Criminal Justice: We're all Busted Here

The first arrests were in October of 1999 when Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Alliance for Democracy and seven others held up signs and spoke in loud voices in the Rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington about democracy being for sale. Then, six of us, who were a part of the Democracy Brigade started by the Alliance for Democracy to protest the way campaigns are financed for politicians in our plutocracy these days, were busted in the same Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. the last week in January. Then, a third Democracy Brigade made up of sixteen of us got arrested there again on February 29. In March the last bunch of us got to go to trial--fourteen friends, all guilty of the same offence. (Two of our number couldn?t make it to the first trial date set and had to get postponements to a later date.) I had a hell of a good time being guilty and I fell in love with a bunch of people and felt real good about myself and I think most of us did, and I want to tell you about it.

What follows are excerpts from the transcript of the court record of our testimony and the judge?s response and a bit of the story of what occurred. I was one of the first to enter a plea of guilty and testify because my last name starts with a B:

Superior Court of the District of Columbia

March 23, 2000

"Mr. Blanton?"

THE WITNESS: I?m Dr. Brad Blanton. I?m the author of a book called Radical Honesty. I have been a Clinical Psychologist in Washington, D.C. for the last twenty-five years. I?m demonstrating in the Capitol against campaign finance corruption in protest of the way the world economic order works.

If we were to take the whole population of the world and put it into a group of 100 people in a room, with all ratios remaining the same, of the 100 people in the room, 80 of them would be ill housed, 50 of them would suffer from malnutrition and illness related to malnutrition, 70 of them would be unable to read and 6 of them would control almost half of the world?s resources. All six of the rich people would be citizens of the United States of America.

It seems to me that if we were, in fact, in a room with 100 people and we got to know each other and see each other and talk to each other and smell each other, that we would probably get these problems handled-- because normal human compassion would come into effect after people actually experienced each other. But with over six billion people on the planet, what maintains the conditions that keep these circumstances in place, is the primary valuing of the bottom line. The people who have the money can afford to buy the legislation necessary to do just that-- maintain the bottom line as a primary value. They do that through financing campaigns for people elected to public office and by constantly influencing them with paid lobbyists.

So campaign finance reform to me is critical to being actually compassionate rather than some kind of phony compassion that?s part of the current political dialogue. So I?m proud to plead guilty. I am guilty as charged for demonstrating in the Capitol Rotunda against campaign finance corruption."

It was late in the day and the judge had been kind enough to have us seated in the empty jury box. The judge, a distinguished looking middle aged, graying man, named Weissberg, had just addressed each one of us personally, one at a time, asking us if we were sober, not under the influence of drugs and if we clearly understood that if we entered a plea of guilty we could get six months in prison and a $500 fine or both. We had all said we understood.

When it came our turn to testify each of us stood when we spoke and sat down again when we finished. We ranged in age from 18 to 76. Somehow in that controlled and formal setting, the words each of us spoke to account for why we were there, had a kind of declarative, definitive ring, like an inscription on a tombstone. Our attorney, who wasn?t in the American Civil Liberties Union for nothing, the judge who was overloaded and a little tired but happy to have a reprieve from much more boring work, and even the government persecutor were actually paying attention to what we said. We guilties were all in love with each other for being brave enough to get there. When we listened to each other speak some of us cried. Even the judge was moved by what we said. As we continued to speak, more and more clarity about what we were doing there seemed to emerge.

As each person?s name was called out it seemed like a roll call of nationalities. We had last names that showed that our little jury box melting pot family were sourced from all over Europe, and several of us had blood in our veins from native america as well. These brief excerpts give some sense of what was said, if not what it was like to be there:

"Mr. Conant?"

"We did not risk arrest lightly, but from the sense that to speak truth to power in the Capitol was our civic responsibility, an action not disrespectful for our country, but rather undertaken from a profound love of it--from the passionate love of the principles on which it was founded and out of the deep fear that these principles are increasingly subverted by the corrupt system which makes Congress far more responsive to the needs of corporate donors than to the people."

"Ms. Cusimano?"

"I would like to pass on a better way of voting for my daughter and children."

"Mr. Cusimano?"

" My family, my friends and neighbors, voting members of our nation have lost faith in our representation of our Government. True Statesmen are left out of the political arena, along with the people?s concerns, needs and desires. We, the people, want our Government back. We, the people, want our country, our democracy back for ourselves and for our children."

"Mr. Demere?"

"Your Honor, I have ten grand children. I?m concerned about their future, the kind of nation they will inherit. The power of money that exerts pressure on politicians eats away at the health of our society. Behind many of our social ills lies the infamous influence of big money on the affairs of state."

When Mr. Demere the elder sat down, his son David was called upon.

"Mr. David Demere?"

