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Milwaukee Nun Arrested During Peaceful Protest Against the War

Conviction raises questions about the right to freedom of speech

Jan. 30, 2008
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Sister Virgine Lawinger is no stranger to civil disobedience. The 70-something Catholic nun has been a tireless advocate for peace, even when it has led to her arrest and prevented her from boarding a flight to Washington, D.C., with a group of students. For the most part, however, Lawinger’s longtime fight for justice has been lawful and peaceful.

But last week Lawinger’s tactics officially got her in hot water. Back in September, she was part of a group that held a “die-in” at the crypt in the U.S. Capitol to protest the war in Iraq and Congress’ approval of ever more money to fund the fighting. The 34-member group, organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, wore T-shirts splattered with red paint to symbolize blood and held a banner that read “Rivers of Blood Start Here.”

Though the protest was peaceful, the group was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly. Last week, Lawinger and her fellow protesters were acquitted of disorderly conduct charges but found guilty of unlawful assembly. The judge claimed that since the peaceful protest was provocative and could have incited others to act violently, they were guilty. Lawinger faces a seven-day suspended jail sentence, six months of unsupervised probation—during which time she’s unable to take part in more “unlawful” assemblies—and a $50 fine.

On Monday, Lawinger told the Shepherd about her experiences as a peace activist, and what the guilty verdict means for freedom of speech and lawful protests.

Shepherd: The judge said that your protest could have incited others to become violent. But what reaction did you get from the people who saw it?

Lawinger: The reaction from tourists was one of considerable interest. They usually stopped and watched what was going on. But before we got too far into it, the security of the building was alerted and they did come up and let us continue for a little bit and then they announced that we had to stop—which we did not do right away. The people who had already symbolically died remained in their stance and the others were continuing to finish.

Our position was that we had a right to assemble there, that it was a lawful assembly, and to make this message known. We had hoped that the security would allow us to finish our demonstration, our action, and then move on our way. But they considered it an unlawful assembly and so ordered us to leave. When we did not leave, of course, we were arrested. That was our major difference with the security. We did not think it was necessary to stop the action.

So 33 of us were arrested and 31 of us returned for trial on unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct charges. That was last week’s trial. For me it was a most enlightening experience. I’ve been arrested on civil resistance before. But most of the time it’s a minor thing and either you pay a small fine or you get it dismissed on a technicality. But we prepared very thoroughly for this and had our statement and everything. The prosecution explained why we had to be arrested and why we were guilty of unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct. We had many statements as to why there was no need for an arrest, and why we had to assemble—because no one has really taken seriously the protests of thousands upon thousands of people in this country that our country has done wrong. We did extensively state in our testimony why it was necessary for citizens to do this.

The judge did find us not guilty of disorderly conduct because it was orderly and it was not excessively loud or any of that. We weren’t harassing anyone or preventing anyone from coming and going. But on what the arrest said was unlawful assembly, we were found guilty. We were quite dismayed at the reasoning from the judge and the prosecution—that the fact that we were there with our banners and our shirts and proclaiming the deaths of citizens of Iraq and U.S. soldiers, that this action could have led to an invitation to violence from those who observed it. And that the very fact of a possibility of a provocation was sufficient to declare it an unlawful assembly.

Shepherd: Are you allowed to be involved in other protests?

Lawinger: If we are found guilty of any unlawful protests within six months’ time, then we would have to serve our jail sentence.

Shepherd: What exactly is an unlawful protest?

Lawinger: See, that’s entirely the problem. Once you’re arrested for unlawful protest and you say it’s lawful, then obviously the police or security people almost have a presumption that the prosecution is correct and you are breaking the law. So if officers tell you that you can’t do that, and everything about it says that you can, you don’t have any recourse. You have to stop or you will be arrested. And that’s really the place where the disagreements come in.

Shepherd: What does this say about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly?

Lawinger: It says that we have some very serious issues about the level of dissent, of how much dissent is allowed in our country. And this was so orderly and so measured, that if this action was considered to be unlawful, we thought there was very little room for dissent.

