The Concord NH Monitor

Peace-Time Rally Nets Jail Time

Tuesday, January 27, 1998

Monitor Staff


Activist, 78, going to jail for five days

NASHUA - She got her day in court and only five days in jail to go with it.

Peace activist Ruth McKay, 78, of Concord was fined $100 yesterday after a Nashua district judge found her guilty of criminal trespassing for a protest outside Sanders Co. in Nashua. Unwilling to open their checkbooks, McKay and the 11 other activists involved in the protest decided to work off their fine at $20 per day in jail.

"It was a good action, and I'm willing to go to jail for it," McKay told Judge Martha Crocker after she read the sentence.

As court was dismissed and the police prepared to escort them to jail, the small band of activists broke into song. "And beat their swords into plough shares," sang the motley group of Quakers, middle-aged veterans and young protesters.

Last month the same group, along with about 60 peace activists with New Hampshire Peace Action and other organizations, gathered in downtown Nashua for a planned act of civil disobedience. Starting with a rally at a nearby church, the group marched to Sanders Co., a company that manufactures weapon parts, where the 12 activists marched onto the company's lawn, ignoring police warnings. There, some knelt and prayed, some scattered flowers, a few played peace drums and McKay threw ashes on the company's sign and draped it with origami cranes.

All 12 protesters were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing, a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,200. They knew they'd likely face jail time since they refuse to pay fines. "I don't believe in paying fines because poor people can't do that," McKay explained.

McKay, though, was prepared for up to a year behind bars. She originally was charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. Since her actions were no different from the other protesters', her attorney guessed that the discrepancy was an oversight. Yesterday, prosecutor Peter Segal changed the charge to a Class B misdemeanor.

The lenient sentence was only the icing on the cake. The real victory came when the group was allowed to give testimony of their intent.

Initially, Crocker ruled the protesters' motives for trespassing irrelevant to the question of whether they were indeed protesting. "War machines create death . . . and mayhem. That is a given," Crocker said. "But this is not the forum for getting that across."

The defendants were limited to pecking at the prosecution's case by questioning whether everyone had heard the verbal warnings not to trespass. Even after the defendants' testimony commenced, Crocker reminded them not to launch into discussions of what Sanders Co. produces. But one by one, she began allowing the defendants to read their prepared testimonies, even though they clearly dealt with intent.

McKay, in a crimson dress and black boots, took the stand to tell a bit of her personal pursuit for peace. "Disclosure is important, judge," she said. "Our witness on Dec. 10 needed to be gentle but dramatic."

McKay told the judge about her 10 years of picketing outside the company, between 1983 and 1993. "The weekly vigils did change a few hearts," she said.

That was what the group hoped to do through both their action and the hearing. They pleaded not guilty just so they could get a hearing.

Others in the group used their court testimony to describe Sanders Co. as a death camp. They talked about its position as the largest military supplier in the United States.

"The crimes that go on there are far greater than what we've done," testified Audrey Stewart, an activist from Maine.

"As one who always takes my civil responsibilities to heart, I know that change always comes from below," said Guy Chichester, an activist from Rye.

The penalty, in fact, was irrelevant to some activists. "We're all willing to bring upon ourselves whatever's necessary," said Sean Donahue of Durham, during a break. "It doesn't matter a lot to me what we get. Whatever happens to me now is out of my hands."

All of the protesters readily admitted that they had been warned not to trespass and knew exactly what they were doing.

Without defense, McKay and the others were not without unity or support. Crammed into the front row bench, they frequently patted each other on the shoulder or offered a whisper of encouragement.

When Crocker dismissed the charges against one defendant after the prosecution failed to state exactly what he had done, the man objected.

"I want to stand with my comrades," said Brian Kavanagh of Worcester, Mass. "I don't want to weasel out on some technicality."

"I have to admit, it's rare that I ever have an objection to that," Crocker said, evoking laughter from the courtroom.

A band of supporters held a vigil outside the courthouse before the trial. "We believe in what they're doing," said Dave Pike of Portsmouth. "Court systems are big and mean."

At least 40 supporters attended the three-hour trial. One was McKay's son, Denny McKay, of Conway. His feelings were a mixture of worry, pride and relief as he watched his mother escorted to jail.

"She was prepared," he said. "Five days. She can handle that."

Sarah M. Earle can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 323, or by E-Mail at