By Elaine Brower
On Monday, May 24th six co-defendants (Elaine Brower, Debra Sweet, Richie Marini, Joan Pleune, Beverly Rice and Sarah Wellington, appeared in a Philadelphia courtroom in front of Judge DeLeon to stand trial for arrests dating back to September 12, 2009.
On that date, hundreds of protesters converged on the "Army Experience Center", a place that literally takes small children and turns them into video thrill-seeking killers, on the taxpayer's dime. If you are not familiar with the place, it was built after the Pentagon decided to shut down five other recruitment centers in the Philadelphia area, and combine them into a high-tech, $14 million facility, complete with 19 gaming stations all equipped with the latest versions of murder software.
The DoD filled the place with nice looking recruiters, which they say are not recruiters, but mentors for the "children" who just want to "understand" today's Army. Really, a "PsyOps" program.
On that date last year, seven protesters were plucked out of the crowd of hundreds which was escorted into the mall by the local Philly PD, and civil affairs personnel, and selectively arrested. All were charged with "Conspiracy and Failure to Disperse". One was a journalist, who battled with the Philly DA and got her case dismissed, but the remaining six waited 8 months for our day in court. Our attorney, Paul Hetznecker, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney, did an amazing job of protecting our freedom of speech, and First Amendment rights.
Considering that we had been escorted into the privately owned mall, but were protesting a federally owned recruitment center, many issues came into play. Mr. Hetznecker spent months preparing his trial, actually serving a subpoena on the AEC to deliver the photos and video tapes of inside the center from that day.
Coincidentally, or not so, the recruitment center had "invited" or "scheduled" a ceremony on September 12th commemorating the events of September 11th, to take place inside the space. Members of the "Gathering of Eagles", "Warriors Watch Riders", and a few other groups who showed up in full biker regalia, dozens of American flags, and signs letting us know we were traitors waited for our convergence. Those of us who gathered at noon and marched to the AEC at 2 PM, didn't find out who was inside until we arrived that morning, and the police hadn't a clue, at least that what Lt. Dennis Koncyzyk said on the witness stand yesterday, that the "counter-protesters" were inside. However, he said he was fully aware of our intentions to assemble and march to the mall weeks, if not months, ahead of September 12th. And so they were prepared, and ready for arrests, ours.
It made for an interesting juxtaposition, the screaming, threatening mob inside the facility, supported by our friendly army recruiters, (see photos here), all decked out in their dress uniforms and medals, with us on the outside peacefully chanting and demonstrating. The Lt. testified that we were "loud" and "disruptive", but our attorney was relentless in asking how "loud" the Gathering of Eagles were in comparison to the "defendants." Of course, the Lt. tried to convince the Judge that we were the problem, but he had a difficult time of it. Judge DeLeon, who runs a very informal courtroom setting, got the picture. He kept referring, almost comically, to those "Gathering of Eagles" people on the inside, with a quizzical look on his face. The Judge asked if the store owners had complained about our noise level, and the Lt. quietly said "no".
The prosecution showed a video of the entire protest, taken by the Philly PD technical unit. The video was played on a laptop, with us all gathered around the witness stand, even though there was a 42" LCD TV with projector directly behind us. However, you could clearly see the police escorting the entire march from the beginning right into the mall, directly to the front of the Army Experience Center.
You could see the "guy with the cowboy hat and flags" as the Judge stated, inside the center. We listened to our chants, and those in the courtroom starting whispering the same "war is not a game." In fact, the Judge had 2 interns next to us watching at the same time, and they were smiling, seemingly enjoying our spirited protest. Once the final warning was issued by the officer in charge, Lt. Koncyzyk, you could see the crowd attempting to disperse at the behest of Debra Sweet, who was announcing that we closed down the recruiting station. But at that moment, as she turned to walk away, clearly noted on the video, she was tapped on the shoulder and arrested.
Ultimately the prosecution could not prove that we were guilty of the crime charged since the only witness produced was from the police department, and not from the mall, or the Army Experience Center. There were no complainants testifying that we were a "disruption," or harmed business in any way. In fact, the Judge pointed out that on the video that was shown by the prosecution, the police had done a "very nice job" of encircling us with a "balloon effect"and allowing kids access to the indoor skateboard area, right next to the AEC, and to the AEC itself.
Almost to the end of the three hour trial, Lt. Koncyzyk was asked by our attorney how he chose to arrest only seven people out of the 200 that were protesting. He offered several answers, and then blurted out "five of them were arrested there before." Targeting, does that surprise anyone? At that point, it was all downhill for the prosecution's case, and Mr. Hetznecker made a brilliant closing argument. The Judge responded "I like that."
And so, let's chalk one up for the good guys! Freedom of speech, especially in these times, is an important and rare commodity. It's a tough fight, but we had to go there. We must defend ourselves at all costs, or else our voices will be silenced forever. And thank you to the Mr. Hetzneckers of the world for being there to defend it!