Contempt of Court

For an American performance of civil disobedience, characters, setting, plot and action have become conventional, even traditional. First appears the large group of morally offended citizens, milling around near the object of their protest. In the next scene the police must inform the protestors that although their cause might be just they cannot be allowed to flout the law. The second act is set in a courtroom, where the demonstrators turned defendants explain to judge, jury and press their moral convictions. Finally comes the punishment, which the defendants accept as an integral part of the protest, because they did not demonstrate to show contempt for the law but only to witness to their conscientious beliefs.

With a single but glaring exception, this drama was staged last winter in Minneapolis. In November several hundred people blocked the main entrance of Honeywell, Inc.’s corporate headquarters. The protestors collectively opposed Honeywell’s function as a manufacturer of military weapons, in particular the so-called cluster bomb. City police told the group to disperse; they refused; thirty-odd were arrested and charged with trespassing. So far the scenario was intact.

The action moved to a Hennepin County courtroom in February, when thirty protestors appeared for a trial by jury. They pleaded not guilty, not on the grounds that they were innocent of trespass, but on the grounds that Honeywell was guilty of war crimes. One of the defendants said that Honeywell produces weapons that could lead to “total destruction of the world.” Another asserted that the demonstrators had “a moral and political obligation” to do what they did. An assistant city attorney argued that the question before the jury was smaller and simpler than weapons of war and high moral obligations. It was a matter of trespassing on private property, he said, a misdemeanor. Still no departure from the conventional plot.

The jurors listened to the defendants’ explanation of their motives and moral principles. They deliberated for two hours and returned a verdict — guilty of trespass. The judge sentenced each defendant to a $100 fine (payable to a community charity, at the defendant’s option) or twenty hours of community service. All but one of the thirty, in the tradition of civil disobedience, accepted the decision.

But one refused: the Rev. Harvey Egan, a Catholic priest, pastor of St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis. The ghosts of Socrates, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King looked on as Fr. Egan chose to stare down the judge. He would neither pay the fine nor carry out the community service, he said. His life as a priest, he added„ was service enough. The judge — exhausted, inexperienced — made an error in judgment; he suspended Fr. Egan’s sentence, and the priest walked out of court, free to mock justice again.

Does not the justification for civil disobedience collapse if willingness to suffer the legal consequences is removed? Did not the Rev. Harvey Egan do a disservice to his own cause, and to the cause of conscientious protestors everywhere?

In April, the Honeywell performance was repeated. This time over a hundred people were arrested, for the same violation as before. Fr. Egan was once again among those arrested. Will he again defy the law, intimidate a judge, disgrace his cause, abuse his priestly status, and undermine the great tradition of civil disobedience? The answers to these questions are not without importance for the nation.

— “Newman”



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