Peace Promoters Convicted of Trespass but Sentence Suspended in Burlington, Ontario;
Ruling Finds Private Property Rights of Military Manufacturer L-3 Wescam Take Precedence over the Lives of Those Targeted With Wescam War Technology
Burlington, Ontario, July 27, 2006 -- The scene today in Burlington's provincial court #1 was fairly unusual, in the words of the Prosecution, the Justice of the Peace and, by their own admission, the defendants, as a group of peace promoters was convicted of trespassing for their role in a peaceful demonstration at military manufacturer L-3 Wescam in Burlington, Ontario. Nine members of the Mothers Day Coalition for Peace, which includes Homes not Bombs and Hamilton Action for Social Change, had been arrested for seeking a dialogue with the Wescam president last May.
Indeed, a court normally reserved for speeding tickets and arguments over who caused a vehicular collision became home to a teach-in on personal responsibility during a time of global emergency. Among the issues discussed were the rule of law and the role of law when it comes to the private property "rights" of corporations that violate international law and Nuremberg Principles with war production. Another major focus was on the right -- indeed, the obligation -- of citizens to speak and act to end the complicity of individuals, groups, and companies that contribute to the planning for and execution of mass murder.
What was perhaps most pleasing about the day was the packed courtroom of those awaiting the opportunity to resolve traffic tickets, many of whom had not known what was produced at the massive L-3 Wescam factory at 649 North Service Road. Rather than wait outside the court and do crosswords, most individuals stayed glued to their seats. Some cried during the emotional testimony of the defendants as they talked about the brutal purposes to which L-3 Wescam technology is used; others later thanked the group on trial for their convictions and their actions, with some staying right till the end of the day to hear the verdict.
And although some of them may be loathe to admit it, it also felt as if the police, prosecutor, and the justice of the peace were all a bit challenged and shaken, in a transformative way, by the day's events.
A SIMPLE MATTER?
It seemed on paper like a simple matter. A group of people refused to leave company property, admitted they refused to leave, but refused to plead guilty with an explanation. Even the offer of a reduced fine in exchange for a plea of guilt was refused by the defendants. There was a context that needed to be explained, and while both the Prosecutor and the Justice of the Peace reminded the group that they were not to turn the court into a political forum or a continuation of the demonstration, that is pretty much what happened from the get go.
When asked how they pleaded to the charges of trespass, group members, who chose to represent themselves, variously responded "I plead for peace," or "For Wescam to transform their business into civilian purposes." How could it not be political, the group argued, for if the factory were engaged in the production of ping pong balls or tooth brushes, it is unlikely they would be in court on this day. It's what is manufactured at Wescam that gave an urgency to their presence, and a justification for their refusal to leave.
Just as those arrested on May 15 had taken part in an extensive, exhaustive search for dialogue with L-3 executives, so that struggle continued in court. Indeed, today featured a fairly exhausting, persistent pursuit of the idea that the court had a role in this debate too -- about whether it would proclaim the pre-eminent right of private property, even when the weapons of war are manufactured on that property, over the obligations of citizens, under international law, to ensure that no such production occurs.
In the end, the group as a whole were convicted of trespass. Sentence was suspended; essentially, a slap on the wrist. Both decisions seemed to be arrived at most reluctantly by the Justice of the Peace, one Pryor Bonas, a thoughtful man who expressed his sympathies for the concerns of the group but in the end concluded he was bound by the law. It was a decision that was foreshadowed by his earlier comments about concerns he might get into trouble with his colleagues if, when a group of defendants conceded the basic facts required for conviction, he nonetheless acquitted them when the context of their refusal to leave was considered.
We argued otherwise, noting we had a stack of case law in which judges had shown that you need not follow the letter of the law at all times, especially in situations of crisis. Indeed, Homes not Bombs members have often been charged with criminal offences but judges of the Ontario Courts have acquitted them upon undertaking a contextual examination of the issues. We wanted Bonas to do the same.
It was not the outcome we wanted, for sure. We had hoped that there would be a ruling affirming the rights of people to nonviolently speak up and seek to transform a situation of injustice. Indeed, we pointed out, without civil disobedience, we wonder how much longer it would have taken for women to get the vote, for slavery to be ended, for Britain to end its colonial occupation of India. All involved temporary violations of minor laws to achieve a greater justice which improved society as a whole.
