In a stiff sentence for an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, a judge on March 23 slapped a $400 fine plus $90 in court costs on the first of the "Blaine House 9" to go on trial. Diane Messer, 59, of Liberty, had been convicted of criminal trespass by a Kennebec County Superior Court jury in Augusta.
Messer and scores of people involved with Occupy Augusta had marched onto the governor's residence grounds on November 27 to protest the state's order to the group to cease camping overnight in Capitol Park. They had been in the park for six weeks to protest "corporate greed and corporate control of the government," as Messer said in her trial.
She and eight others were arrested when they remained standing politely in a line along the side of the mansion after police told protesters to leave. (See "'Blaine House Nine' Banned from Capitol Park, State House," by Lance Tapley, December 9, 2011.)
During the trial, Messer, a gray-haired, 22-year Army veteran, had argued that the First Amendment right of citizens to petition government for the redress of grievances trumped the criminal charge.
Justice Nancy Mills rejected Messer's request for a sentence of community service because, she said, on Messer's part there had been "no acceptance of responsibility." While she understands the passion people have for issues, Mills added, it "has to be tempered by following the rules that everyone else is expected to follow."
Philip Worden and Lynne Williams, Messer's lawyers, had given the judge a list of sentences imposed in other Maine civil-disobedience cases, most of which were for community service.
In the trial, prosecutor James Mitchell Jr. had argued that the state can put restrictions on the use of government property, and the Blaine House is "open to the public by invitation only." (Governor Paul LePage wasn't home that day.)
Suggesting that people who break the law for a principle should face the consequences, Mitchell referred to Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience.
Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and Mohandas Gandhi — the most famous philosophers and practitioners of nonviolent civil disobedience — "did not plead the way Diane did," said Douglas Allen, a philosophy professor at the University of Maine, commenting on the trial.
These great dissidents often welcomed being convicted, he said, because it dramatized and raised public consciousness about the issue they were protesting. Allen has taught and published on King's and Gandhi's philosophies.
On the other hand, he said, some who practice this form of protest hold that they shouldn't be convicted because another law or principle takes precedence over the law they are charged with transgressing. This was the case with Messer, who relied on the First Amendment.
No other Blaine House 9 trials have yet been scheduled. Williams, who represents several other defendants, expects that one or more trials would be held in April.
She said "the Occupy folks are really disappointed" with the verdict, "but most want to continue to trial." All defendants have pleaded not guilty. Williams also said an appeal of Messer's conviction was possible.