(Part Two is at the end of the post)
When Ademo and I walked into the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, MA to bail out a friend last July I had no idea we’d be standing in front of a jury over a year later. But, such is the state of affairs today – when individuals who merely question requests voiced by someone wearing a badge are kidnapped, caged, and threatened with years in a cage and thousands in fines for allegedly engaging in actions that victimized none.
Our options: show-up or not show-up. If we did the latter it’s likely that one day we’d be greeted by men with guns, intent on kidnapping or killing us. We went the former route and as best we could, leveraged our efforts to advance the voluntary society. In the end, we were vindicated and countless other individuals were introduced to the ideas of self-government.
My criminal complaint listed five charges, including two felonies. Ademo faced a felony and a couple misdemeanors. It’s likely district attorney Jeffrey Bengston thought we’d take his plea deal. No dice. Our strategy: win in the court of public opinion.
We proceeded pro se and later were assigned stand-by council over our objections. I felt constrained by the system-imposed and interpreted rules. If the stated goal of the process is to bring to light the truth let’s make that happen. Instead, legal maneuvering took center stage. But that’s to be expected in legal land.
We refused to sign paperwork, and spent many hours doing outreach, connecting with others, brainstorming, and creating and sharing content. We documented the entire process – the meta-post now about the incident has over three dozen posts and the YouTube playlist has over two-dozen videos. Our objective: to strike the root – underscore through the entire bureaucratic process that those involved – whether they wear a badge or push paper at a desk – are responsible for their actions. As Lysander Spooner accurately penned:
The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit – Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do – He does not keep “protecting” you by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that.
Over the past year we traveled back to Greenfield (often times with friends) for court proceedings and a public safety commission meeting. In mid-May we kicked-off our Free State Friendship Tour in Greenfield (the only stop outside the ‘shire). Last week, in preparation for our trial, we were on the ground for another week.
Our grassroots impact was without question. It was a catalyst and self-reinforcing. We couldn’t walk down the street in Greenfield without being stopped by others who gave us love or shared their own stories of being victimized by individuals working for the Greenfield Police Department. Business owners allowed us to leave our DVDs and fliers on their counters. Friends hustled our literature to passerbys. A food coop allowed us use of a room for a “Know Your Rights” presentation. One individual who works as a bailiff wished us “Good luck!” when we happened to patron the same diner. And perhaps most-telling, other court personnel who a year ago seemed to view us with disdain now greeted us with smiles.
The trial date approached. I had long ago concluded that it wasn’t the outcome that was important but how we represented ourselves. “Let the chips fall where they may” I told a friend. Whatever the verdict, I know we hadn’t harmed any person or property. And I know we worked hard to share this perspective with others.
That said, obviously a “not guilty” verdict was preferable – being roped-into the arbitrary court process is not fun. In fact it’s downright frustrating due to the unaccountability of those who subsist via the political means. But a “guilty” verdict wouldn’t have been the end of the world. My thoughts on this could perhaps be best communicated by this statement by Martin Luther King – someone else who chose to put natural law before man-made legislation:
Ordinarily, a person leaving a courtroom with a conviction behind him would wear a somber face. But I left with a smile. I knew that I was a convicted criminal, but I was proud of my crime.
Trial began on Monday, July 18th. About 60 friends joined us. Their energy was contagious – it really set the stage for the entire proceedings. By 4pm, after calling three witnesses (Brian Schindler, Chad Sumner and Todd M. Dodge) the “state” rested. Though Ademo and I had subpoenaed six others (Gary Magnan, Leslie Troczynski, Christopher Newborugh, Jordan Lehtomaki, William Gordon, and William Martin) we considered resting due to the strength of our cross-examination and the video evidence. Yet we were told we’d have to wrap-up on Tuesday as there was not enough time for closing statements and jury instructions. It felt as though the opposing team called a “time-out” during a hot streak.
When Tuesday kicked-off both Ademo and I submitted motions that argued that our charges should be dropped since the “state” had failed to prove the elements of each charge. The judge dismissed my resisting charge, leaving felony wiretapping for both of us and resisting for Ademo, both of which carried sentences of up to 2.5yrs.
We gave closing arguments. I began with a quote from my buddy Nathan Larson: “When we behave ethically we should do so confidently.” I outlined that the “state” didn’t meet their burden any of the charges levied against us and more-importantly, that we hadn’t done anything immoral. I ended with a statement by Albert Einstein “Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.”
I had made an effort to connect with the jurors – to personalize Ademo and myself, through eye contact, jargon-free points and including some statements that Bengston quickly objected. During the closing I emphasized self-ownership and acknowledged that while we had asked questions, we hadn’t done anything illegal or immoral. I said that such actions – not blindly obeying others who demand certain actions of you but questioning them – should be lauded, while pointing directly to one juror to hammer-home the point.
That morning I was 90% confident that we’d leave with “not guilty” verdicts. I was even more confident after our closing arguments. Then Bengston gave his purposefully-misleading interpretation of the felony wiretapping statute – ignoring the secretive angle on which it hinged. Lengthy and turgid jury instructions followed. “Would the vagueness and legalese distract the jurors?” I wondered.
The jury of six left to deliberate at 10:45am. Though the woman I thought most-supportive had been made an alternate, I was optimistic due to the non-verbal communication I observed from individual jurors exhibit toward Ademo and me, as well as toward Bengston and the three witnesses. At 2:15pm the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict for each of the three remaining charges. Ademo and I exchanged a hug. Others clapped. Some got teary-eyed. I knew we had many appealable issues but I’m glad the court proceedings ended on this day, and not after another year.
As the jury left the courtroom they were given a standing ovation. For me it was one of the most-powerful things to occur through this entire process. I can’t know for certain the mindset of those six individuals but it seemed like they knew the applause was both respectful and congratulatory for doing the right thing. After the trial one juror – Darcy – was approached by someone in our crew (I was still in the building) and asked his thoughts on the trial. He left wearing a Cop Block shirt:)
Much thanks to everyone who helped us through this arduous process. I’m there for you.
What’s next you ask? We’ll see…
- Strike the root. If you didn’t harm person or property hold your head high and speak the truth.
- Make easy-to-grasp overviews. Don’t assume everyone is familiar or will make/take the time to become familiar. Present content in varying lengths, tones, detail.
- Point cameras at others. Show support and increase their affinity.
- Be timely and delegate. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- Be transparent. Build the community.
- Be creative. Brainstorm. Try a variety of tactics.