Key to today's argument was a defence under the Trespass to Property Act known as colour of right, whereby "the person charged reasonably believed that he or she had title to or an interest in the land that entitled him or her to do the act complained."
MILITARISM SHUTS DOWN DEMOCRACY
The group testified that they DID have reasonable grounds for their refusal to leave. Some were rooted in the facts of war, as well as in the names of the victims of aerial bombardment in Afghanistan and Iraq that were planted into the ground of Wescam by the hundreds during the May demonstration. Others included straight up legal grounds, including an adherence to Nuremberg Principles and international law, both of which are violated by Wescam's production for war.
The court also heard much discussion about two key concepts, ones that, as anyone who reads a paper or turns on the news can see, are in constant conflict: militarism and democracy. Militarism and democracy are incompatible creatures, and the existence of the former inevitably eats away at the core of the latter. We see this on the national stage, as the social needs of Canadians and our obligations to those impoverished by a cruel global economy are not met while the Harper government announces almost $20 billion in new war spending. There is no vote, and beyond the standard questions about whether we can't do this for a few hundred million dollars less, no real political opposition. The idol of militarism is one to which all political parties pay tribute, including the NDP, whose celebrated "NDP budget", the last of the Martin government, ushered in a massive increase (pre-Harper) in military spending.
We see this at Wescam where, for almost four years, executives have refused to discuss what is manufactured at their facility. They have refused to hear evidence about the very real, human consequences when their equipment is used to target people. Dialogue drives democracy; shut down the first, and you close the door on the second. What other routes do we have in such a situation but to up the ante in pursuit of what is, after all, a very simple and reasonable request?
We see this in the court's decision, and its reluctance to consider the rights of the people whose physical forms become sharpened in the Wescam target sights moments before they are blown to bits by Hellfire missiles.
The protection offered to militarism, war, and its profiteers comes in the guise of ordinary laws that idolize private property. War profiteer L-3 Wescam hides behind such laws to prevent a group of residents from seeking a dialogue on transforming the company into civilian uses. Fear that Wescam executives may no longer be allowed to worship at the altar of war drive their paranoia, and fear is writ large in their response to our peaceful gatherings. Indeed, the building was placed on lockdown during the demonstration, and the group was informed that the President would not meet with us that day or any other day. Security Manager Dan Wallace explains this is to protect his president's safety. As he testifies, before the May 15 demonstration, anyone could access the building's reception area; that access has now been permanently closed.
Where does such fear come from?
THE FEARS OF THE "POWERFUL"
We can appreciate the threat we pose. Indeed, in a world where war produces such healthy profit margins, it is the threat of a good idea, one that will save and enhance lives, converting to peaceful technologies. It's the threat of having to get their noses out of the corporate welfare trough upon which military corporations like L-3 rely (indeed, their 2001 annual report was able to find a silver lining in the September 11 attacks: increased war budgets which are simply a massive transfer of taxpayers' monies to private corporations that, if they had to survive in the open market without these subsidies, would wilt on the vine.)
This is not to suggest that the executives and workers of L-3 Wescam are in any way bad people. They are likely good people who, we believe, are separated from the best parts of themselves. They are not monolithic creatures; they would prefer not to speak to us, perhaps because doing so would make it harder for them to exercise the cognitive dissonance that allows them to ship their products out of the factory without thinking about the individuals on the other end of the "low cost precision kill" vehicles that they outfit.
The same goes for the police, the court officials, the JP, and the Prosecutor, all of them eminently reasonable and decent individuals who are trapped by the limitations of their roles. People throughout history have no doubt felt that conflict, whether they are judges upholding segregation statutes in Alabama or prosecutors enforcing Aryanization laws in Nazi Germany. The law is the law, after all. But ultimately, even within those parameters, we argue, moral choices must be made, else we fall down the slippery slope that leads to the atrocities history documents and that the daily news (sometimes) reports.
Those who make history, those we remember best, it seems, are those who face that conflict and resolve it in a manner that leads towards true justice. Nuremberg clearly states in Principle IV: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."
And moral choices certainly are available, as evidenced by the testimony of the defendants.
