May 26 is a day I will never forget. At about 5:30 in the afternoon, after nearly 6 hours of testimony and legal debate, the twelve of us arrested for protesting in front of Colismo’s Gun Shop were pronounced not guilty by Judge Yvette Simmons. After nearly 5 months of preparation and waiting since our arrests in mid-January, we gave a collective sigh of relief for justice being done. As I said in my testimony, the very fact that we were even brought up on charges was a contradiction of justice, when the current laws in Pennsylvania readily allow for the process of straw-purchasing. While Judge Simmons did not explain her verdict, she appeared to be moved by the collective convictions of those of us who testified. Our lawyers invoked a “justification defense,” which essentially said that our actions were justified in that we committed a lesser harm in order to prevent a greater danger.
To be part of the action and the trial was a humbling privilege that will stay with me for a long time. As I have previously shared in this blog, I had a traumatic experience in jail after we were arrested. As a result I was quite timid when it came to the whole legal process; yet time and time again I was lifted and inspired by the passion, conviction and commitment of my co-defendants. To be counted in the same number as these amazing people was a humbling honor.
Moreover, the hundreds of people who came to support us before and during the trial, many of whom spent part or all of the day sitting at the trial, was amazing. Words cannot express how it felt to have all these folks giving up their time to stand with us in our effort to draw attention to Mr. Colimos reluctance to do his part to stem the flow of illegal guns on to the streets of our city. Their presence was a reminder that what we had done carried a significance beyond our individual convictions in front of one particularly notorious gun shop.
Beyond those who were physically present, there were many more who were praying for us. Shortly before the trial, I was handed an envelope in which was contained a small knit square 12 stitches by 12 stitches. With it was a note indicating the square was reminder of this woman’s prayer for all of us. She had knit one for each of us. Several times during the day, and especially shortly before I testified, I held that square in my hand as a reminder of the greater Presence with us. I was reminded that we were being upheld by brothers and sisters in spiritual solidarity with us.
During his testimony, Fr. Isaac Miller drew attention to the long standing tradition of Christian civil disobedience best exemplified my Dr. Martin Luther King during his non-violent struggle for Civil Rights. Fr. Miller reminded us that we serve a higher law that calls us to challenge unjust laws when they contradict God’s law. Yesterday was a validation that this struggle is a divine struggle for justice against principalities and powers that have a vice grip on the processes of legislation and justice in our country.
For that reason while yesterday was great day, today we must continue the struggle. During the trial we did not change one law, nor did we necessarily stop any straw purchasing. As a sign of hope I can say that in my perusal of the morning paper I did not see any mention of gun violence in Philadelphia on the night of May 26. Nonetheless, the struggle must continue. That is why I will be at Millcreek Baptist Church this weekend at their 2nd annual stop the violence conference, which will include a gun buyback, and I will be speaking at Frazer Mennonite Church’s peace festival. That is why some of us will continue to witness in front of Colisimos on Mondays and Fridays. That is why Heeding God’s Call will continue to invite and encourage churches to join this faith-based effort to change the laws and practices in Pennsylvania around the sale and use of guns.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign that came from the trial was the hope our actions engendered in others. During a short break in the trial I was approached by a distinguished African-American man in his early 60’s. As he shook my hand and thanked me, he said that in the 60’s and 70’s he had engaged in activism and civil disobedience during the Civil Rights struggle. He is now a lawyer, but said that our action had encouraged him that people were still willing to put their livelihoods on the line for social justice. What I and the others endured was probably nothing compared to the suffering he must have endured during the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights struggle, and yet he was thanking me! I thank him for showing me and the others the way in which the struggle for justice can be won against overwhelming odds. While I did not see my decision to stand up for justice by sitting down in front of a gun shop as a particularly courageous act, I recognize that it has inspired and emboldened others. My hope is that our actions and the trial that followed can be a catapult to further action that eventually will change the laws and the violence-saturated culture in which we live. When that day comes, I will be grateful for having played a small part in bringing it into being.