Behind closed doors

Defendants to appeal conviction

| January 09, 2008

Judge Edgar Barnes had had enough. At a Dec. 5 trial, Beth Brockman of Durham told the Currituck County district court judge it was ironic that she and six co-defendants were facing jail sentences for trespassing at the North Carolina headquarters of Blackwater USA, while Blackwater's mercenaries in Iraq were protected from prosecution for allegedly killing civilians. 

Barnes ordered the bailiffs to close the courtroom to everyone except court personnel and the defendants, who acted as their own attorneys. Six defendants were tried, convicted and sentenced in secret, which, as the American Civil Liberties Union noted, violated their Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. One defendant was tried and convicted before the courtroom was closed.

Barnes also gave the boot to reporters from television stations and newspapers, including the Indy.

Brockman, a 45-year-old mother of two, and a member of Durham's First Presbyterian Church, was convicted of trespassing and resisting arrest, charges stemming from a protest last fall at Blackwater's Moyock headquarters near the Outer Banks.

Brockman's six codefendants, four of whom are connected to Catholic Worker communities along the East Coast, were convicted of similar charges. All seven received suspended jail sentences and were fined $100 and required to pay court costs. They appealed the decision and are due back in Superior Court Jan. 22 for a jury trial.

Blackwater, which recently changed its name to Blackwater Worldwide, has been under intense scrutiny since Sept. 16, when one of its security details fired on civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing 17 civilians, in an attack witnesses said was unprovoked.

The Oct. 20 protest was intended to symbolically reenact the Nisour killings. Protesters drove a stationwagon riddled with faux bullet holes and splattered with red paint past Blackwater's gate. The protesters pretended to be dead, which led to the resisting arrest charge when the police had to carry them to nearby squad cars.

Katy Parker, legal director for the N.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Virginian-Pilot she had never heard of a North Carolina judge conducting a trial as Barnes did.

"It's a clear violation of constitutional rights, not only of the defendants but the press and public," Parker said. "They have a right to a public trial, so any trial that goes on behind closed doors is a farce."

Brockman and the other defendants have said they will refuse to pay court costs or fines, which will likely land them in jail if they lose their appeal.

 "It felt like a violation to have everybody kicked out of the courtroom," Brockman said. "The judge did not want his courtroom to be used as a forum for our views against the war or for talking the truth about Blackwater. He just shut everything down."

Brockman had come to court prepared to go to jail. She had sent her Christmas cards and bought presents for her family, including her daughter, Catie, 11, and her son Matt, 7. Her husband, Larry, was ready to care for his family alone if she had gone to jail for 30 days, a sentence the judge suspended. 

Last August, Brockman spent five days in a Tennessee jail for an act of civil disobedience at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear weapons facility. She was also arrested a year ago at the U.S. Supreme Court in a protest against the death penalty.

"As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I can't be silent in the face of violence and destructiveness," she said. "I felt that God has called me to these actions because they are hopeful, and they do resist the status quo and empire."

Congregations for Social Justice

When it comes to faith and politics, it's hard to find common ground. However, a group of Raleigh religious leaders may be onto something with the formation of a new group, Congregations for Social Justice. The religious leaders have come together hoping to influence public policy on social justice issues.

Led by the Revs. Jack McKinney (Pullen Memorial Baptist) and Dumas A. Harshaw Jr. (First Baptist Church), Congregations for Social Justice focuses on two issues: affordable housing and support for released prisoners, in hopes they can stay out of jail.

The full group meets monthly at alternating member churches.

"The interesting and exciting thing for me is the diversity in this group," McKinney said. "This group has attracted a real cross section of the community in terms of congregations. We don't have to agree on all matters theologically or politically to care about people coming out of prison or people needing a place to live."

For more information, contact csj.raleigh@gmail.com.

Mattern's Power & Light remembered

In 2001, Sister Evelyn Mattern, then a program associate with the N.C. Council of Churches, convened a statewide conference on climate change. Four years after her death in 2003 at age 62, friends of Mattern gathered Jan. 2 for a luncheon at The Irregardless Cafe to remember Mattern's 25 years of contributions to justice and peace.

One of Mattern's great legacies is now known as North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light. Since 2001, NC IPL (formerly Climate Connection) has been working with congregations throughout the state to educate them about global warming and its solutions. Last year, NC IPL made more than 100 educational presentations on climate change.

At the luncheon, numerous speakers recounted Mattern's vision. Joanne Frazer, Mattern's friend and NC IPL advisory board member, said getting faith communities interested in climate change was "a somewhat lonely task" seven years ago. Yet, today, with catastrophic changes being predicted, climate change and global warming are now "front-page, above-the-fold news," Frazer said. "The seeds that Sister Evelyn planted eight years ago have produced amazing results."

NC IPL is also working to stop construction of Duke Energy's proposed coal-fired power plant, Cliffside, which, if built, would greatly increase the state's contribution to global warming as well as release high levels of mercury and other chemical contaminants, threatening the health and well-being of our citizenry, wrote Alice Lloyd, NC IPL program director.

To receive NC IPL's monthly online newsletter, The Climate Connection, write or call Lloyd at alice@ncipl.org or 828-6501.

Farmworker union takes on tobacco giant

After victories over the Campbell Soup Company and Mount Olive Pickles, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) union is taking on tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds.

Harvesting tobacco is hazardous work, and FLOC says tobacco farm workers need union protection. "Each year, thousands of workers are affected by green tobacco sickness, caused by overexposure to harmful chemicals found in tobacco leaves," said James Andrews, president of the NC AFL-CIO. "Many of these workers receive little or no medical attention. The vast majority of North Carolina farm workers are not covered under workers' compensation insurance."

FLOC has unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Susan Ivey, CEO of Reynolds America.

In a letter to Ivey, FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez wrote: "I sincerely believe that it would be in the best interest of your company to meet with us. I am aware of your good works and philanthropic heart and am counting with resolute faith that you would extend those sentiments to the very people at the bottom of your procurement system."

For more information on FLOC's R.J. Reynolds campaign, go to www.floc.com.

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