April 7, 2010 at 10:31 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Charges against ENDA protesters to be dropped

Charges filed against (from left) Jay Carmona, Samantha Ames, Chas Kirven and Michelle Wright following a sit-in protest last month in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office will be dropped if they abide by certain conditions. (DC Agenda photo by Chris Johnson)

Charges against Capitol Hill demonstrators who last month targeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accusing her of failing to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, will be dropped provided they abide by certain conditions.

Jay Carmona, Samantha Ames, Chas Kirven and Michelle Wright pleaded not guilty in D.C. Superior Court Tuesday to misdemeanor charges of unlawful entry. They were arrested March 18 following a sit-in protest in Pelosi’s office in the Cannon House Office Building. The group refused to leave despite police orders to do so.

The group demanded that Pelosi move a transgender-inclusive version of ENDA to the House floor by the end of March. The demonstrators said they wanted a vote on the bill — even if it lacked the necessary votes for passage — to best determine where lawmakers stand.

Representing the protesters in court was Claire Morris Clark, an attorney for D.C. law firm Schertler & Onorato.

Clark said the U.S. attorney general’s office would drop the charges if demonstrators met the terms of the agreement by their next scheduled court appearance, Oct. 6.

If the protesters meet the terms of the agreement, Clark said, they wouldn’t have to appear in court. Any violators would be required to make an appearance and potentially face additional penalties.

One term of the agreement is that demonstrators arrested March 18 must stay away from Pelosi’s office in the Cannon House Office Building unless invited in writing. Another term is that the protestors must not be arrested under probable cause before Oct. 6.

Additionally, Clark said the two protesters who are D.C. residents, Carmona and Ames, must complete 60 hours of community service. Clark noted that because Kirven and Wright aren’t D.C. residents, the D.C. government doesn’t have jurisdiction to require them to meet this term of the agreement.

Clark said another term of the agreement is that protesters cannot engage in activity in the U.S. Capitol that the U.S. attorney’s office deems disruptive.

But she noted that Judge Harold Cushenberry said in court he wouldn’t enforce this part of the agreement because he didn’t think the agreement clearly defined what the U.S. attorney’s office might find disruptive.

The protesters who consented to the agreement said they were happy with the outcome of the proceedings.

Ames, a queer D.C. resident, said she’s “actually quite excited” to do the community service assigned to her as part of the agreement. She planned to fill her time with Transgender Health Empowerment in D.C.

Noting that the ENDA protesters who were arrested weren’t transgender, Ames said being arrested as a transgender person is “so much more dangerous.”

“Working for an organization that does community service that is working making that right and working toward making the prisons safer for transgender folks in the area is, I think, something that I should feel fortunate to have the opportunity to do,” she said.

Carmona, a lesbian D.C. resident, called the court agreement “just another step” toward “getting ENDA passed for equality.”

“So, I think I don’t really feel a sense of joy or accomplishment so much as I feel like we just took another step,” she said. “It’s definitely not party time.”

Noting that an early version of ENDA was first introduced in the U.S. House in 1974, Carmona said that LGBT people have been waiting “close to 40 years for basic employment protections, and we’re not going to wait another 40.”

Clark said after the protesters’ court appearance that the agreement was a “very good outcome.”

“The U.S. attorney’s office has a couple different mediums where they’ll try and work things out, and this is the best one,” she said. “It doesn’t require a guilty plea. It’s a very good deal.”

The protesters also expressed satisfaction with the result of their protest. Ames said she thought the protest led to showing sufficient votes exist to pass ENDA, despite claims to the contrary.

As she was being handcuffed at the end of her protest March 18, Ames said a member of Pelosi’s staff asked her if she thought there were enough votes to pass ENDA.

“And I said, ‘Yes,” Ames said. “And she said, ‘We don’t.’ And I said I really wish we could have had this conversation earlier because I would have liked to have this conservation with her.”

Following her arrest, Ames said media reports emerged quoting Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) as saying that enough support existed in the House to pass ENDA.

“So the fact that that was starting the next day — I don’t want to make this about egos, I want to make this about ENDA — but it would seem that it got something accomplished,” she said.

Present in the courtroom Tuesday to show support for the ENDA protesters was Lt. Dan Choi, who was arrested the same day after chaining himself to the White House fence in opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and Robin McGehee, co-chair of GetEqual.org, which helped coordinate the protests.

Choi said he wanted to show his support for the ENDA protesters because the shared experience of being arrested following their respective protests is “in a lot of ways, like being in combat.”

“We have waged war against inequality,” he said. “Sometimes, as soldiers, you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have a lot of trappings of what we have in terms of political power — but we have each other, and until we have full equality, this is a battle that none of us are going to step away from.”

Asked whether further acts of civil disobedience could occur to further LGBT civil rights, Choi replied, “Of course,” and said that he personally plans to take part in such protests.

“Until we have that American promise of equality and access to truth and truthful living manifest to everyone, it has to continue,” he said.

McGehee said GetEqual.org is planning further acts of civil disobedience to push for LGBT civil rights.

“We will be back and we will continue to organize non-violent civil disobedience throughout D.C. and other areas across the United States until we’re equal,” she said.

McGehee declined to offer any details, but said she expects the next such event will occur in D.C. before the end of April.

“Our goal with GetEqual is to create the lunch-counter moments that so clearly defined the civil rights movement around racial justice,” she said. “In an equality movement, we believe that we need to create those images that highlight the injustices that are clearly out there.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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