Support the Troops; Jail a Veteran

The story of Rosemarie Jackowski

Earlier this month I was in Vermont where I noticed that many cars bore yellow ribbons with the slogan "Support our Troops." Being an ex-Marine, I want to believe that those yellow ribbons also signified respect for veterans, but perhaps that is not so.

I was disturbed to read in a local newspaper of a 67-year-old grandmother who faces two months in jail for civil disobedience during an antiwar protest in Bennington. The grandmother is an U.S. Air Force veteran, Rosemarie Jackowski. Unlike us menfolk, she'd been under no requirement to serve in the military, but had chosen to do so anyway. Clearly, Jackowski is a person who takes her American citizenship seriously -- and yet it took a jury only 15 minutes to find her "guilty."

It leaves me wondering, what do people really mean when they say "Support our Troops"?

Daniel Borgström
Oakland, California
The above letter was in the Vermont newspapers Bennington Banner and Times Argus in September 2004

The story below is from October 2004

by Daniel Borgström

VERMONTERS are known for their unbending resolve, and 67-year-old Rosemarie Jackowski is exactly such a person. On March 20, 2003, the day after the war in Iraq began, Rosemarie was one of a group of one hundred protesters who held a demonstration at the main intersection in the town of Bennington, Vermont.

Although the protesters were peaceful, some of the reactions they got were pretty menacing. According to a local newspaper, the Bennington Banner, there was a dramatic moment where "[T]he driver of a tractor trailer inched his rig dangerously close to protesters to get them to move, blasting his horn as he did so. The driver of a pickup truck, meanwhile, repeatedly banged his plow on the road."

"I simply stood, in silence, with my head bowed," Rosemarie recalls. "Those were the most solemn moments of my life. I was holding a sign. I, and a hundred others were in the road."

The protesters stood their ground, and the police were getting a little nervous because, in spite of the obvious danger, "people weren't getting out of the road."

Police Lt. Paul Doucette told the Bennington Banner that he tried his best to move the protesters, "almost to the point of pleading with them," but had no choice but to make arrests. Jackowski, he said, would not move voluntarily but was cooperative during the arrest. She was arrested by Officer Paul McGann. Lt. Doucette and Jackowski had known each other since the early 1990s; they complimented each other as being unfailingly polite.

A total of twelve protesters were arrested. For Rosemarie, it was an eventful day, the first time in her life that she'd been arrested. It was her 66th birthday, and she spent the rest of it in jail.

Shortly after the arrests, the defendants were arraigned, and eleven of them opted to plead guilty and pay fines and perform community service. Rosemarie alone refused to plead guilty for an act of conscience which she believed to have been morally called for. "It was an act of act of obedience to a Higher Authority," she said. "We should be criticized only in one area. We all did too little."

As often happens with court cases, this one dragged on for a year and a half till it finally came to trial in Vermont District Court in Bennington in September 2004. Rosemarie told the Rutland Herald that she welcomed the chance to go to trial, calling it an opportunity to discuss the thousands of civilians the United States has killed in Iraq. "Some people have referred to it as the political trial of the century in Bennington. I think, in a sense, if it's done right, it might be," she said.

Although judges are often reluctant to let political issues be presented in front of a jury, there was reason to believe that it might actually have to be allowed in Rosemarie's case. That's because the charge against Rosemarie was "Disorderly Conduct WITH INTENT TO HARASS AND ANNOY." That's different from just saying she stood in the road and blocked traffic -- which she did. Since a key part of the charge was INTENT, the prosecution had to prove what was in the mind of the defendant.

It also meant that if this procedure was to have any semblance of a fair trial, the defendant would have to be given ample opportunity to tell the jury exactly what her intentions were, and present evidence to back her statements. Since Rosemarie's intention was to call attention to the killing of civilians in Iraq, "an act of conscience," she called it, the obvious implication for her was that to prove her innocence, she would need to show grounds for believing that such killing was indeed taking place.

The evidence she brought to the courtroom of Judge David Suntag on September 9, 2004 included over a hundred photos of the bombed Iraqi children. However, the prosecutor objected, calling it "designed to invoke the prejudice of the jury." The judge agreed with the prosecutor and did not permit Rosemarie to show any of the photos to the jury, even though her intent was to call attention to the killing of civilians in Iraq.

Some brief testimony was permitted. Rosemarie was allowed to tell the jury that she'd grown up in Pennsylvania's coal mining region and began working at the age of ten in a garment sweatshop. She attended college at night for nine years while working during the day, then joined the US Air Force. Later she'd been a teacher and a social worker. Currently she's an advocate journalist. And she's a grandmother. The media picked up on her being a "grandmother," perhaps as a human-interest angle.

Much of this autobiographical material seems almost tangential to her case, but it was what the judge allowed. On the other hand, the jury was not permitted to see a video provided by the defendant of the March 20th protest. The exclusion of that video seems especially strange, since it showed clearly what her actions were on that day.

The trial lasted only the morning and part of the afternoon, less than a day. At the end of the brief session, the jury deliberated for less than 15 minutes and found Rosemarie "guilty," even though the intent behind her actions did not fit the language “with intent to harass and annoy.”