"One of his ten grandchildren (nodding at his father), is my daughter who?s now 17, Laquisha Demere, and I named her in honor of Laquisha Mott whose statue is there in the rotunda. I brought my daughter there seven years ago to look at that sculpture. I named her Laquisha because I wanted her to have the same kind of conviction that Laquisha Mott had for justice and fairness and equality. That is why I stood in the shadow of Laquisha Mott in the rotunda with the other 16 activists there, acting out of conscience in an effort to expose and change the corporate oriented big money campaign system we have in our beloved country."

"Mr. Hanmann?"

"That great domed space is replete with pictures and sculptures of history and heroes, it is presumed to be a museum. But when I entered the rotunda on February 29th, I thought I was on the stage of democracy. I misbehaved in the museum of our history in order to confront our future. So the rotunda was for me a platform, a stage on which I sought redress of my grievances and where I claimed the right of free expression and free speech at the very hub of Government? there to protest that political commerce that displaces a Government of ordinary people with the Government of special money."

"Ms. Kenler?"

"Your Honor, I have just a bit of hope left that the state of our earth and the health of all the creatures on it can be helped by our actions. And I really do believe that full public financing of campaigns could bring about what most people want, which is a good life, and this is the best I can do to take that responsibility for myself and for my family and my community."

"Mr. McMichael?"

"We know that unless they?re restrained in the political employment of their wealth, experience shows that the wealthy will come to dominate the society to the great detriment of the non-wealthy, who in all societies, are the great majority."

"Ms. Parry?"

"I do not come here lightly. I do not want to be here. Nor did I want to have to demonstrate in the Capitol Rotunda. I had no wish to be arrested.

I went to the rotunda on February 29th to redress my grievances with Congress because they are not listening and the media is not reporting. I went, Your Honor, because I believe in my deepest of hearts that our democracy is at stake."

"Mr. Price?"

"Unless I openly state my grievances against the democracy killing effects of corporate money in the legislative and electoral processes, I will have, through my silence, negated the sacrifices of democracy?s heroes, including those of my father who served in Germany in World War II."

"Mr. Silver?"

"I think the folks here have summed it up. This is the reform that has to happen in order to make any other reform possible. And it?s the only issue I would do this for. And I do it with great pride."

"Mr. Stanton"

"In 1931 April Crawford and Arnold Stanton came to Washington, D.C. form North Carolina to get married. They got married in the Washington Monument in 1931. They believed in this country. They believed in democracy. They had hopes. Almost 70 years later, I come to the rotunda, their son, because I have to speak out because I feel like my democracy has gone. A lot has happened in those 70 years. Most of what has happened has done more and more to disenfranchise us. I don?t want my grandsons to come here and do the sort of things I did at this time to get attention to get the Government back to the beat."

After Mr. Stanton, the judge took his turn to speak. This is just my opinion, but I think he was aware that he was speaking into a listening created by us and that it was a listening worth speaking into, and that he wanted to actually thank us for being who we were.

"I took guilty pleas yesterday or the day before from a much smaller group, I think four people who were demonstrating for a different cause under slightly different circumstances. And I used the opportunity to engage them as I could, about what it was they were here for and who they were when they were not here. And to some extent, to debate them about some issues that I felt were relevant--although not on the merits of their cause. I would enjoy the opportunity to do that with you folks because you are all obviously very passionate about what you believe in and committed to this issue, and also very articulate in expressing your point of view.

"And if this were a different forum and if time permitted it, I think I would enjoy the intellectual stimulation of getting to know you better and maybe even playing devils? advocate on some issues. But I think that would be self-indulgent on my part at this point. And it?s late and I don?t think we can do that.

"It seems to me the sentence suggested by your attorney is a fair one. You?ve spent five hours of some indignity paying a price for doing what you did, and I don?t see any need to exact a higher penalty. Although there is an addition to that. A cost of $50 which is obligatory? mandatory under the statute for the victims of violent crime compensation fund which every person convicted has to contribute to so that people who are victimized by crime and cannot afford to pay the cost of their injury, can have some fund to draw on to help defray those costs. So that?s what I intend to do.

"The only thing I would add is something that I talked about the other day with the other four. And that is that what I?m not sure of as a judge, and I?ve been doing this a long time, and I?ve also dealt with a lot of, if I can use the term, demonstrator arrests or demonstration arrests. But what I haven?t really thought through clearly in my own mind is whether there should be an escalating price if someone?s conscience compels them to come back again and again and we have to drop everything and conduct court for them as we do. Whether there?s a rule for deterrence and whether it?s even a proper consideration for sentencing court for a criminal act such as this.

"I don?t know how I?ll resolve that, but I state it only as sort of a something for you to think about and maybe as a warning because all of you are obviously so passionate about what you believe in that there my well come a time, whether on the issue or some other issue, your conscience will bring you back to Washington in some otherform of demonstration and there will be another arrest. And if there is, if the judge before whom you appear feels that the proper thing to do, having gotten essentially a ? I don?t mean this in a demeaning way-- but having gotten essentially a free pass the first time, there should be a higher price to pay the second time, then you should prepare yourselves for that.

