I promised you, dear reader, that I would update when I knew more specifics about what was going on with the legal side of our actions down in Phoenix back in July. I will admit that I have had new details for a couple of weeks now. My reason for delaying a new post was simply that I found myself at a loss; I didn’t know what decision to make.
Here are the facts as I know them:
Regarding the events of July 29, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona, there were two groups who were arrested that day. My group was arrested for the “Wells Fargo Action”; we chanted and sang songs in front of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Phoenix, inside of which Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office occupies two floors. We were charged with obstruction of a thoroughfare, a Class 3 Misdemeanor. The maximum possible sentence is 30 days in prison and up to $500 in fines.
The other group is the “4th Avenue Jail Action.” They chained themselves in a hard blockade across one entrance to Sheriff Joe’s jail. As I was not part of this group, I am also not part of their legal proceedings, so I won’t discuss them here. The remainder of this post will be about the Wells Fargo group and the decisions I am being presented with as a member of that group.
(Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert or lawyer, and I have no previous experience with anything even remotely related to criminal cases. I will explain everything to the best of my ability as an English-major-Museum-Studies-minor-former-science-educator-turned-minister. Once again, please note that none of that has anything to do with law.)
When we stood before the judge on the morning of July 30th after having spent the night in the 4th Avenue Jail, we were assigned a future date for our arraignment—which is the time when we would plead “guilty” or “not guilty.” My arraignment date was set for August 20, 2010 at 10:00am. A small team of lawyers offered to handle our cases for us pro bono. I felt they did a wonderful job of making sure they collected all our information and then kept in touch with us about what was going on. They also said that we did not have to be physically present for our arraignment, so long as they were kept informed of our intention to plea.
However, when the arraignment date arrived, our team of lawyers told us that our case had been “continued” until September 17, 2010. Basically, that just meant it was put on hold while they assembled more information.
On September 3, our Wells Fargo group held a conference call to get our facts straight, ask and answer questions, and get a feel for how the group was responding to everything. (Imagine close to 30 Unitarian Universalists all on the phone at the same time.) On this phone call, a lawyer explained that we have three options to choose from, and every person would be asked to make the choice individually, not as a group.
The three options are:
1) Ask for another continuance.
2) Plead “guilty.” (That would be the end of it.)
3) Plead “not guilty.” (We would go to trial.)
On the surface, it doesn’t look like a difficult decision. A person should know if s/he is guilty or not guilty, right? But let me explain some of the nuances of choices #2 and #3.
In pleading “guilty,” we would be waiving our right to a trial and getting sentenced that day. The lawyer thinks we would most likely be sentenced to the time we already spent in jail—in other words, it would be over, plain and simple. We might possibly be assigned community service time as well.
The catch to this option is that if we decide to plead “guilty,” we have to be in that courtroom in Phoenix at 10:00am on Friday, September 17. That’s four days from now. The only potential exception to that is if the judge would allow those of us who are students in faraway places to submit our plea via another means (such as a letter, a phone call, or a video conference). However, such an exception is rare and not to be counted on.
The lawyer said that we have a good chance of getting the charges dropped if we plead “not guilty” and go to trial. For the Wells Fargo Action, we were charged with “obstruction of a highway or public thoroughfare.” Yes, we were arrested in the middle of the street. However, the police had blocked and barricaded the street before we ever arrived, and they did not take down the barricades until after we had been taken away. Our group was not causing any kind of public safety hazard; the very competent Phoenix Police were redirecting traffic, and no one was in any danger.
After hearing this explanation, I felt torn about pleading “guilty,” because when it was put this way, I didn’t feel guilty of anything. Also, I’m finding it very difficult to feel “guilty” about any aspect of my actions, which to me were among the most holy and patriotic I have ever undertaken.
If we plead “not guilty,” we do not have to be in Phoenix on September 17. However, we would have to be in Phoenix on two future dates—once for the trial set-date (likely sometime in October, 4-6 weeks from now), and again for the trial itself (possibly in December or January, but it’s hard to predict). Neither future date has been set, and the trial itself could be expected to last two days, depending on how many people testify (both defendants and police officers/sheriff deputies). Also, continuing the case to trial means our wonderful team of lawyers will need to start getting paid.
So to help make the decision, I tried to think of all the reasons I had gone to Phoenix in the first place. Namely, I went to stand on the side of love with my immigrant brothers and sisters, using my privilege for the good of those who have none. I decided to risk arrest in order to take the place of families who would otherwise have been torn apart that day. My goals were accomplished on July 29th. So what did that mean for my plea? Would it help any more if I decided to go to trial? After using my privilege to help the oppressed, would I be abusing said privilege—hiding behind it—if I chose to plead “guilty” and be done with it?
Here is what I risk if I plead “not guilty” and decide to go to trial: 1) I risk missing a wedding in which I have already promised to speak. 2) I risk missing my grandmother’s memorial service. 3) I risk not being able to commit to going to the Philippines for my next round of justice work. 4) I risk not being able to spend parts of the holiday season with my family. 5) I risk emotional entanglement and the possibility of missing class time that will result in me falling behind in my seminary coursework and needing to file for extensions in my classes. 6) I risk being caught in a legal struggle that will hang over my head much longer than anyone intended.
Here is what I know I will miss if I decide to plead “guilty” and have to show up in Phoenix in on Friday morning: 1) I will miss my first day of class on Thursday night, where my supervisors for my new ministerial internship will be present. 2) I will miss taking care of my mother after her surgery on Friday morning. 3) I will possibly miss preaching my first sermon to my new congregation, on the topic of the vision I have for my ministry with them over the next nine months together. If this is the case, I will need to arrange for someone to replace me as a speaker on Sunday.
And looking at all of this, I remained unsure of which is the best course to take. How can I weigh the effect of my presence in Phoenix if I decide to go to trial against the risks? Would I be serving some higher purpose? Would I be spreading love and justice to people who need it? Would our message of hope and tolerance be strengthened if I were able to testify before the court and media?
Some of my fellow “Love People” decided immediately and wholeheartedly that going to trial is the right choice for them. So I know there will be at least one trial. The message will get out. And it will be spoken by people whose lives are effected on a daily basis by SB1070, or by people whose maltreatment in the 4th Avenue Jail deserves a lawsuit all its own.
I want so desperately to be with them. I want to drop everything and fly to Phoenix and be reunited with my brothers and sisters of the 4th Avenue Jail. I want to hear their voices, and hug them, and weep with them, and stand by them, and join hands in the struggle for peace and justice and racial equality. I want to see their multicolored faces and bright yellow t-shirts and rejoice in the fierce love that shines in their eyes. I want to feel my heart bursting with pride as I listen to their words of fire and commitment as they stand before the judge or the news cameras.
And then I realized my questions had been answered. I am not called to go to trial in Phoenix this time. It breaks my heart. But my ability to serve the cause will be put to better and greater use if I take the plea and tend to my responsibilities here in Minnesota as a student minister to a lovely congregation and as a seminarian who hopes to travel to the Philippines and Guatemala to serve the global justice cause once more. I will be in contact with a lawyer over the next couple of days to figure out whether my presence on Friday will be mandatory or not.
And I know I will see my beautiful, brave Love People again. The world is too small to keep us apart for long.
(If you wish to donate money to help defray the travel and legal costs for our SB1070 protesters who need to get to Phoenix, please visit www.standingonthesideoflove.org. In the upper right of the main page is a red button that reads “donate.” The SSL campaign will be offering financial assistance to all those involved in this legal action. And as an added perk, your donation is tax deductible!)