Letter To A Judge

Judge Neal Edward Axel,
Howard County District Court,
34S1 Courthouse Dr.
Ellicott City, Maryland 21043

May 17, 1999

Judge Axel:

     Today on the 55th day of the US/NATO war against the people of Yugoslavia, I want to inform you I am unwilling to pay the $100 fine you assessed after finding me guilty of criminal trespass on May 4, 1999. Presumably, you will issue a warrant for my arrest, and therefore I am ready to enter the Howard County Detention Center on Wednesday, May 19. Your assistance in this matter would be appreciated. My codefendants Ellen Barfield and Jen Kipka finished their sentences and continue to work for peace.
     The trial resulted from the March 1 arrest of five members of the Baltimore Emergency Response Network [BERN], who were part of a Citizen Weapons Inspection Team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory [APL]. As a Navy research lab, the APL is a major developer of technology for warships. One of its contracts is for the guidance system of the Tomahawk cruise missile, which has caused so much devastation in Iraq and, more recently, in Yugoslavia.
     The inspection team requested a meeting with Gary Smith, the former director of the APL who now works for the CIA, in order to search for evidence of research on weapons of mass destruction. Instead we were arrested and charged with criminal trespass.
     Prior to trial, I thought there was a chance for an acquittal on the merits of the case. Afterwards, though, I believe you found us guilty as soon as the prosecution presented its case. I was startled when two of the police officers were untruthful on the witness stand, claiming that Ellen and I were asked to leave before we were arrested. Ellen and I were not given a warning, as required by the trespass statute.
     We argued a right to inspect the APL because of its destructive weapons research, a First Amendment right to leaflet at the lab and, finally, the importance of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which affirms international law. Sadly, though, you stood on the side of the powerful--Johns Hopkins University and the Pentagon--against the powerless--demonstrators with a social consciousness--and convicted us. You ignored the concept of “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
     Your rush to judgment, though, is rather typical of our experiences with district court judges in Howard County. One judge, now retired, claimed his life was saved in World War II because of atomic weapons. Yet he was handling cases of protesters who condemned the nuclear weapons research at the APL. Only once did we encounter a Howard County judge who accepted our arguments. However, she resigned from the bench many years ago.
     As we learned from the Nuremberg trials, a citizen must resist his/her government’s illegal behavior. Our government taxes its citizens to finance the largest military-industrial-university complex the world has ever known. It possesses a vast arsenal of weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction. And its massive attacks on Yugoslavian and Iraqi noncombatants violate all laws of armed conflict. Like Ellen and Jen, who refused to pay a fine, I am, with good conscience, also unwilling.
     As I follow the daily attacks on Yugoslavia, I am so disgusted by my government’s willingness to kill civilians and destroy an entire country’s infrastructure. I think, as Thoreau espoused in denouncing the U.S. war against Mexico, a resister’s place is in jaiL
     In the future, more nonviolent demonstrators against the inhumane research of the Applied Physics Laboratory will appear before you for triaL Please give serious consideration and thought, at that time, to our arguments.
     Ramsey Clark, as the United States Attorney General, prosecuted peace activists who tried to end the US assault against Vietnam. Today, Mr. Clark stands with the peace movement in opposition to our government’s militarism. The Sun [May 11, 1999] printed an excerpt of his remarks to the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
     The flip side of the coin is Judge J. Robert Elliott, who sits on the federal bench in Columbus, Georgia The strident segregationist used federal injunctions to try to stop Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights organizing in Georgia This history is available in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. In the 1990s, “Maximum Bob” Elliott is sending nonviolent protesters of Fort Benning’s infamous School of the Americas to prison for six months. Ellen and I were among the more than 2,000 activists who risked arrest and “crossed the line” at Fort Benning this past November.
     You have a choice to emulate the current work of Ramsey Clark or that of Judge Elliott. I sincerely hope you decide to use your position to stand up against injustice. It is a difficult, but, of course I would argue, the proper choice.
     Your comments are welcome.

     Best wishes.

     Max Obuszewski remains out of jail as the judge has yet to issue a warrant. He expects to serve his ten-day sentence in mid-June.

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This story was published on June 3, 1999.