For protesters, a guide to civil disobedience

Before being arrested, anti-war demonstrators knew what to anticipate

April 07, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The instructions were clear: Do not wear a hood. If you are dragged by police you could be choked. No shoelaces. You might have to give them up in jail.

Be sure to eat breakfast and dress warmly with layers. Extra shirts can be used as pillows.

With brief training, the group that now calls itself the Garmatz 40 went to the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse in downtown Baltimore last month and prepared to become the largest collection of anti-war protesters in the city to be arrested for civil disobedience since the Vietnam era.

They succeeded. Rounded up by police, they were handcuffed, carried to jail by van, then separated by gender. They spent about 15 hours locked up in dingy cells that had nothing more than a cement bench and a steel toilet inside.

Nevertheless, several said it was a positive, spiritual experience. One even compared the day to running a marathon. They are planning demonstrations in Baltimore and, possibly, Washington, which could take place as soon as this week.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat," said Mary Fletcher, 39, a student at the Community College of Baltimore County's Essex campus who had never been arrested before March 21. "I am interested in civil disobedience as a line of defense of an unjust system. I would sacrifice myself in the same manner again."

Though some were protest veterans, the majority of the Baltimore demonstrators were not the type who make a profession out of activism. They were novice lawbreakers -- doctors, lawyers, priests and students, many of whom had never seen the inside of a jail cell before.

"I am not an activist, I am not constantly protesting," said Tom Christian, 42, a social worker who lives in North Baltimore and was arrested with the group. "This is one issue that took me into civil disobedience. I feel so strongly about the illegality and immorality of this war."

Christian and others were willing to risk tarnishing their records for the first time, they said, because they had never before felt so profoundly for a cause.

"I would not classify myself as a pacifist," Christian said. "There are some circumstances one might need to fight. This one isn't even close."

The demonstrators were arrested March 21 when they sat on a driveway and prevented a van of prisoners from leaving the courthouse.

Ignoring cries that they are unpatriotic, they became part of an unaffiliated nationwide movement of war objectors who have been shutting down streets and bridges, as well as blocking entrances to buildings since the Iraqi invasion began March 19.

Demonstrations began at 8:30 a.m. when about 60 activists assembled in front of the Garmatz building on West Lombard Street.

Christian, who has run three marathons, said he knew he was going to be arrested that day and readied himself for it as if he were preparing for a foot race.

"I drank orange juice and ate a few PowerBars," said Christian. "It was the same sort of nervous excitement before running a marathon. It's the excitement of being part of something."

As instructed by ring leader and veteran activist Max Obuszewski, all the protesters dressed in warm clothes with layers and drank plenty of water before they got out there.

Obuszewski, a founding member of a group called Iraq Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore, has been arrested more than 50 times. He used an e-mail and letter writing campaign to reach potential protesters.

"I've got a war out there to stop," Obuszewski explained.

When he had a group that seemed dedicated and interested, he held civil resistance training, a four-hour class to explain the dos and don'ts of getting arrested.

For example, do have some form of identification on you, but don't carry more than a few dollars in your pocket. Jail guards take everything but your clothes when they lock you up.

The goal of the Garmatz demonstration, apart from calling attention to themselves by being arrested, was to deliver a letter to Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz requesting action against the war. Obuszewski said he believes the war is a violation of the United Nations Charter.

Protesters chanted slogans such as "Support our troops, bring them home now," and sang "America the Beautiful."

Police on horses arrived, and negotiations ensued for more than an hour. The group wanted to deliver their letter to Motz, but police thought they would be potentially disruptive to the courthouse.

First, police said they could appoint a messenger to deliver the letter to someone on the judge's staff, but then police decided against it, Christian said.

Once the demonstrators realized they were not going to be allowed in, they conferred and decided it was time to get arrested.

They sat down on the driveway of the courthouse, blocking a van of prisoners from leaving.

Police asked the group to leave, and about 20 of them stepped aside.

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