Voices Raised at the Seat of Justice

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Life is full of glimpses of who we are and where we live. Most of the time they are accidental moments, but sometimes they follow a carefully rehearsed script. That was the case yesterday outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

You might call Sheila Stumph a habitual offender. Her crime: civil disobedience.

Like countless other protesters drawn to the nation's capital over the years, Stumph isn't the type to keep quiet about the world's ills, as she sees them. It's her nature to speak up, to demonstrate, to loudly beg to differ until the police haul her away.

How many arrests?

"Oh, maybe nine or 10," she said yesterday, bundled against the cold outside the Supreme Court. It was the 30th anniversary of the resumption of capital punishment in the United States, and a dozen activists, including Stumph, 29, of North Carolina, showed up to protest the death penalty. Nine of the demonstrators planned to be arrested (though not Stumph, who had her 3-month-old daughter with her).

"My first arrest? November of 1997, with the School of the Americas Watch at Fort Benning, which was for Latin American human rights," she said. After that, the arrests mostly blur together. "At different executions in North Carolina. And at the White House. And at the Pentagon several times, over the war in Iraq, disarmament."

Cradling her baby, Stumph smiled and said: "This is Sasha. She was arrested in utero twice."

She watched from the sidewalk as nine protesters -- including her husband, Scott Langley, 30 -- waited in line with tourists on the marble plaza in front of the court building, then stepped out and unfurled a 30-foot banner: "STOP EXECUTIONS!" Police moved in casually, allowing the demonstrators a few minutes to chant and make speeches before they were asked to disperse.

They, of course, refused. It's against the law to "make a harangue" on Supreme Court property. The officers calmly handcuffed the passive protesters.

"It's an inconvenience mostly," said the Rev. Frank Dew, 55, a Presbyterian from North Carolina. "Last time I was arrested, I just paid the fine. This time we're going to fight it, I think, because it's going to involve free speech on the steps of the Supreme Court, where free speech should be encouraged."

Another of those in handcuffs, Brian Buckley, 34, of Charlottesville, said, "It's sometimes necessary for people of faith to sacrifice their freedom for a more just and compassionate society."

On the sidewalk with Stumph stood Lorig Charkoudian, 33, of Takoma Park. How many arrests? "Four times," she said. "No, I think five times. Different things. The death penalty. Nuclear weapons twice. The war." Like Stumph, Charkoudian chose to remain free yesterday because she came with a child, 8-month-old Rafayel.

"When I was pregnant with him, I had a T-shirt out to here that said, 'We're not making children to fight wars,' " she recalled. "I got arrested at a recruiting station."

She and Stumph snapped photos as the protesters were led away, one by one. Jack Payden-Travers, 59, of Lynchburg, Va., refused to walk, so officers dragged him backward, his heels scraping along the marble. He grinned and bellowed, "This one's for Sasha!"

Stumph lowered her camera, smiling. "Thanks, Jack!"

-- Paul Duggan, staff writer

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