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The golden age of activism: Protesters find fulfillment in getting arrested

Updated: 2013-09-07T20:06:41Z

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

James Everett leans on his cane as he steps through the metal detector outside a Kansas City municipal courtroom, where he’ll plead guilty to trespassing.

“This is my first time. And it’s quite interesting,” says Everett, 85, of Independence. “It’s nice to have an opportunity before I die to do my part for an important cause.”

The cause is to rid the world of nuclear weapons. But what stands out this day are the people — those who allow themselves to be arrested for the cause.

Gray-headed, most of them.

This week, in Courtroom F, Everett joined several others who entered pleas for participating in a peaceful protest July 13 at the new Honeywell plant in south Kansas City. They included Louis Rodemann, 73, who pleaded guilty a second time for municipal code violations that will require 50 hours of community service, which he said he’d gladly carry out.

A fellow activist — Frank Cordaro of Des Moines, Iowa — brought his heart medication in a zip-close bag just in case he had to spend a night in jail.

Organized by the anti-war group PeaceWorks KC, only three of the 13 who entered pleas in court were younger than 50.

“Sometimes it takes retirement for people to free themselves of limitations” that go with protest, said PeaceWorks board member Ron Faust, 70.

They call themselves “line crossers.” Their demonstrations at the Honeywell facilities — maker of non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons — could not be more choreographed and congenial.

They bring a makeshift door. After prayer and song, they place the door on the boundary line between a road easement and restricted federal property, where plant security officers wait for them to cross the threshold.

A YouTube video shows how the July arrests went down.

“You are trespassing on the property of the United States Department of Energy,” said a Honeywell officer, reading from a card. “You are not authorized to be on this property. You are requested to leave immediately.

“If you do not leave, you will be arrested.”

Kansas City police brought a bus to haul them away.

“We have a good working relationship with the police,” said PeaceWorks KC’s Jane Stoever, whose lawyer husband, Henry Stoever, represents the arrested in court. “They didn’t handcuff us this time.”

City Prosecutor Lowell Gard said he hoped the group could give up the fight: “They really are becoming a pest...

“They are consuming city resources. They occupy police time. They take up courtroom time.”

Nobody wants to throw well-meaning folks in the slammer, Gard allowed. But the no-trespassing signs at Honeywell mean just that. And “orchestrated” arrests, as he put it, aren’t likely to bring the nuclear age to a halt.

“These people seem to be tilting at windmills,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

The municipal court customarily penalizes first-time line crossers with a $250 fine or 25 hours of community service. Second-time offenders, $500 or 50 hours.

Most people who attend the Honeywell demonstrations — about 80 were there in July — do not choose to be arrested. Some work for employers that would balk at giving time off to go to court. Others are raising kids and just don’t need the extra hassle.

Kelsey Schmidt, 25, recognizes that the path to changing the world is uphill.

And yet she was inspired by her older protest peers to join the ranks of the busted.

“For me, it was the realization that you as a person can take action and get things done,” said Schmidt, a schoolteacher. “I think many in my generation see the problems of the world as being too big to change...

“It’s complacency.”

Faust agrees.

“We’ve become a society more interested in entertaining ourselves and just living in our bubbles,” he said. “It’s a more competitive world these days. Everything is about making money and trying to keep your job rather than working cooperatively” for a cause.

Jobs do matter, which is why Kansas City business and government leaders strongly support the $1 billion Honeywell plant. The facility next year will be fully operational, working with more than two dozen area suppliers and replacing the old Honeywell weapons plant on Bannister Road.

Local voters also have shown support for such jobs. More than 75 percent turned down an April ballot issue that would have prevented Kansas City from offering future financial incentives to companies involved in weapons manufacturing.

While national polling shows that public acceptance of nuclear weapons is slowly growing, surveys also reveal deepening concerns over the risk of terrorist groups obtaining them. A 2010 survey by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. found Americans split 50/50 as to whether all nuclear weapons should be eliminated.

The protests will continue in any event, local peace activists pledge. The July demonstration was the ninth staged action in the last three years at either the old or new Honeywell facility.

About 20 demonstrators rallied Wednesday outside the municipal court building. They brought the makeshift door with them and carried it along 11th Street downtown.

“Everybody, we need to be mindful that we march together,” Jane Stoever told them. “What happens is we tend to straggle” and separate, making for fewer bodies within the frame of a news camera.

She and a half-dozen other line crossers want a trial to have their trespassing charges contested.

Cordaro, though, pleaded guilty at his court appearance and said he was willing to do jail time rather than post bail: “It’s a principled decision. We don’t pay a cent to the court.” The judge allowed him to travel back to Iowa despite two unresolved probation violations.

Since 1977, when he became active in peace protests, Cordaro said he has spent a total of almost six years behind bars — be it a night or three, a month or six months at a time.

Everett, the protester with the cane, said he had never been booked before.

Once named “International Citizen of the Year” by the United Nations Association of Greater Kansas City, “I’ve been in the peace community for some time,” he said.

“But getting fingerprinted and photographed, ‘Look ahead, look left, look right,’ I’ve never done that.”

The court ordered a $250 fine or 25 hours of community service.

“And I’m no less proud today,” Everett said, “than when I was chosen International Citizen of the Year.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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