Mary Sanchez

How foolish: Missouri convicts 22 for trespassing in Capitol in 2014

Chanting for the Missouri Senate to approve Medicaid expansion, members of the Missouri Faith Voices and a number of faith communities gathered supporters at the Capitol in Jefferson City on May 6, 2014, make their voices heard. When it was over, 23 protestors were arrested, all of whom were cooperative and peaceful. On Wednesday, 22 of them were convicted of trespassing.
Chanting for the Missouri Senate to approve Medicaid expansion, members of the Missouri Faith Voices and a number of faith communities gathered supporters at the Capitol in Jefferson City on May 6, 2014, make their voices heard. When it was over, 23 protestors were arrested, all of whom were cooperative and peaceful. On Wednesday, 22 of them were convicted of trespassing. AP

One of the convicted ministers needed assistance to rise and be seated again each time the judge and jury entered the Cole County courtroom.

Others struggled with canes to climb the courthouse steps.

The group of 23 stood up for the health care of poor Missourians, and got convicted for doing it. Democracy, the right to peacefully protest, took a hit this week.

The majority of the Medicaid 23 are from the Kansas City area. Many are clergy. They advocate for expanding Medicaid eligibility so that more people can access care through the Affordable Care Act.

Here is the message sent by Wednesday’s guilty verdicts: “Don’t dare be involved in your government. Don’t dare to press elected officials. For if you do, jail time and fines might be the wrath that you receive.”

Thursday it was decided that the group will be fined, with the amounts to be determined later by the judge. The group faced penalties of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

The jury took about three hours to decide that 22 are guilty of trespassing, but innocent of obstructing government operations. One defendant was not present for part of the jury selection and will be tried later.

What a sham. Do these jurors understand what free speech entails? Does Cole County prosecutor Mark A. Richardson? He never should have brought the charges in the first place.

Among the guilty is the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield, the pastor emeritus of the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City.

Other prominent figures are the Rev. Lloyd Fields of Greater Gilgal Missionary Baptist Church; the Rev. Susan McCann of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty; the Rev. Tony Johnson of First Baptist Church in Liberty; the Rev. Sam Mann, retired pastor of St. Mark Union Church; the Rev. Tex Sample of St. Paul School of Theology; and Vernon Howard Jr., senior pastor at St. Mark Union Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.

The protesters’ action took only about an hour in May 2014. The group filled the gallery area as the Senate debated expanding Medicaid eligibility. It was near the end of that session and advocates had tired of the stalling.

Missouri, along with Kansas, is among 19 states that have refused to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid. A handful of Missouri GOP senators are holdouts.

The protest that day wasn’t even all that rowdy. It was joyful. The group expressed their displeasure through gospel hymns and songs of civil rights.

About 300 people participated. The 23 stayed a bit longer. Until Capitol police tapped them on the shoulder; signaling that it was their turn to be led from the gallery.

The state Capitol is a public space. Apparently, nothing but church mice will be tolerated.

Among the concerns going into the trial was whether the predominantly African-American group would receive a fair hearing given the demographics of mid-Missouri. Two of the 12 jurors were African-American.

The answer is no. But the reason could easily be a lack of appreciation for the democratic process, coupled with race. This outcome tarnishes Missouri as foolish and backward.

The majority of the people who would benefit from expansion in Missouri are poor working white people. Most are non-disabled adults without dependent children.

In Missouri, about 109,000 uninsured non-elderly poor are caught in the gap, according to a January study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They make too much money to gain insurance through Medicaid and not enough to access care through the Marketplace tax credit options of Obamacare.

A full 60 percent of these Missourians are Caucasian, 69 percent are adults without dependent children, 60 percent are female. More than 70 percent are in a working family, according to Kaiser.

Nearly 3 million people nationally are trapped in this coverage gap.

Texas accounts for more than a quarter. The reason is the state’s high number of uninsured people, coupled with the state’s limited Medicaid eligibility. Other states with high numbers of people affected are Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

Nationally, 45 percent of uninsured adults in the coverage gap are white non-Hispanics, 23 percent are Hispanic, and 28 percent are black, according to Kaiser. The Midwest accounts for 7 percent of the people.

This is a cause that will continue.

Calling the trial “purely a political prosecution,” Kansas City Rep. Brandon Ellington said in a statement that the verdicts must be overturned upon appeal. A Democrat, the Legislative Black Caucus chairman said the verdicts sent the message that “the right to peacefully protest and petition elected officials for a redress of grievances no longer exists in the Missouri Capitol.”

Hotel and travel costs have been a burden for some of those charged. CCO, Communities Creating Opportunity, is one of many local organizations supporting the Medicaid 23. CCO is leading efforts to defray the costs.

Yes, the wallets of some were shaken. And the physical stress of the proceedings was evident. But spirits never wavered. While the jury deliberated, the Medicaid 23 joined in song as they waited. At one point, they were asked to tone it down a bit.

No, continue to raise the roof.

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