Peace grannies win their war
BY BARBARA ROSS and TRACY CONNOR
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS NY Daily News - April 28, 2006
The grannies got a walk yesterday - even if some of them needed a cane to take it.
A Manhattan judge acquitted 18 golden agers of breaking the law when they staged a peace protest in front of a Times Square military recruitment center.
After the verdict, surprised members of the so-called Granny Peace Brigade burst into applause - and then into song - outside the courthouse.
"God help America," the sassy seniors trilled to the tune of "God Bless America."
"We need you bad. Because our leaders are cheaters and they're making the world really mad."
The elderly women were arrested last fall and charged with disorderly conduct and disobeying police orders - violations that carry up to 15 days in jail.
As a protest against the war in Iraq, they were trying to sign up for military service and give the recruiters home-baked cookies.
During a five-day nonjury trial, each defendant took the stand and testified she never tried to block anyone from entering the recruitment center.
Their old-fashioned charm made whippersnapper prosecutor John McConnell's dogged cross-examinations and closing argument seem a tad harsh.
"Good intentions are never an excuse for lawless conduct," he told the court with all the intensity of a rookie trying a mob chieftain.
"They don't get a pass for who they are or however noble their cause might be. Lawlessness is not a personal decision these defendants were entitled to make."
But Judge Neil Ross couldn't find a single outlaw among the grannies, though he went out of his way not to criticize the cops for arresting them in the heat of the moment.
"There was no blockage of pedestrian traffic and anyone who wanted to enter the recruiting center could do so," Ross said. "I find the defendants not guilty."
The courtroom erupted in applause, and some of the oldsters later said they had been bracing for a sentence of community service.
"I was a little surprised," admitted Betty Coqui Brassell, 76, of the lower East Side, who used a walker and sports a "Smush Bush" button on her lapel.
The trial had turned some of the grannies into cause célèbres. One said a cab driver who dropped her off at court that morning recognized her from news coverage.
"This is a free ride," he told her.
The Police Department had no comment on the verdict.
But the brigade's lawyers, Norman Siegel and Earl Ward, used the outcome as an opportunity to call on the NYPD to review the First Amendment training officers get.
Their feisty client, Joan Wile, 74, a retired singer, sounded like she was ready to march right back to Times Square and give President Bush another piece of her mind.
"Listen to your granny," she said when asked what the judge's ruling meant. "And take to the streets like we did."
Originally published on April 28, 2006 NY Daily News- and in the NY TIMES- Below:
April 28, 2006
Setting Grandmotherhood Aside, Judge Lets 18 Go in Peace
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
They came, they shuffled, they conquered.
Eighteen "grannies" who were swept up by the New York City police, handcuffed, loaded into police vans and jailed for four and a half hours were acquitted yesterday of charges that they blocked the entrance to the military recruitment center in Times Square when they tried to enlist.
After six days of a nonjury trial, the grandmothers and dozens of their supporters filled a courtroom in Manhattan Criminal Court to hear whether they would be found guilty of two counts of disorderly conduct for refusing to move, which could have put them in jail for 15 days. The women call their group the Granny Peace Brigade and said they wanted to join the armed forces and thus offer their lives for those of younger soldiers in Iraq.
The women — from 59 to 91, many gray-haired, some carrying canes, one legally blind, one with a walker — listened gravely and in obvious suspense as Judge Neil E. Ross delivered a carefully worded 15-minute speech in which he said his verdict was not a referendum on the Police Department, the defendants' antiwar message or, indeed, their very grandmotherhood.
But, he said, there was credible evidence that the grandmothers had left room for people to enter the recruitment center, and that therefore they had been wrongly arrested.
He then pronounced them not guilty, concluding. "The defendants are all discharged."
The women, sitting in the jury box at the invitation of the judge, to make it easier for them to see and hear, let out a collective "Oh!" and burst into applause, rushing forward, as quickly as women their age could rush, to hug and kiss their lawyers, Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Earl Ward.
"Listen to your granny, she knows best," crowed Joan Wile, 74, a retired cabaret singer and jingle writer who was one of the defendants.
Outside the courthouse minutes later, the women burst into their unofficial anthem, "God Help America," composed by Kay Sather, a member of a sister group in Arizona, the Raging Grannies of Tucson, which goes, "God help America, We need you bad, 'cause our leaders are cheaters, and they're making the world really mad."
The trial was extraordinary, if only because it gave 18 impassioned women — some of whom dated their political activism to the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — a chance to testify at length about their antiwar sentiments and their commitment to free speech and dissent, in a courtroom that attracted reporters from France and Germany.
Despite the judge's demurrals, the verdict was one in a series of victories for protesters who have been arrested by the New York police since the invasion of Iraq.
While more than 300 people were detained for minor offenses during demonstrations at the 2004 Republican National Convention, few were convicted. Also, earlier this year, a state judge rejected the city's efforts to quash Critical Mass, a monthly bicycle rally in Manhattan.
"I was sure we were sunk," said Lillian Rydell, 86, a defendant who testified during the trial that she went to "the school of hard knocks," instead of college.
"I love everybody," she said. The defendants called themselves "grannies" because they are all old enough to be grandmothers, even if some of them are not, and because in their view, grandmothers are a core American value, as patriotic as mom and apple pie.
Essentially, Judge Ross had found himself with grandmotherhood on trial in his courtroom. He seemed to acknowledge his dilemma when he said, in his decision, "This case is not a referendum on future actions at the location in question, on police tactics nor the age of the defendants or the content of their message."
He said he did not fault the police for making a decision in the heat of the moment to arrest the women last October, but he said that as a judge, he had the "luxury of time and hindsight" in which to consider events.
Before the verdict yesterday, both sides delivered their closing arguments.
The youthful prosecutor, Artie McConnell, allowed that it would be foolish of him to "cross swords" with a veteran civil liberties lawyer like Mr. Siegel on the First Amendment. "Luckily for me," he said, "I don't have to, because that's not what this case is about."
The case, he continued, was about breaking the law. "These defendants do not get a pass for who they are, no matter how noble their cause may be," he said.
If Mr. McConnell stuck to prose, Mr. Siegel did not hesitate to offer poetry. The defendants, he said in his closing, "tried to alert an apathetic public to the immorality, the illegality, the destructiveness and the wrongness of the war in Iraq." The grannies could not be punished for failing to obey a police command if that command violated their constitutional right to protest, he said.
When it was over, the grannies seemed ready to do it again. "The decision today says the First Amendment protects you to protest peacefully," Mr. Siegel said, addressing his clients outside the courthouse after the verdict. "So — go do it!"
And the grannies cheered.