Civil Disobedience On Trial  
by John Passacantando
December 4, 2003
First Published in Tom Paine.com

Send this page to a friend! (click here)



While Attorney General John Ashcroft has toured America defending the PATRIOT Act and its encroachments on freedom, his Justice Department has extended this campaign by pressing disturbing criminal charges against Greenpeace. The case arose off the coast of South Florida when Greenpeace activists boarded a ship carrying wood unlawfully harvested from Brazil. They held a banner that said, "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging."

The government's action is unprecedented: prosecuting an entire organization for the free speech-related activities of its supporters. If the prosecution succeeds, peaceful public protest—an essential American tradition from colonial times to the civil rights movement and beyond—may become yet another casualty of Mr. Ashcroft’s attack on civil liberties.

Greenpeace’s protest stemmed from the organization’s ongoing work to protect ancient forests, particularly the Brazilian Amazon. Destruction of these habitats threatens clean air and water, animal and plant species, and the people and cultures who depend on forests for their way of life. Large criminal enterprises, using bribery, extortion, slavery and murder continue to ravage the Amazon and export their contraband.

Greenpeace teams in Brazil and the United States have investigated illegal harvesting of mahogany wood and tracked contraband into the U.S. market. Our work helped prompt Brazil’s unprecedented October 2001 decision to suspend its lucrative mahogany trade until the sector is cleaned up. Our action in Miami, combined with efforts from London to Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, helped prompt nations to agree in November 2002 to give mahogany even greater global protection.

Indeed, though sometimes at odds with national governments, Greenpeace has a long track record of working with governments to curb forest destruction. At the urging of Greenpeace and others, nations have begun to reach agreements to protect remaining forest land. But gaping holes in the law persist. While the United States watches its borders for drugs and counterfeit Gucci bags, no law yet exists to stop importation of most wood illegally cut in other countries.

Importing illegally harvested mahogany is already against the law, but smuggling has continued. In Spring 2002, Greenpeace research uncovered that a ship headed for Miami was carrying Amazon mahogany wood whose importation was illegal under U.S. law and international agreements. On April 12, 2002, miles off the coast, two Greenpeace activists boarded the ship. Their aim was to halt the shipment by alerting the authorities to the contraband and to highlight the failure of the U.S. government to halt ongoing smuggling.

Arrested by federal authorities, the individuals involved took their lumps; they pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge. But now, prosecutors want much more. Instead of thanking Greenpeace for work that promotes President Bush’s stated goal of stopping illegal logging, and instead of prosecuting the smugglers, the Justice Department wants to brand Greenpeace a criminal operation. It has charged Greenpeace under an obscure, vague 19th century law aimed not at protestors but at efforts by unscrupulous boarding house owners to lure sailors to their establishments. A trial is now set for January.

In November, the Justice Department forced Greenpeace back into court to be arraigned a second time on the exact same charges. The sole reason: The government has now abandoned its claim that Greenpeace was wrong about the presence of contraband mahogany wood on the ship that Greenpeace activists boarded. The original indictment stated that the activists boarded the M/V APL Jade "based upon [Greenpeace’s] erroneous belief that the M/V APL Jade carried a shipment of Brazilian mahogany lumber." Greenpeace subsequently demonstrated, through papers filed in court, that its 'belief' was anything but erroneous: on April 14, 2002, after leaving Miami, the Jade unloaded tons of Brazilian mahogany at Charleston. So the government has decided to abandon its false allegation. We hope the government will soon admit that not just one sentence in its indictment but the entire prosecution is invalid.

The case appears aimed at thwarting Greenpeace’s activities in the United States. But Greenpeace’s commitment to non-violent actions, undertaken on behalf of our 250,000 supporters here and 2.8 million worldwide, are important; they have played a critical role in, for example, stopping atmospheric nuclear testing, protecting Antarctica from exploitation, and banning radioactive waste dumping at sea. The assault on free speech has extended beyond the indictment itself: When Greenpeace sought to bring our ship the Esperanza to Miami for public education activities, the Port of Miami, citing the indictment, denied dock space. So much for innocent until proven guilty. The Esperanza was forced to sit at anchor miles away, and, to make matters worse, the U.S. Coast Guard then imposed strict limits on access to the ship by journalists and members of the public.

More important, the significance of this case goes far beyond Greenpeace; it is about the fundamental rights of all Americans to engage in peaceful protest. In America’s history, public protest has been central to capturing attention and bringing positive change.

In 1773, American protesters boarded ships over objectionable cargo; the incident was called the Boston Tea Party, and it was critical to focusing objections to British rule. If African-Americans in the South had simply picketed businesses instead of staging lunch counter sit-ins and taking seats at the front of the bus, support for civil rights might have been much slower in coming. And if Southern prosecutors had criminally convicted groups like the NAACP or SCLC for civil disobedience, the movement might have been stopped in its tracks.

When, in the 1980s, the organization TransAfrica sent scores of prominent Americans to enter the grounds of the South African embassy in Washington to protest apartheid, did anyone expect the government to prosecute TransAfrica as a criminal enterprise? Do ActUp members who protest against AIDS policies expect that organization to be branded a criminal? When Greenpeace, a foe of many Bush administration policies, is prosecuted for the protest actions of its members, and groups like Operation Rescue and the anti-Castro Democracy Movement are not, we see evidence of improper selective prosecution.

Greenpeace recognizes the need for greater security, including at ports, in the wake of terrorist attacks. We carry out our work with full attention to safety and protection of property. Greenpeace activists make clear by their words and actions that they are engaged in peaceful efforts, not violence.

Criminalizing Greenpeace would chill First Amendment rights for everyone. If protest actions on commercial ships are banned, what is next? Probably, protests in shopping malls, government and university buildings, hotel ballrooms, and public plazas.

Indeed, this attack on Greenpeace comes not only as John Ashcroft aggressively promotes and implements the Patriot Act, but also as the Secret Service now relegates anti-Bush protestors to so-called "Free Speech Zones" as far as a mile away from the president, so that he cannot see or hear the demonstrators.

Leading national organizations, such as the ACLU, People for the American Way and the Natural Resources Defense Council have filed court briefs in support of Greenpeace. Leading legal experts have spoken out against this prosecution. The Miami Herald published an editorial saying, "The indictment is a puzzlement .... There seems no point beyond vindictiveness toward a group that riles the administration. Is this the best use of federal resources? Is it selective prosecution? ... The case should be closed." And in a recent speech, former Vice President Al Gore called the prosecution of Greenpeace "highly disturbing" and noted that "independent legal experts and historians have said that the prosecution—under an obscure and bizarre 1872 law against ‘sailor-mongering’—appears to be aimed at inhibiting Greenpeace’s First Amendment activities."

At a time when many basic liberties are under assault, it might be tempting to retreat in some areas. But non-violent protest is too important to America’s values and the world’s future. Greenpeace will resist this overreaching by Mr. Ashcroft’s Justice Department. We hope that all defenders of endangered freedoms, as well as protectors of endangered forests, will stand with us.

John Passacantando is executive director of Greenpeace USA. This article first appeared in Tom Paine.com (www.tompaine.com). 



FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com