Thirteen activists arrested last fall for chaining themselves to the White House fence in opposition to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy are scheduled to appear in federal court Friday.
The group — including gay rights leaders, a Catholic priest and eight veterans discharged for breaking the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops — were arrested Nov. 15 and previously declined to plead guilty to violating the orders of a federal law enforcement officer. The charge carries a maximum six-month jail sentence.
It’s the first time since at least 2006 that protesters have faced the charge, according to Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
Mark Goldstone, the group’s attorney, said his research suggests it’s the first time prosecutors have ever used the charge against protesters at federal sites anywhere in the District.
“Of all the locations to get arrested at in D.C., one would think that the White House location would be where you’re most likely to get prosecuted,” but prosecutors are more likely to press charges against protesters outside the Capitol or Supreme Court, Goldstone said Thursday.
While not unusual, arresting protesters for chaining themselves to the White House fence is not as common as other First Amendment exercises on federal property in the District, according to the U.S. Park Police. Protesters are more commonly charged with violating regulations pertaining to the area, number of participants, and size of signs used in demonstrations, according to Sgt. David Schlosser, a Park Police spokesman.
Mara Boyd, 29, one of the protesters appearing in court on Friday, was discharged by the Air Force in 2003 for violating the gay ban. She said she chained herself to the White House in November “to apply some pressure” on lawmakers and Obama to end the policy.
“I was tired of empty promises and delays and politicians - including our president - telling me and other gay veterans and service members to just wait your turn, that other things are more pressing,” Boyd said Thursday.
President Obama signed legislation in December that will end the ban on gays in the military after the Pentagon trains the force on changes in personnel policy and after Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen certify in writing that the military is ready to proceed. Neither the White House nor Pentagon has said when that might occur.
Commanders, chaplains and other officials last month began receiving instructions on the changes and are now training the rank and file stationed around the world, according to the Pentagon. Most of the training is expected to be completed by June.
Gay rights activists worry however that commanders opposed to ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” may attempt to subvert it by using other disciplinary methods against people they suspect are gay. They point to the case of a 21-year old Navy sailor stationed near Charleston, S.C. who is contesting plans to discharge him for dereliction of duty after he was found asleep in bed with another male sailor.
Once the law takes effect, the military will permit troops discharged for violating the ban to reenlist. Boyd plans to do so “As soon as I can walk into a recruiting office.”
“I want to finish serving my country,” she said.
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