Tuesday, April 25, 2006
MORE STRANGE TALES FROM THE BUSH ERA
What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?
By CLYDE HABERMAN Published:
April 21, 2006
(Photo: Peace activist Cindy Sheehan attends a news conference outside the state court building in New York April 20, 2006. The news conference was held in support of 18 grandmothers arrested recently for protesting against the war in Iraq. REUTERS/Chip East )
NO ageism is intended, but we're willing to lay heavyodds that it has been a long while since the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, found someone older than he is to take to court.
Bear in mind that Mr. Morgenthau is 86. He has held his job for so long that it sometimes feels as if he began before they invented Ovaltine. How many 90-year-old drug dealers or mob hit men cross his path? Yesterday, things changed. The district attorney's office pursued a criminal case against a band of women, some of them old enough to call Mr. Morgenthau "sonny."
Not that Marie Runyon, 91, is what you'd call a hardened criminal. Nor is Molly Klopot, 87, nor Lillian Rydell, 86. Nor, for that matter, are any of 15 other women -- a few of them practically kids, no older than 61 or 62 -- who went on trial yesterday in Manhattan Criminal Court, charged with disorderly conduct. The Granny Peace Brigade, they call themselves.
Last October, they descended on the armed forces recruiting station in Times Square. They wanted to enlist, they said. They've been around. Send them to Iraq, they demanded, instead of some 20-year-old who has barely tasted life. When the military, shockingly, showed no interest in signing them up, this Walker and Cane Brigade held a sit-in. The police ordered them to leave. They refused. So officers young enough to be their great-grandchildren handcuffed them gently and put them under arrest. Obviously, theirs was an exercise in street theater, intended to draw cameras and scribblers to record their opposition to the war in Iraq.
The tactic worked. Grandmothers being hauled away in a police wagon is what we in the news business call a story. While the style was somewhat whimsical, the grannies' message could not have been more serious. A similar mixture of soberness and good cheer was evident yesterday at a pretrial pep rally outside the Criminal Court building on Centre Street. Sure, there were denunciations of the war. But there were also photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren hanging from strings around the women's necks. The mood was a contrast to much of the political dialogue these days -- simultaneous monologues, really, often about as witty as a Pat Robertson fatwa.
The grannies are "positive, upbeat, respectful, lovingAmerica," said their lawyer, Norman Siegel, who added, "But they also recognize that we have some fundamental problems that need to be overcome."The nonjury trial that got under way yesterday, before Judge Neil E. Ross, did not have to be. Mr. Morgenthau's office proposed a plea deal that would have allowed the dismissal of the charges in six months provided the grannies, forgive us, kept their noses clean. But the women insisted on their day in court, hoping for a chance to speak against the war from the witness stand. "We are at a very important point in the history of our country," Ms. Klopot said. "It is our responsibility as patriots not to be silent." Whether Judge Ross will give her a courtroom soapbox remains to be seen.
As far as the prosecution is concerned, Iraq is a nonstarter. "It's not about the war," Amy Miller, an assistant district attorney, told the judge. "It's about disorderly conduct."That's not how Mr. Siegel saw it. The purpose of the protest was "to alert an apathetic public," he said to Judge Ross. He also argued that the grannies did not entirely block access to the recruiting center, a point conceded by police officers who testified. And so, Mr. Siegel contended, the order for the women to clear out was not lawful. They had "acted on principle," he said, "in a great American tradition of peaceful, nonviolent protest." Then again, a guiding principle of nonviolent protest is that one must be prepared to suffer the consequences. Age should not matter. If convicted, each of the women could be fined $250 and sent to jail for 15 days. Are they prepared to do the time? Absolutely, said one of the younger defendants, Jenny Heinz, 61. "A number of us have made a decision that we will not accept fines or community service." Of course, a guilty verdict would have to come first. Then Judge Ross, 46, would have to decide if sending some women nearly twice his age to the slammer is really how he wants to be remembered.