The speed and unanimity of this verdict by 12 jurors seems almost too remarkable. It reminds me of elections in various 3rd world countries where dictators win 98 percent of the votes instead of a more convincing 51 percent. As for Rosemarie's trial, it would've seemed more credible if the jury had spent a couple of days in reaching their decision, or even just a couple of hours.

In spite of everything, Rosemarie felt it had been worth her efforts. WRGB, the CBS affiliate in Albany NY, filmed the whole trial. During breaks, Rosemarie spoke to the journalists and asked them to publish the photos of the bloody and dead Iraqi children, victims of U.S. bombing. That night on their news program, WRGB showed some of the photos. So Rosemarie was able to present the media with some of the story that she hadn't been able to present to the jury; she considered that a victory.

The prosecutor, Deputy State's Attorney McManus, also spoke to the media that day. He was quoted in the Rutland Herald and also by the Associated Press as saying, "I don't doubt that she had a good intent, but there are definitely better ways to get your point across." Perhaps that was a Freudian slip; anyway, conceding her "good intent" contradicted the logic of the accusation -- that Rosemarie had acted "with intent to harass and annoy."

In the days and weeks following, Rosemarie received a lot of encouragement. There were emails from all over, including Great Britain, Brazil, China, Canada and Australia. There were also letters published in the Bennington Banner and the Rutland Herald/Times Argus, and she continues to be invited to do speaking engagements. "I have gotten so much support that I literally cannot believe it," she said.

This correspondence and other activities have kept her busy. She writes for the on-line magazine "Press Action," where one of her pieces is "The Trial." In it she said, "The most important thing to remember is that, since the day of my arrest, more than 13,000 innocent Iraqi civilians were given capital punishment by the U.S. Not one of them had a trial."

On October 7th she went back to court for her sentencing hearing, where she faced a possible sixty days in jail as well as a $500 fine. On this occasion, also in the courtroom of Judge David Suntag, in Vermont District Court, in Bennington, four witnesses testified on Rosemarie's behalf. One was her daughter Christine; the other three were ex-GIs, members of Veterans for Peace.

"I'm a combat veteran," said Elliott Adams, a paratrooper who served in Vietnam. "Many folks view my decorations as proof that I am a hero, but I will tell you the true American heroes are the Rosemarie Jackowskis. … The true American patriots have not been the soldiers, …. They have been the ordinary, or should I say the extraordinary, citizens who have stood up against governmental wrong."

Another veteran, Andrew Schoerke of Shaftsbury, told the court that Rosemarie's intent that day was to be a "fire bell in the night and awaken friends and neighbors to the tragedy that had begun to unfold in Iraq."

"She is an example of bravery to us all," said Rosemarie's daughter, Christine Jackowski.

In contrast with the rules he'd imposed during the trial, Judge Suntag allowed the witnesses to say whatever they wished. Perhaps this was because there was no jury on this day. After all, this was a sentencing hearing; Rosemarie's supposed "guilt" had already been decided the previous month. Rosemarie herself was also allowed to speak on her own behalf, in accordance with the common law principle of allocution. The judge asks the defendant to show any legal cause why sentence should not be pronounced.

Unbending as ever, Rosemarie addressed the court, "How can it be that a Nation, that is itself in violation of the law, can then hope to impose the Rule of Law on its citizens?

"I have here a copy of the Indictment of Nineteen Charges against members of the Government as compiled by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark," she said, holding up the document for all to see. She quoted other sources as well, and explained to the judge, "Your Honor, I believe that our government will not regain its legal and moral authority until it gives up its life of international crime."

"She spoke strongly and loudly throughout, not once wavering or losing her train of thought," reported the Bennington Banner. Rosemarie said afterwards that she had expected to be held in contempt of court for her statement, but on this day the judge was more tolerant than she'd expected. Some in the courtroom said that the judge even smiled several times during Rosemarie's statement.

"I am not foolish enough to try to engage in a debate with you," Judge Suntag told her, and then sentenced her to a short, suspended jail sentence and probation.

Her sentence will not go into effect until the process of her appeal is finished. At that time, the charges could be dropped, or she could be re-tried, or she could be imprisoned.

Daniel Borgström
October 19, 2004

Below are two letters to Vermont newspapers

Letter to the Editor
Times Argus, Barre, Vermont
December 31, 2006

Two years ago when antiwar activist Rosemarie Jackowski first went on trial, I was visiting in Vermont and read about her in your newspaper. Since then her unbending dedication to peace and justice has been an inspiration.

Now the Bennington state's attorney plans to try her yet again, and at first that struck me as unjust, wasteful and meaningless. But on thinking it over, I realize that if it hadn't been for these trials, most of us would never have heard of Rosemarie Jackowski. So maybe in a perverse sort of way the state's attorney is doing a good service.

Daniel Borgström
Oakland, California


Letter to the Editor
Bennington Banner, Bennington, Vermont
February 5, 2007

Every so often I look at the Bennington Banner online, searching for news of antiwar activist Rosemarie Jackowski. Finally, this afternoon I read the announcement I've been waiting and hoping for--Charges Dropped. Rosemarie hung in there and she won! Her unbending spirit has been an inspiration.

Daniel Borgström
Oakland, California

also please see
Charges dropped against Vermont Peace Activist