May 27, 2005

Area women guilty in D.C. court
Case is believed to be first involving civil disobedience, Darfur genocide

By SARA TOTH
Tribune Staff Writer

Brenna Cussen, from the South Bend Tribune
Brenna Cussen traveled to Sudan in December to collect data on the country’s refugee situation.
Tribune File Photo/PAUL RAKESTRAW

Two South Bend women were among seven people found guilty in a Washington, D.C., court of unlawful assembly for demonstrating at the Sudanese embassy against the continuing genocide in that North African country.

Brenna Cussen, 26, and Elizabeth Fallon, 23, both University of Notre Dame graduates who live in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker community on West Washington Street, and the other five defendants testified that they needed to break the law to prevent greater harm in Sudan.

Christ’s Gospel teachings of peace and the dire situation in Sudan gave moral permission to breach civil law, defendants and their expert witnesses said in this case, believed to be the first involving civil disobedience and the Darfur genocide.

They could have avoided Wednesday’s trial by paying a $50 fine on the day of their arrests in February. But they traveled back to Washington to fight the misdemeanor charges and give a public voice to genocide victims in Sudan, Fallon and Cussen said.

The number of people who have died in the Darfur region ranges from 60,00 to 160,000, according to the U.S. State Department. But other organizations have placed the toll at least 400,000.

Judge Rufus King III of Superior Court of the District of Columbia told the defendants that they “presented the case very effectively,” according to a news release from the Catholic Worker community. But King said he found them guilty because they had other ways to help people in Sudan and did not need to break the law.

“Legal alternatives (to civil disobedience), although they may not appear effective or desirable to the defendants, were nonetheless available,” he told the court, according to the news release.

The defendants, all involved with the social justice Catholic Worker movement started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, were given sentences ranging from two to 90 days in jail. But King suspended the sentences so they don’t actually have to serve any time.

The seven gathered at the Sudanese embassy on Feb. 2, holding up photographs of people displaced by fighting in Sudan during the past two years. The U.S. government has labeled the actions genocide, but the United Nations has not.

When embassy officials declined to meet with them, they knelt down to pray and blocked the entrance. They defied police orders to leave and were arrested and spent two days in jail.

The defendants organized this demonstration after Cussen visited Sudan in December 2004 and saw the suffering of the thousands of mostly black Africans displaced by government and mostly Arab militia attacks in the Darfur region. Victims told Cussen that protesting at the embassy may help them, she said.

Fallon said demonstrating at the embassy was the only option that fit with her pacifist beliefs. If she approached U.S. government officials to intervene in Sudan, that may contribute to military action, which she opposes because of her Christianity, she said.

The defendants agreed with prosecutors that they breached the law by not moving when police ordered them to, Fallon and Cussen said.

“But there’s more to the legality than the physical facts,” Fallon said.

Refusing police orders to leave the embassy was not wrong to her, she said.

“I don’t judge what I do on civil law,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I base it on Gospel law.”

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Detroit, was among several theologians, academics and other experts from around the country who testified on behalf of the defendants. He said their actions, although against the law, were justified.

For Catholics, “if the civil law is not in accord with God’s law, then it’s not really a valid law,” Gumbleton said, according to the news release from the Catholic Workers.

Cussen said in a telephone interview that the testimony of the experts “was pretty moving.”

“We hope what we did will keep advertising (the genocide) and more and more people will follow in our footsteps,” she said.

She and Cussen said they may demonstrate again at the Sudanese embassy — and again risk arrest.

“I have no regrets,” Fallon said. “On behalf of those people suffering so much, I should be able to suffer a little bit.”

on May 27th, 2005 | No Comments »