Trial Of Shipyard Protesters Revives Vietnam-Era Conflicts
Above Photo: Beth Brogan | BDN. Protesters arrested last August at Bath Iron Works’ christening of the stealth destroyer USS Zumwalt march into Sagadahoc County Superior Court to stand trial Wednesday morning.
War And Peace On Maine Coast
BATH, Maine — Protesters arrested outside Bath Iron Works during the christening of a Zumwalt-class destroyer in June 2016 told a jury on Wednesday that while they did block the main street to the shipyard during the event, their actions were not unreasonable as required by the law they’re accused of violating.
Ten of the 12 people charged with misdemeanor obstruction of a public way last year pleaded not guilty in connection with the protest outside the shipyard’s south gate, which police said blocked traffic on Washington Street for thousands attending the christening of the future USS Michael Monsoor.
Two defendants, Tarak Kauff of Woodstock, New York, and George Ostenson of Hope, previously accepted plea agreements and made contributions of $140 to United Way in exchange for charges being dropped. Ostenson’s health made him unable to sit during long periods such as a trial, and Kauff was scheduled to be at a conference on the West Coast.
The 2016 protest kindled memories of the 1997 demonstration that landed peace activist Philip Berrigan in a Bath jail cell and other acts of civil disobedience commonly associated with the anti-war movement of the Vietnam War era.
Bruce Gagnon, 64, of Bath, a Vietnam War veteran and member of Veterans for Peace and among nine defendants representing himself, said at the time of the arrest that they protested “the celebration of endless war and corporate profit.”
According to Maine statute, prosecutor Alexander Willette must convince the 12-person jury that the protesters “unreasonably obstructed free passage of foot or vehicular traffic on a public way” and refused to move after being ordered by police to do so.
Among the defendants representing themselves, Richard “Brown” Lethem, 84, of Bath introduced himself to the jury, noting that he is an artist, a Quaker, a pacifist, a veteran and has been actively opposed to war since the Vietnam War era.
“My sincere intent was not to block anything but to open a doorway for my country to regain its equilibrium and sanity,” he said.
Connie Jenkins, 68, of Orono, a retired nurse practitioner and psychotherapist, showed the jury a medallion she said she received upon becoming a peace activist during the Vietnam War, which bears the words, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
“In my profession, I was called to protect life and do no harm,” Jenkins said, in part. “I could never have imagined it would be necessary to still be wearing [the medallion] more than 40 years later.”
Jason Rawn of Lincolnville told the jury he’s traveled to many “war bases” in Asia, and he said it’s “unfortunate” that General Dynamics, which owns Bath Iron Works, “has decided to dedicate that facility exclusively to war production.”
“Is the message of the possibility of peace reasonable?” Rawn asked, adding, “Obstructing the public way is one of the many reasonable First Amendment protected actions … how could our actions be deemed unreasonable?”
Prior to opening statements Wednesday morning, Sagadahoc County Superior Court Judge Daniel Billings dealt the defendants a blow when he ruled that they could not question police about a May 2015 demonstration by a BIW union, when nearly 1,000 workers marched down Washington Street to protest the union’s treatment by the company, according to The Times Record.
“They may still be protests, and it may still be First Amendment expression, but they are different,” Billings said. “There’s a significant difference between a march down the street on a regular workday and a march down the street during the christening.”
Without the jury present, head of Bath Iron Works security Stan Cielinski told Billings that he estimated 100 to 140 union members marched that day and blocked traffic for about eight to 10 minutes.
“That’s very interesting because I was there that day, and I believe the [newspaper] article says ‘hundreds’ of people were there,” Gagnon said. “I will testify that the entire street, from the South Gate almost to the union hall, was covered with people.”
Attorney Lynne Williams, who represents defendant Joan Peck of Brunswick, had argued that the street was “clearly a traditional forum for First Amendment activity.”
“Police officers are not permitted to have unfettered discretion when it comes to first amendment activity,” Williams told Billings prior to his ruling.
Gagnon said prior to the ruling that comparing the police response to the two protests “shows that there is a double standard at work here. It proves that we were unfairly charged with a crime, whereas other people in much greater numbers have blocked a public way for [a] vastly” longer period of time.
To a question from Gagnon whether the protest in any way halted or delayed the christening ceremony, Cielinski said, “The ship’s crew was marching in as the protest started. I don’t know if it delayed the start … it did create some anxiety for the crew.”
Pressed by Gagnon whether it actually disrupted the safety of the event, Cielinski paused before saying, “It’s my responsibility for getting people and guests into the yard, and you did interrupt that.”
Bath Police Lt. Robert Savary, who led the department’s response that day, said he had discussed with Gagnon a “designated protest space” for the protesters to gather in and that he learned about a week before the christening that they planned an act of civil disobedience, but that Gagnon would not tell him specifically what was planned. He said police had to stop traffic to ensure the safety of protesters and others, and he said he warned the protesters several times before telling them they were under arrest.
As Willette showed Bath Iron Works surveillance video of the protest, Savary said, “Right after that, they sat down” and interlocked arms.
Questioned by Gagnon, Savary said he did not believe the protesters halted or delayed the christening ceremony in any way.
Wednesday afternoon, Willette questioned five other Bath officers and two deputies from the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, who all arrested people at the June protest.
After Willette rested his case, Williams filed a lengthy motion to acquit, which Billings said he would consider on Thursday.
Billings overruled an objection by Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Liberman that the defendants, during their presentation, would each “take the stand and make their argument against military spending” or environmental issues, which he argued were not relevant.
Billings said he would allow testimony including political statements “within reason,” adding, “Isn’t it relative evidence why somebody did what they did?”
The defendants were expected to argue their cases on Thursday.
An earlier version of this report misspelled Lynne Williams’ first name.