Shepherd: You were on public property…

Lawinger: Oh yes. We were in our Capitol, which to the whole world should have been the symbol of the Bill of Rights, of the democratic process, and as such it was very disconcerting.

Shepherd: Aren’t protests supposed to be provocative?

Lawinger: That is just the issue. And this whole thing about—many people are appealing this because it is so flagrant that lawful dissent was being stopped. They won’t allow any international law to even be admissible. The Nuremberg thing, where if you do know that wrongdoing is being done by government, you as a citizen have an obligation to make it known. My stand was, to whom do I make it known? The abuse of torture, the abuse of citizen rights, the going to war at all—to whom would we make this known? The Nuremberg trial said [it should be made known] to a judge or another lawful authority. And I said to the judge, now I feel that I have made this known to you.

But this is more than a rhetorical question. Especially in Wisconsin, [where] between half and up to 70% of Wisconsin citizens want no more money for war. So what is their [Sens. Kohl’s and Feingold’s] obligation to try to follow the wishes of their constituents? And if they cannot be brought to do that, then what does a citizen do about it? I think all of us take this question quite seriously. Now we’re going to have, within the next month, another request for more money for war. We really do feel that if our Congress continues to vote for war, for money for war, then they are complicit with the president’s decision to go to war. And there’s no one really calling on our executive branch to answer for the wrongdoing that has gone on.

Shepherd: We’re in the middle of the presidential campaign, and the issue of Iraq isn’t really surfacing as a salient issue.

Lawinger: The whole issue of Iraq, of the reconstruction of a country that has been destroyed, of the state of these kids who have lost five years of school—it’s just not there at all. And if this [presidential] primary comes to Wisconsin, we really are going to do our best to get these questions answered. But it is sad and disheartening to see how the issue of Iraq has dropped off and how our candidates, almost without fail, have said that we are going to have to keep troops there probably until 2013. That’s what the Democrats have said. And [Sen. John] McCain wants them there for decades. And I have great fears that he will have a lot of backing for even making a statement like that.

Shepherd: Will you be taking part in any protests?

Lawinger: I have to look at what is coming up. There are a goodly number of national actions being planned in March, the fifth anniversary of the war. We will have actions locally. Whether they will be protest actions at this stage I’m not sure. I’m sure that if I find places where I can make this known in a more public way I will do it. I am committed to civil resistance to actions of our government that are breaking the law. If our government is breaking the law, then what can we as citizens do about it?

Shepherd: Aren’t you concerned about being arrested again?

Lawinger: If I participated in something that I felt was necessary to take a risk, I would do that. I don’t think that going to jail is the end of the world. All one has to think about is these children and the families of Iraq. Any of this is almost negligible when you compare it to what their lives are like.

I see that we could be so close to the edge to losing the freedoms that we take for granted that I just really do wish there was some way that we could make people more aware that these treasures that we have in our Bill of Rights and our Constitution are fragile. They can be lost. We can’t take them for granted. That’s the biggest thing to me. How is an ordinary citizen supposed to know that these things are being eroded?

It’s so hard for people to make the connection between things that are going on in our city with the violence. The violence in our city simply is what we see our government using as an answer to solutions in our world. The one that has the most weapons, the strongest armies, is the one that prevails. And that’s how you get what you want. And so when violence pervades our whole culture and we see it come down to our local level and young people are using these means to get what they think they have a right to, that’s what our country is holding out to them, that this is how you get what you want. There’s very little negotiation, of nonviolence, of nonviolent alternatives, of people believing that they can mediate problems by talking about them, by trying to find fair distribution of resources so that everyone can have the basics in life. Those things are missing.

You’re not hearing any of this in the debates. The candidates—first of all you’re not hearing about Iraq, but you’re not hearing about foreign policy being settled by foreign policy issues being negotiated by mediation and arbitration and justice and human rights. I see our candidates just trying to ignore looking at foreign policy in those terms.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.%uF06E


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