The dingy caverns at the Kansas City Municipal Courthouse usually feel like bus-station lobbies, where low-road travelers sit around on plastic benches waiting for tickets to drug treatment or traffic school or, sometimes, jail. No one's mother seems to have told them to shave or wash their hair or wear something besides baggy pants and greasy parkas and pajama slippers to court.
On this particular Tuesday, though, Judge Joseph Locasio's courtroom was crowded with gray-haired ladies in Christmas sweaters.
These twenty or so witnesses read newspapers as they waited to hear how Locasio would punish five of their friends who'd been busted for excessive praying.
The official charge was trespassing. Back on October 8, forty people had gone to Missouri Senator Kit Bond's office at 911 Main Street. Bond wasn't there, but they'd made an appointment with members of his staff, wanting to voice their opposition on the eve of a congressional vote authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq.
It turned into much more than a meeting. People started congregating around noon, saying prayers and reading texts from Martin Luther King Jr. The room was nearly silent, except for annoying, endless loops of CNN braying from a TV. When security guards came to escort them out at closing time, five refused to go.
These weren't radical college kids. College kids did demonstrate at UMKC a few days later, and a dozen left campus and went downtown to stage a sit-in at Senator Jean Carnahan's office in the federal courthouse. But it was lame. "A lot of the kids had never done anything like this before, so it was an embarrassingly upbeat atmosphere," says Andy Barenberg, who was there. "[Carnahan's] staff was passing around mints, and the kids were flipping through magazines waiting for the time to pass."
When marshals showed up at 5 p.m. to clear the building, it became painfully obvious that the students hadn't done their homework. "They threatened us, basically saying, 'This is a federal courthouse; you're not going to be able to just pay bail and leave. You'll face federal charges,'" Barenberg says. Not having done any legal research to know what sort of repercussions they might really face, he adds, "We agreed to be escorted out."
The old folks at Bond's office, however, hadn't been scared. Police had patted them down, handcuffed them and loaded them into a paddy wagon -- where one old lady had fallen and hit her head. ("It's a filthy hole," she would later say of the city jail. "It's deplorable the way they treat their guests.") And in Locasio's courtroom on December 17, the old guard gathered in a semicircle in front of the bench and eloquently pleaded guilty.
"Your honor, I am Jan Cebula, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton, Iowa, a Catholic religious order," said the first one -- at 53, the youngest of the gang. "For the past 21 years I have worked with and advocated on behalf of the economically poor here in Kansas City ... I am guilty of acting in faith and conscience to try to call attention to the grave nature and dangerous implications of a pre-emptive strike and in attempting to stop it. I am guilty, and I accept the consequences of my actions."
Next up was 63-year-old Brother Louis Rodemann, who runs the Holy Family Catholic Worker soup kitchen on 31st Street. "Sacred are the lives of the poor and homeless who come to Catholic Worker in need of food and shelter. Sacred are the lives of Iraqi citizens whose devastation and death I witnessed when I traveled there in opposition to the economic sanctions," he said. "I oppose this policy and these activities, which I hold to be immoral and illegal. I plead guilty ... and I accept the consequences of my actions."
Then came another nun, this one 67. "My name is Theresa Maly. In the context of my commitment to and with Notre Dame Sisters and in solidarity with all others who oppose violence and war, I stand before [the court] ... I am guilty, and I accept the consequences of my actions."
Locasio was leaning back in his chair, resting his chin on his hand. He nodded as the others spoke.
Moira Ferguson, a 64-year-old UMKC professor, said she was "opposed to unjust war on principle and a potential war against the Iraqi citizenry is an unjust war by definition." She went on: "I do not want my students or anyone else conscripted or sent into combat and killed for a morally unjustifiable war. I am guilty and accept the consequences of my actions."
Then came the oldest. Cecilia Wagner, who is 74, spoke haltingly, without a written statement. "I've lived in Kansas City all my life," she said. "I did it for my children's children, the children of Iraq and the poor -- who've already had their help cut so much.... The more money we spend on war, the more the poor will suffer." She said she was guilty and that she accepted the consequences of her actions.
Locasio turned to the defendants' attorney, Fred Slough, and asked what was essentially a rhetorical question. "Have you discussed with your clients how to exercise their First Amendment rights without trespassing?" Then he turned to the trespassers and smiled.
"You have pleaded guilty to the charges, and I find you guilty," he said sportingly. But, he said, "I'm suspending the imposition of your sentence, the condition being that you obey all laws and stay out of Senator Bond's office."
Barenberg says he wishes he hadn't left Bond's office on the day of the sit-in there, or that he had faced down the marshals at Carnahan's office.
Lesson learned. Besides, they way things are looking, there should be plenty of opportunities for protesting in '03.
In the hall outside of Courtroom B, the elderly women in Christmas sweaters greeted their compatriots with hugs. The protesters felt vindicated, one of them said. "We're on probation," Rodemann called out to any gray-hair who would listen. "You guys gotta do it now!"
Too bad there weren't any kids there to hear him.