A trial began last week in federal court in Binghamton that's drawn little attention so far, but could become huge. It has all the trappings of a '60s anti-war show trial, complete with lines of police separating pro and con demonstrators outside a U.S. courthouse. The only element absent is fiery attorney William M. Kunstler for the defense.
It's also a major test of civil protest against the Bush administration's war in Iraq, something thousands did Saturday in Washington. The facts involving the St. Patrick's Four are not disputed. On March 17, 2003 -- while most of America still backed a president who said an impending invasion was needed to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and prevent their use -- four people entered a Tompkins County military recruiting office and spilled their own blood on the walls, the floor and an American flag.
The government charged the four Ithaca residents with conspiracy and damaging federal property. They face up to six years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The four, two sisters and two men, range in age from 39 to 58; all are well-known regional activists associated with the Catholic Worker movement who have been arrested before in protests. One is the son of a former Binghamton mayor, another is an Army veteran who served in the Marines in Vietnam; the sisters work with the homeless and the poor. Three of the four traveled to Iraq either after Desert Storm or since the latest invasion and talked with American soldiers as well as the Iraqi people. The protesters say their action was designed to save lives on both sides, and to highlight war's evils.
They argue that President Bush illegally took the nation into war and they have a right under international law to protest. A local trial ended in a mistrial last year before a county jury. However, the federal judge in Binghamton ruled the propriety of the Iraq war is irrelevant in the case before him.
Civil protest is rooted in American tradition as far back as the Boston Tea Party and served as the leading weapon people used in more recent fights for racial equality and against the Vietnam War. History shows that defensive leaders in an unpopular war will throw up all matter of argument, but in the end, the protesters are usually correct. Mainstream citizens just as often take longer to catch up.