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Counter-recruitment activists charged

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Six peace activists charged with disorderly conduct July 2 after leafleting near military recruiters at the Taste of Chicago pled not guilty this week, and battery charges against a seventh were dismissed.

The next showdown could come at the Air and Water Show.

At an August 1 arraignment in criminal court, the six turned down an offer of three months probation and $25 fines if they pled guilty, said Melissa Woo, a summer intern at American Friends Service Committee and one of those charged.

A guilty plea “would have set a bad precedent,” validating police efforts to ban counter-recruitment activity, Woo said. “It’s important to take a stand.”

Courts have found leafleting to be an activity protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, said Jeffrey Frank of the National Lawyers Guild, one of the attorneys for the six. The leafleters were not obstructing traffic or access to recruiters, he said.

The leafleters were arrested when they refused police directions to move to an ad-hoc “free-speech zone” far from the recruiters and other traffic in an area between Grant Park dumpsters and porta-potties, Woo said. Other officers had other ideas of where the supposed zone was located, she said.

“I thought the whole country was a free speech zone,” she said.

The six requested a jury trial, and a preliminary court date was set for August 8. Because they requested a jury trial for misdemeanor charges, the defendants must now raise $1,500 for court costs, Woo said.

Among those arrested were several students, a member of Code Pink, and a legal observer from the NLG.

Battery charges were dismissed against a seventh counter-recruitment leafleter in an August 2 hearing. Zoryada Ortiz was charged with battery when she spilled a soft drink on a recruiter after the recruiter grabbed her arm, said Darlene Gramigna of AFSC.

Over the last couple years police have regularly ordered activists to leave the area of military recruiters, but when commanders were brought in the activists were allowed to remain, said Amy Meyers of the Chicagoland Coalition Opposed to the Militarization of Youth. But at the Blues Fest in June, police “pushed and shoved” leafleters away from recruiters, and commanders “told activists they cannot have signs, pass out leaflets, or have any visible presence within the area of the recruiting booth,” she said.

Military recruitment booths feature semitrailers with a range of enticements for youth. “They have computer games where you get to shoot and kill people – but of course you never die in the games,” Meyers said. “They have climbing walls, they have prizes for things like if you can do 50 push-ups, they have booths where you can have dogtags made.” To participate, young people have to provide recruiters with contact information.

“We go, yeah, that stuff is cool-looking, but here are some facts” – including the high incidence of sexual harassment of women in the military, lower promotion rates for minorities, difficulty obtaining promised education assistance – “and there’s a good chance you’ll end up in a war,” Meyers said.

The Chicagoland Coalition also works in high schools, and Meyers researches college scholarships and other alternative opportunities for students considering enlistment.

Counter-recruitment activists from peace, religious, and veterans groups will be on hand, as they have for several years, both days of the Air and Water Show, August 19 and 20. “It’s usually even more contentious at the Air and Water Show,” said Gramigna.