John Heid on Trial: The conscience of the community is an essential part of a democracy.
By Steve Clemens Mennonista March 29, 2017It was a great honor to sit in on at least parts of four of the trials and hear the clear testimony of fellow codefendants describe why they took part. Although much of the trials focused on technical legal minutiae like where exactly were you standing (were you technically on “Metro Transit property”?) instead of the message we were trying to convey, defendants who were eager to take the stand tried to embody the signs we carried: “White Silence Equals Violence” by breaking silence around the police killings of Jamar Clark and other black young men in our metro area. For the past three days, John Heid and Eddie Bloomer were on trial in Hennepin County Courthouse for the arrests at the Black Lives Matter/Twins Home Opener/Catholic Worker Faith and Resistance Retreat action last April. This was the final in a series of five trials, which concluded in two acquittals, dismissal of charges against many of the defendants, the conviction of eight who requested jury trials and the acceptance of a plea agreement for others. (I was in this latter group due to the uncertainty surrounding my dying father’s situation – not wanting to be in the middle of a three-day trial at the time of his passing.)
Yesterday and today, John Heid, going pro-se (representing himself rather than using a lawyer for defense), spoke clearly and passionately. It was difficult to take notes because so much of what he said was noteworthy. Here is the gist of what I wrote down.
- The conscience of the community is an essential part of a democracy.
- He is committed to Kingian nonviolence – following the practice of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- My intent was to raise awareness [of the public] when all other attempts seemed to have failed.
- King teaches us to “raise the tension” –create a “creative tension.” This process is not an easy or painless one; it is akin to “lancing a boil- in order to get to the infection” and begin the healing process. The cancer that must be addressed in our body politic is racism exacerbated with notions of white supremacy throughout our nation.
- We take a “civil initiative” (some use terms such as “civil disobedience” or “civil resistance”) to both pressure our government and its “leaders” as well as take personal responsibility ourselves when the state has failed to right an injustice. As a Quaker, John stated he had “civil responsibility” and as a citizen he has a “civic responsibility”.
- Conscience must inform our view of the law. There are times (such as now) when “we have to leave the comfort of the sidewalk for the dissonance of the streets” – referring to being willing to risk arrest rather than just holding a sign on the sidewalk or leaving the street after an arrest warning is delivered. “I don’t just go into the street to raise havoc,” he stated, explaining his principled commitment to nonviolent direct action attempting to address social injustice. “When lives are at stake, laws need to adjust accordingly.” Sometimes one has to violate a law like rushing into a burning building to save lives despite trespass codes. “Racism is that fire today and it is burning down our houses and destroying our souls.”
- “What is important is not where I stood – but rather what I stood for.” This, in response to Prosecutor Patrick Marzitelli’s attempt to get John to admit that one of his feet might have been on “Metro Transit property” in a photo the State entered into evidence. Although I’m certain John was not technically “trespassing” at the time the “leave or arrest” warnings were given – (he had moved further away from the lightrail tracks as the vigil/protest progressed) – he wanted his emphasis to remain on what he stood for – and why – rather than exactly where his feet were planted.
- Telling the jury that we can’t build a nonviolent world using the tools of violence, John called out the names of Jamar, Philando, and Cordale – “may they rest in peace; a peace they never found in these cities.”
- At the closing arguments, the Prosecutor told the jury they were to consider “just the facts and the law” – oh, and “common sense,” setting aside their feelings and sentiments about the Black Lives Matter movement or anything else. To which John Heid, when his turn arrived, countered with “You [the jury] are to be the conscience of the community.” You have a responsibility – the ability to respond. “You, today, are acting as the soul of this community.” My intent, John stated clearly, was to take a claim of responsibility for the troubles of our society. I was trying to prevent further harm and address the harms of the past. It was my conscience that brought me here – not a criminal intent. WHY I stood where I stood informs my intent.
Alas, the jurors decided to follow the pleas of the Prosecutor. Both John and Eddie were convicted on all charges. But lest you think this was a defeat, John Heid smiled his Quaker smile during a break in the trial, saying to me, it doesn’t matter if I get convicted or not as long as we can speak some truth in this courtroom. Thank you, brothers, for lives full of witness and conviction!
- Steve Clemens is a peace and justice activist committed to following the way of the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth. He is a member of the ecumenical Community of St. Martin in Minneapolis and served on the Boards of Pax Christi Twin Cites Area and the Iraqi/American Reconciliation Project, a group helping to support the work of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq.
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