War protesters await trial date

By Rachel Levine

Chicago is the only city in the country where litigation is pending against antiwar activists, according to Voices in the Wilderness, a nonprofit organization based downtown.

Nine Chicago antiwar activists were arrested on March 13, 2003, for criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. The activists, who are loosely affiliated with Voices, had been staging a nonviolent protest in the lobby of Boeing Company’s international headquarters downtown.

Their trial, originally scheduled for Wednesday, October 8, has been postponed until January because the court refused the activists’ multiple requests for a jury hearing.

The activists have not been detained in prison, although they have not been allowed to leave the country since the time of their arrest, according to Amelia Baxter, a University aluma who isone of the nine activists on trial.

“It’s unfortunate that the courts made a mistake,” Baxter said. “Many of us are skeptical and confused because we submitted the request several times.”

Baxter said that Boeing is a very powerful lobbying group and suggested that they would use political clout to silence the protesters. “They could do all sorts of things,” she said. “As the so-called beginning of the war has moved further and further away from us, perhaps someone is hoping this will dissipate.”

The protest involved a nonviolent sit-in in the lobby of Boeing’s international headquarters. During the two-hour action, the activists “gave testimony from [their colleagues’] personal experience in Iraq and other countries where Boeing weapons are used,” said a source at Voices who wished to remain anonymous.

The activists intend to plead not guilty to the charges against them. They maintain that they “did something very lawful,” arguing that Boeing’s headquarters was paid for with millions of Illinois tax dollars.

“It’s a public building, not private,” Baxter said.

“We’re going to be arguing that we were going in there as a last resort to make a statement about [the impending violence]. The lobby is public space. There’s a coffee shop, all sorts of businesses. […] People were passing through the entire time.”

John Dern, a spokesperson for Boeing, contended that the protesters were trespassing and impeding the progress of several workers.

“They came into the lobby so they were at that point trespassing, harassing some of our employees in the building,” Dern said. “In our opinion, they were being both disrespectful and breaking the law. It’s true that there are other businesses in the lobby, but that doesn’t make that any less private property.”

Several people stood and watched while the protesters spoke. According to Baxter, what the bystanders saw was not recorded by journalists, who were kept out of the building by police.

“The fact that the police, who are also paid for by our tax dollars, were protecting Boeing and were not allowing the full story to get out—that says a lot to us about free speech and the freedom of the press.”

According to Danny Muller, a spokesperson for Voices in the Wilderness, NBC News was able to cover the protest by videotaping through the windows of the lobby.

Dern says that protesting is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution and that people should be allowed to express their concerns as long as they respect the law and company employees.

Dern praised Boeing’s work in support of the armed forces. “When [the call to duty] comes, to the extent that we can provide them with the means to protect themselves, it’s something that we’re proud to do.” He maintained that soldiers serving in Iraq are protecting some of the things “we hold dear, like being able to protest on a street corner and express one’s views.”

Boeing was chosen as the focus of the local antiwar campaign in Chicago because it is the second largest producer of weapons in the world, according to Baxter, who called it the “bread and butter that has allowed this war to cause so much destruction.”

Baxter cited a promise made by the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois to give Boeing a package of over $30 billion in tax breaks and free rent in order to lure them to Chicago.

Voices in the Wilderness intends to proceed with a large publicity campaign against the war.

“We have a chance to bring on some big names to help us,” Baxter said of the trial, citing historian Howard Zinn and Douglas Casel, director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern’s law school.

According to Mullern, the activist community in Chicago is one of the most effective in the nation. “It has some of the best training, resources, and knowledge in the country.”