"Because you all know and one of the reasons I?m required by law to ask you about it before I take your plea is that when you do this sort of thing, the maximum price you could be asked to pay would be six months in jail or a $500 fine, or both. And that is a very steep price and one needs to know that before they decide how to conduct their affairs.

"Having said that, the sentence for all 14 of you is what I?ll call time served, which is intended to reflect the five hours that you were held before you were released and a requirement that you pay $50 to the victims of violent crime compensation fund, which is payable in the finance office in Room 4203.

"Thank you. You can all be excused. As soon as we ? you will have to wait until we give you this form which you take with you to pay the $50 in the finance office and then you?re free to leave."

The truth is, even in that sterile place, in that stale and antiquated system, that completely deadened context where the dead law lives, the spirit of compassion was around. Everyone in the room had been touched by each other?s presence and each other?s words and we were in a place of community and we were happy-- and the judge just couldn?t leave after we were through, and we didn?t want to leave either. He stayed and talked with us for 20 minutes after the trial was over and was, I believe, actually honored to be with us.

A week or so later, one of our colleagues, who couldn?t make it to court that day, got another judge on another day, who did not allow her to testify on her own behalf whatsoever and sentenced her to 5 days in jail and a $500 fine. That penalty was for the same offence we had committed along with her on the same day at the same time.

Two things you can say about the courts and the criminal justice system is this: (1) What happens to you still mostly depends on the judge you get and the mood they are in. (2) The Criminal Justice System is well named.

Commitment to changing the arbitrariness of that system clearly has to be part of what we are about. The judge our group had was an exception to the blindness of the law and stood out because of it. The judge our friend got was pretty much just doing her job as a hireling of the corporate status quo.

In the transcript of our trial the court reporter kept substituting the word "conscious" for the word "conscience" spoken by the judge, and the mistake was more than entertaining. I think consciousness requires that we transcend the limitations of the law and the courts by choosing how we behave independently, and separate from the system, and that we do not cooperate with it out of fear. Somehow we have to learn how to be able to love a bad judge in a bad mood, on a bad day without honoring a dishonorable system. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the same thing it takes for most of us to get along with ourselves about half the time anyway. To love the being I am, in spite of my mind, is why I meditate.

Compassion for ourselves and compassion for others must be achieved independent of the shoulds of our individual minds and the bad laws and systems of society. It has to be worked out in the heart and in the world through honest self-expression and a change of heart. We have to raise hell and fight and yell and write until we can work through to a place of forgiveness of ourselves and others in order to have the power to change the world. So I am going back to the capitol rotunda again to learn some more about that. Individual transformation and social transformation can?t really be separated. You can?t have one without the other.

We were lucky this time?most of us. We got a good judge on a good day this time around. We got a chance to speak up and make our point get to know each other and publish this story. And we got off with just "time served." Maybe we?ll be lucky again. Who knows? This appears to be how social change occurs: Everyone gets busted, including not just us who have the papers to show for it, but also the cops and the court system and the politicians and the businesspeople and the lobbyists and those of you who haven?t shown up yet. Getting busted and acknowledgment of it is the first step toward getting over old models of the mind. Old models of the mind that don?t fit reality anymore, on the individual human level, are called ignorance and are the source of suffering. Old models of the mind that don?t fit reality anymore on the social level are called tradition, heritage, necessity, or the law, and are also the source of suffering. The very tough process of getting mad and getting over it, or getting hurt and getting over it, so antiquated systems of thought and governance can be dispensed with, is called forgiveness. Forgiveness leads to compassion. Compassion leads to freedom. Lucky for us, there is a lot to forgive out there. The process itself may require telling a judge to go to hell somewhere along the way, or a corporation to discorporate, but that?s what we created a democratic society for in the first place, wasn?t it?

So, I say, since we?re all busted anyway, do you want to make it official? You can get some credentials for getting busted to show you were here during these times. Anyone want to come along? We have one of these parties about once a month. I can see us all marching down the corridors of justice, singing about individual and social transformation?"you can?t have one, no you can?t have one, you can?t have one without the ooother." Most people probably won?t know what in the hell we are singing about, but it is a big part of our job to tell them until they get it. Individual transformation and social transformation happen at the same time. Contact the Alliance for Democracy or email me anytime you want to be a part of a Democracy Brigade.

Brad Blanton is the author of Radical Honesty: How to Transform you Life by Telling the Truth (Dell, 1996) and Practicing Radical Honesty: How to Complete the Past, Live in the Present and Build a Future with a Little Help from Your Friends (Sparrowhawk 2000). He is President and CEO of Radical Honesty Enterprises (at and lives in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia.