It's not easy to find heroes these days--particularly political ones. Looking across the landscape of the left, there remain a few rhetoricians, an awkward academic or two, and of course our aging rock star of an ex-president. And then there are the grannies.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that in the most moving political trial of the last several years, the average age was somewhere north of 70. The "grannies" among them 91 year old, Marie Runyon were handcuffed and arrested by the New York City Police department after they went on down to the Times Square army recruitment station last October to try to enlist. Basically, they wanted to trade their lives for those of some young soldiers. A heroic act no doubt, and good theatre too. But criminal? According to Robert Morganthau, the 87 year old district attorney of New York county, the answer seemed to be yes. And thus unfolded one of the more wonderful show trials in memory.
In New York, among the many ways to be guilty of Disorderly Conduct, a person can, "with the intent to cause public inconvenience annoyance or alarm" either "obstruct vehicular or pedestrian traffic" or" congregate with other persons in a public place and refuse to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse." Given the broad nature of the statute, it's no wonder the police and prosecutors use it all the time. And during the non-jury trial, that's exactly what the prosecution did.
The defense, by contrast did what defense lawyers have done for ages in political trials--they shifted the paradigm. One by one, the women--some aided by canes, one legally blind, another supported by a walker took the stand to testify to what Earl Ward, a skilled lawyer (and full disclosure: a board member of The Bronx Defenders--a public defender office in the South Bronx where I was once Trial Chief) called "their credentials".
Those credentials: a passionate commitment to free speech and protest, heartfelt horror at the war in Iraq, and, perhaps most importantly, ages closer to a centurion than an infant and the production of a gaggle of children and grandchildren. One after another, over six days, eighteen of these women, faced down prosecutors less than half their age, while from the stand they defiantly delivered their message: this war has got to stop.
And in the end when it came time to deliver his verdict Judge Neil Ross did precisely what he should have done. He acquitted every single one of the grannies. He didn't do it because of their message, and he didn't do it because of their ages--he took pains to make that perfectly clear. He acquitted them because, well, it seemed that they hadn't actually committed a crime. As it turns out, the only people looking to enlist in Times Square that jaunty afternoon were a bunch of grannies who were barred from even entering the enlistment office. So as it turns out, they hadn't really obstructed anything at all. Moreover, the group of grannies was so porus that they hadn't actually blocked anyone or obstructed any traffic, vehicular, pedestrian, seeing-eye dog or other. All of which begs the question: Why were 18 grandmothers handcuffed and arrested at all?
The answer is that in this day and age--with a news blackout on photos of war dead and coffins, with "free speech zones" located miles from the events people want to protest, and with an increasingly militaristic police force ever less tolerant of dissent, peaceful protests large and small are being reacted to with more and more draconian force. The truth is that this squelching of dissent isn't just a problem for the young pierced anti-globalization radicals anymore. It's a problem for us all.
Thank god we still have grannies to remind us.