by Helen Schietinger
What’s a good outcome when you’re pleading guilty to calling out a major crime by breaking a minor law? On March 8, when David Barrows pleaded guilty to “disrupting Congress” last spring — warning the senators not to confirm Gina Haspel as CIA director — he achieved what some of us would call a significant achievement: the judge acknowledged that the government should not try to stop civil disobedience.
Here’s how the hearing went: David, with Attorney Mark Goldstone at his side, appeared in respectable Court Drag: he displayed a distinguished presence in his dress shirt, vest, tie and cuff links. David’s guilty plea was established, and then the government’s prosecutor spent an incredible amount of time presenting the government’s sentencing recommendation. First he extensively reviewed David’s (admittedly extensive) record of prior arrests and convictions. Then he correlated those events with when David had been on probation for previous infractions.
Arguing that David is a “Career Protestor,” the prosecutor said, “Mr. Barrows doesn’t stop his conduct unless he is on probation and threatened with jail…. The government doesn’t want him to go to jail, or do community service, or pay a fine, or report to CSOSA. The only way to stop his behavior is to order him to stay away. Therefore he should have a 6-months stay-away from all Congressional buildings and 5 years of probation.”
When Attorney Goldstone began his response, Judge Solerno cut him off, saying, “This isn’t about torture.” Mark pushed back, arguing that David spoke out because our government had destroyed videotapes that would have documented crimes, and the Senate was deciding whether to approve Gina Haspel, the very person who had authorized the destruction of those tapes, to head the CIA.
Judge Solerno reiterated that that wasn’t what this case was about.
Attorney Goldstone concluded by insisting that it was unreasonable for the government to ask for a maximum sentence for a nonviolent offense, in particular for saying something in a public place simply because the government wants to prevent speech there. Moreover, because the people have every right to be in and to speak out in Congressional buildings — public buildings — he challenged the stay-away order as inappropriate.
David then read his sentencing statement:
Your Honor, I would like to inform you about my state of mind and motive involved in the protest for which I enter a plea of guilty.
I admit that I spoke out during the Senate confirmation vote on Gina Haspel to head the Central Intelligence Agency, speaking from a visitor balcony in the United States Senate chamber so that my words of warning could be heard by the senators below. I did not curse, nor did I use obscenity, nor was I violent.
I simply warned that any senator who voted for Gina Haspel to become head of the CIA would be knowingly giving approval to, and career advancement to, an unrepentant overseer of torture and destroyer of evidence of torture who had never been held accountable. Ms. Haspel had supervised torture at a black site (a secret site) in Thailand where at least one man had been tortured to death under her watch.
Therefore, those senators voting for her would be rewarding behaviors deemed criminal in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Principles and the Eighth Amendment. As a former United States Government employee I took an oath to defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, domestic and foreign. Haspel is now, despite all this, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
I had just heard Senators Leahy and Wyden say they would not vote for Haspel because of her unrepentant involvement in torture and her destruction of evidence of torture. The late Senator McCain, who was a torture survivor himself, had days before implored other senators to take this stand.
During the week of this critical vote I had stood in front of the Senate office buildings for 3 hours in the rain with a sign that read, “Any senator who votes to affirm a torturer as head of the CIA is a criminal as well.” I also wrote two letters about this issue to the editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Today with the increased threats of nuclear wars and ever increasing climate disasters the whole human race is virtually floating on a life raft. When we entrust our fate to torturers and criminals, we sink our own ship.
I admit that I broke the Senate’s rules of etiquette and its criminal statute, but I did so because I believed that it was my duty as an American citizen to non-violently stand up and speak out for justice itself.
I thus ask this court for a sentence of community service in lieu of jail. I can do more good for the community outside of jail than within. What I did was speak up for victims and try to prevent further victims of torture.
Thank you, Your Honor.
When David finished, the courtroom was silent for an entire two minutes: his words had reached Judge Solerno.
When the judge finally spoke, he said he understood the prosecutor’s point about preventing repeat conduct, but “What we’re preventing — there’s nothing particularly dangerous or violent about it. There’s no reason to prevent civil disobedience. I don’t think a 5-year stay-away or probation would be useful.” He sentenced David to a 30-day suspended sentence with 9 months unsupervised probation, and 30 hours of community service and $50 to the Crime Victims Fund. During that time he is not to enter 11 of the 14 Congressional Buildings, but he is allowed on Congressional grounds.
David entered his guilty plea as part of a plea deal with the Government in return for their dropping charges in a more recent arrest, which resulted in not only the charge of interrupting Congress but also contempt of court. Only a few weeks before David had – in a Congressional hearing – confronted Elliott Abrams whom Trump had appointed as head of U.S. interventions in Venezuela. (Years ago Abrams was convicted of the felony of perjury for lying to Congress to cover up massacres in Central America by the Contras.) Given these multiple charges, David was faced with almost certain jail time.
David Barrows is extremely grateful to those who were able to be in court for him. He wants them to know that they were as important an audience as the judge: “They were the friends who could bring the best out in me.”
Some activists would wish for the ultimate goal: for the court to find David innocent because he was fully justified in using civil resistance to call out injustice and criminal behavior by the government. But until that day comes, this was a very successful day in court!