MAKING A MORAL CHOICE
Gail Lorimer, who has maintained a consistent vigil at the Wescam entrance for almost 4 years, presents compelling, emotional testimony about why she refused to leave. Tears streaming down her face, she explains how difficult this whole process of disobeying the law has been, "since I don't even tear those labels off pillows that say 'don't remove.'" But she stayed on Wescam's "private property" because "people are being killed, people's private property in Iraq and Afghanistan is being blown up with Wescam targeting equipment. Why don't we care about their property, their lives?" she asks. She says in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, citizens everywhere must speak up for peace, and confront those who make the weapons of war.
Prosecutor Diane Howarth asks Gail why, if she is so concerned about war, she does not go to Iraq or Afghanistan. We ask why Ms. Howarth is suddenly turning this into a political trial when that is what she said she did not want to have. Bonas rules her question out of order.
Ed Babb speaks of having seen deadly combat in Korea in 1951. "I've seen people blown up," he explains, adding he refused to leave because the forces of war are so terribly powerful and the voices of peace need to be MORE powerful.
Babb is asked if he recognizes a large, gruesome photo of a badly wounded Iraqi man that was carried at the demonstration. Babb says he does, and holds the large picture up for the court to see, explaining the nature of the man's wounds. He continues holding it up for the benefit for Wescam employees, the police, and the general court, some of whom visibly turn away from having to look at its terrible reality. This is war, this is what happens to the people on the other end of Wescam targeting equipment, and it is horrible. Justice of the Peace Bonas, also uncomfortable with the image, calls it "graphic," and asks Babb to put it down.
Romaine Jones says we're only here for a short time and we need to make a difference, and that "to affirm peace is the only way. I will keep protesting until we become peaceable."
Barney Barningham talks of his British childhood when, at age 7, the Second World War broke out, and so he knew something of the horror of war that no child should ever experience. "I try to abide by the Nuremberg Principles, and it is our duty to prevent the manufacture of the weapons of war. Wescam could use all their knowledge for civilian purposes," he testifies.
Matthew Behrens addresses the problem inherent in the court's request to turn down the graphic picture of war: because war is so horrible, we turn the other way, put the picture aside, rather than search for ways to end such crimes. It is exactly these types of images that we hoped to present to Wescam management, to give them a sense of what it looks like on the other end of their targeting equipment. It is because we turn away from them, because they are too "graphic," that we distance ourselves from the ultimate results of our willingness to profit from war.
STOPPING WARS WHERE THEY START
He also takes up the question about why Gail is not in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, he points out, members of the group had been to some of these and other war zones, including Colombia and occupied Palestine. And often in war zones when we ask, beyond bringing more bandages and being witnesses, what we can do, the answer that comes back is: stop the violence where it starts, stop the bombs from coming. Then you won't have to observe the human damage and help bandage the wounds. And so this brings us back to one of the places where war starts: L-3 proclaims itself the largest war manufacturer in Canada, 6th largest in the U.S.
Behrens talks about Nazi Germany and wonders aloud how history may have changed if more people had trespassed on the private property of the camps and the Gestapo (indeed, in a number of instances where nonviolent resistance was offered, the Nazis were forced to back down -- see examples in both the book and video, A Force More Powerful).
You are suggesting that at Nuremberg people who did not act were seen as culpable? the JP asks in clarification.
Absolutely comes the answer. Indeed, that issue was discussed both at Nuremberg and at the Tokyo War Crimes trial, where it was declared "[A]nyone with knowledge of illegal activity and an opportunity to do something about it is a potential criminal under international law unless the person takes affirmative measures to prevent commission of the crimes."
Reports on war crimes and the role of weapons merchants in those crimes are offered to the court but the justice of the peace indicates that he essentially has heard what he needs to and wants to move on without having to go through them.
In submissions to the court, the defendants use case law in which individuals had successfully used defences of necessity, and pointed to an essay by Howard Zinn about the need for civil disobedience to keep democracy alive and vibrant. Titled "Dow Shalt Not Kill," Zinn notes that "to declare that the law in all circumstances is to be obeyed, is to suppress the very spirit of democracy, to surrender individual conscience to an omnipotent state."
But the Prosecution relies on hitting home the notion of private property rights, quoting one decision that states "a landowner has the exclusive right to decide who is allowed to remain on his or her land. The landowner is not compelled to give a reason when the visitor is asked to leave the land. Furthermore, the landowner is not under any duty to follow the principles of natural justice when excluding any person."
