all homeless people are veterans. Recruits are being lied to."
Maura Sullivan, 71, testified that her nephew, a National Guardsman, was promised a bonus he never received and assured he would not see combat. One month later, he was deployed to Iraq. Sullivan said her nephew is disillusioned with the war and that "most of the soldiers he knows are questioning it."
Defendants Tracy Molm, of University of Minnesota's Students for a Democratic Society, and Mary White, Debbie Bancroft, and Sarah Martin, all from Grandmothers for Peace, also gave moving testimony.
After a two and a half day trial, the jury declared all seven defendants not guilty of trespassing. Katrina Plotz, an activist who observed the proceedings, called it a "decisive victory for the anti-war movement."