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Orlando Sentinel

San Juan Judge Got It Wrong

By Ivan Roman

July 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The judge about to sentence Robert Kennedy Jr. didn't get it -- or didn't want to.

U.S. District Judge Hector Laffitte told him there was no need to trespass onto U.S. Navy grounds in Vieques and break the law because, among other things, President Bush already had ordered the Navy to give up the target range there by May 2003.

But Kennedy explained that he ran onto the range to interrupt bombing exercises before Bush made his announcement and admitted that the Navy's training harms Vieques' 9,400 residents. It seemed to go over the judge's head. But the family and supporters of eight protesters on trial for trespassing Friday saw a cause and effect.

"In effect, the protesters have been vindicated," said former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, speaking on Kennedy's behalf in the packed courtroom. Bush's move "came after civil disobedience. There is no need now for the court to use a severe sentence to send a message."

But Laffitte insisted that protesters such as Kennedy, New York labor leader Dennis Rivera and local Sen. Norma Burgos could have used other methods to bring about change. "Politicians respond to political pressure," he said before sentencing both men to 30 days and Burgos to 60 days. "This is all in flux, so there is no need to violate the law."

Proponents of civil disobedience say he got it backward. It's precisely their actions, they say, that have kept Vieques on the agenda in San Juan and Washington and have forced the federal government's concessions.

Two days after wayward bombs killed civilian security guard David Sanes on April 19, 1999, the first protesters planted a large, white cross in front of an abandoned tank on the range and vowed to stay there to block any more bombing.

Authorities ended up "evicting" more than 200 protesters camped on the range more than a year later, after politicians reached what activists called an unfair compromise allowing bombing for another three years. But 711 protesters charged with trespassing have stepped up the pressure since then, with this year's violators getting stiffer sentences.

They are teachers, doctors, actresses, fishermen, students, housewives and television producers. On the political front are five senators, two mayors and Puerto Rican Independence Party President Ruben Berrios, whose four-month sentence is the stiffest so far.

But the attention and outrage sparked by the jailing of high-profile people from the U.S. mainland took the anti-Navy movement to a new level. Besides Kennedy and Rivera, actor Edward James Olmos and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., have yet to face a judge. The Rev. Al Sharpton is still serving a 90-day sentence in a Brooklyn detention center. Three Puerto Rican politicians from New York City were released after 40 days with another, state assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, in jail pending trial.

For these people, success isn't measured by whether they got to the range, eight miles from civilian property, to block bombing runs. Some just went through the Navy's fence and waited for the military police to arrest them in front of newspaper and television cameras. Their names and jail time are as valuable to the cause as any effort by the local government to defy the Navy, activists say. And Friday's sentences should heat up things even more.

During the trial, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced in San Juan that the U.S. labor movement was embracing the Vieques cause and backs a march in Washington set for July 19. Complaints that Jackie Jackson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson's wife, was put in solitary confinement for not submitting to a body-cavity search during her 10-day sentence prompted several members of Congress to go to San Juan to observe the Kennedy trial.

Before catching a plane back to Washington, they vowed to push even harder for hearings in Congress about alleged civil-rights and due-process violations. Some said they are ready to trespass during the Navy's next round of bombing in August.

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