But what, the defendants wondered, if the land were a pre-Civil War plantation whose owner ruled over hundreds of slaves, or a Nazi crematorium? At some point this idolization of private property and the right to do anything on it, unquestioned, and without having to explain it away, becomes an extremely dangerous matter.
Howarth submits that Wescam is a legal entity lawfully conducting its business. And in one respect, unfortunately, she is right. That is the sick logic of our economic system. But if Canada is a nation which truly believes in international law, there are countless covenants and treaties to which Canada is a signatory that would invalidate this claim. Whether the courts will follow the direction of international law, however, is another question. We argue that if Canadians really knew what was going on behind these pleasant looking industrial buildings, fronted by large grassy areas, they would be shocked to action.
Bonas returns with his decision near 5 pm, as the court is closing. He seems to find this terribly difficult. Earlier, he had said he cannot decide the way we may want him to because it may get him into trouble. He does not consider the fact that he may in fact be praised.
He locks onto the colour of right argument and asserts this can only be used if we have actual physical title to the land (as opposed to an interest in the land and what is done there, which was the focus of our claim). He stresses his emphasis on what the act states is a reasonable belief, and wonders how a group of defendants whom he finds to be "highly intelligent and not unsophisticated" can believe they have a reasonable right to claim interest or title to this land.
He insists alternatives are available. But when a company has refused to meet for four years, what alternatives are there? He does not elaborate.
He quotes from some of our case law,, but in the end falls back on "settled jurisprudence" about the exclusivity of property above all else. He says there are other legal methods to voice concerns regarding the "supposed proliferation of weapons for war and those methods in my view have not been exhausted."
He states that a justice of the peace cannot substitute personal feelings to excuse a violation of a provincial offence (and on this of course we agree --this is why we presented case law, legal precedents, in our defence).
"I was asked to render against individuals who for entirely altruistic reasons entered property out of a concern for the weapons of war being made," he said. "But there's no freedom without restraint...a delicate and scrupulous balancing is required..." He expresses great sympathy for the defendants, but says he must set aside that sympathy. "I must apply the law notwithstanding my sympathies."
Bonas says the interests of justice will be served by a finding of guilt and a suspended sentence.
But today, in the scrupulous balancing that must take place in considering the right of L-3 Wescam to make the equipment used to target human beings with Hellfire missiles, one group got the short end of the scales of justice. The "losers" were not the defendants, who are proud of their actions and will continue to engage in them, hoping others across this country will do the same in growing numbers at the hunddreds of Canadian war profiteers.
No, the ones who did not enjoy a scrupulous balancing today are the ones whose names are on the placards we brought to court: those already killed by this technology, and those who will continue to be killed as long as the "rights" of the private property of military manufacturers take precedence over the rights of the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and countless other nations around the world to live lives free of the wars which germinate in the minds and pocketbooks of the executives at L-3 and a hundred companies like them.
Upon leaving court, one could not help but think of the words of Ulf Panzer, one of 20 judges arrested in 1987 for blockading a base housing nuclear weapons in Germany. Yes, judges! Addressing the judge hearing his case, Panzer talked of the evils of nuclearism and the threat to planetary survival, declaring: "You believe in law and order. You do not believe in justice....Finding us guilty, as you intend to do, means legalizing a crime. German judges have along history in legalizing crimes, Mr. Judge. You are going to protect injustice against the people. May I remind you that your job is to protect people against injustice?"
For information on upcoming actions seeking to transform the military work of L-3 in Canada, stay in touch with us: www.homesnotbombs.ca
RELATED WESCAM STORIES:
Nine Peace-Seekers Arrested at Military Firm L-3 Wescam in Burlington, Ontario
Executives at Canada's Self-Proclaimed "Largest" War Manufacturer Place Building on Lockdown, Refuse Dialogue as They Continue Work on "Low Cost Precision Kill Vehicles", MAY 2006
Come to Wescam, May 13, Protest the Profits of War, MAY 2005
"Wescam Three" Acquitted: Anti-War Protesters Cleared of Trespass Charges but Sternly Lectured on the Pre-Eminence of Private Property by Restaurateur turned Justice of the Peace, APRIL 2003
Weapons Inspectors Busted at Burlington's Wescam; Three Charged Seeking Information on Canadian Company's Possible Links to International Law Violations, DECEMBER, 2002
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