Jan. 26, 2012
National Catholic Reporter
"New law means stripping certain protestors of their rights"
By Jeff Dietrich - LACW
Habeas corpus, hocus pocus, whatever.
Most Americans haven't the slightest idea what this arcane Latin term
might mean or why it might be important to them, but it is the reason
why most of the cases against Occupy
It is also the reason why President Barack Obama signed HR 155, the
National Defense Authorization Act, into law, giving the president and
the military the authority to hold
charges and bringing them before a judge.
Although I have been arrested and jailed scores of times over the
years for civil disobedience, it was not until I was arrested and
jailed with 300 "occupants" of Occupy
that I had a renewed appreciation for habeas corpus.
Because of habeas corpus, jailers and clerks had to scurry with
unnatural speed to get all 300 of us to court or drop charges within
the required three days. Because of habeas corpus, the prosecuting
attorneys had to scramble to make their case and find witnesses within
the 30 days required for a "speedy trial." Because of habeas corpus¸
the arresting officers and their superiors had to cancel vacations,
change their schedules and postpone important meetings in order to
testify. Habeas corpus threw the whole system into disarray. When my
case came before the court, both prosecutor and judge were delighted
to offer me a "deal": plead guilty, get time served, no probation, no
fine, no court fees, just get the hell out of here. Best deal I ever
had from a prosecutor! As the saying goes, I "made out like a bandit."
On the other hand, Martha, my fellow community member, was not offered
a deal. But her trial was a profound affirmation of the Bill of Rights
and habeas corpus. Her public defender was brilliant. In her opening
statement, she told the jury that Martha Lewis did not break the law;
rather, Ms. Lewis rightfully understood herself and Occupy
to have been invited by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City
Council to be present on the City Hall plaza lawn. She said Martha was
only doing what every citizen in the
She was voicing her opinion in public space, and that activity is
guaranteed by the Constitution. She virtually canonized Martha as a
saint of the First Amendment who stood up against the police for the
rights of all
After three days, Martha's case was dismissed because the prosecutors
were unable to present evidence against her. The officer who claimed
to have arrested her was not allowed to testify because he had not
been made known to the defense beforehand. No arresting officer, no
arrest, no case ... case dismissed. Some might say that the right to
habeas corpus and a speedy trial are a detriment to justice, because
these rights let guilty criminals like Martha and myself go free. They
would, of course, be in the same camp as the CIA, the military and the
president, who want to hold "terrorists" indefinitely.
There is a general public sense that we need protection from
terrorists, even if it means suspending habeas corpus. But I have been
identified by various federal prosecutors and the FBI as a domestic
terrorist -- a nonviolent terrorist, but a terrorist, nonetheless. And
some law enforcement agencies have begun to label the Occupy movement
as a terrorist organization. Anyone who takes a strong stand against
government and corporate policies can be labeled a terrorist and held
indefinitely. The foundational rights guaranteed by the Bill of
Rights, and even before that by the Magna Carta, have been put into
the hands of anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats and administrators.
The vote in Congress to pass HR 155 was overwhelmingly positive, with
huge support on both sides of the aisle.
From a certain perspective, it is understandable that the president
and liberal Democrats might sell out basic constitutional rights to
"big government" and the maintenance of empire.
But it is ironic that Tea Party legislators would so freely trade the
values of security for the treasure of liberty they claim to hold so
dearly. Are they unaware that the perpetrators of the
were considered to be terrorists? And had things gone differently,
they might well have been jailed and hanged. But, even so, as citizens
corpus. Even as "terrorists," they had a basic right to be brought
before a magistrate; they had a basic right to hear the charges
against them; they had a basic right to a speedy trial; they had a
basic right to subpoena witnesses in their defense; they had a basic
right to cross-examine the witnesses against them. Only those who have
put their bodies in places of peril, whether it be at Occupy Los
Angeles in 2011 or the Boston Harbor in 1773, can appreciate the right
of habeas corpus. Those who play-act in Revolutionary War uniforms are
willing to sell that right cheaply.
You have to put your body where your principles are. As labor
organizer César Chávez said upon breaking his historic 25-day fast in
1967: "We are poor ... but we have something the rich do not own, our
bodies and the justice of our cause." The truth is that the only thing
we really own is our body, and the only time that habeas corpus really
matters is when our bodies are hauled off by the authorities.
Hocus pocus is a medieval corruption of the Latin; it is the
"make-believe" that charlatan magicians conjure when they pull the
rabbit out of the hat. Habeas corpus is real; it means to "make the
body appear." When we put our bodies in peril, it is essential that we
do not disappear; it is essential that the authorities be required to
"make our bodies appear." Otherwise, we are mere rabbits in the hats
of charlatan bureaucrats, cops and presidents who can arbitrarily
choose to conjure us or not at their whim. May this not be so. May
this not be so.
Jeff Dietrich is a 40-year member of the
His most recent book, “Broken and Shared,” is published by Marymount Institute Press.