By Harvey Wasserman
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Here’s a new one.
A 12-year-old anti-war protester, Frankie Hughes, refused to leave Sen. Tom Harkin’s office in Des Moines on April 7, so not only was she charged with trespassing, but her mother was charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
Frankie and her mother, Renee Lynn Espeland, are members of the Catholic Worker community in Des Moines.
On April 7, they were accompanying Christine Gaunt, 53, of Grinnell on her third sit-in at the federal building, where Sen. Harkin and Sen. Grassley have their offices.
All three were protesting the war funding in the current Appropriations bill. And they were taking part in the Peaceable Assembly Campaign that Voices for Creative Nonviolence is organizing. The campaign seeks to end the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
When Gaunt refused to leave and lay on the floor for a die-in at the end of the day, Frankie decided to stay with her.
“I did it because it’s just completely and totally wrong to give money to something that kills hundreds and hundreds of people,” Frankie tells me by phone. “I needed to stay. I’ve sent letters. I’ve called. And it never seems to get their attention. I’ve tried pretty much everything. We’re completely nonviolent. We just have to get their attention.”
When the police came, Frankie was sitting in a chair in Harkin’s office.
“They asked me if I wanted to be arrested,” Frankie says. “I said no.”
After the police conferred in the hallway, they came back. “They were saying they could put my mom on charges of delinquency of a minor,” she says. “She thought it was a joke, but I didn’t.”
The police took Frankie and Gaunt outside and put them in different squad cars and eventually let them go after arresting them for trespassing.
When Frankie found out her mom had actually been charged, she was not happy.
“First I thought, like really, why would that happen? Then I got a little upset,” she says. “They think I don’t have a mind of my own and I’m not capable of feeling these things that are happening and that I’m not capable of trying to do something about it.”
Frankie’s mom denies urging her daughter to get arrested.
“I didn’t encourage a thing,” she says. “I took her down there with me because we were going to go down and visit Chris. The reason she was there was to try to encourage these guys not to fund these wars one more time. And they got real mad that I didn’t tell her to leave.”
Demonstrating is not new to Frankie or her mom.
“She’s gone to protests before,” her mom says. “She’s been raised with it.”
The next day after her daughter was arrested, Espeland got a call from the police to drive down to the station or they would issue a warrant, she says. And that’s when she was ticketed for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
Police Sgt. David Murillo told the Des Moines Register: “I understand and fully appreciate a person’s constitutional right to free speech. However, this was a case of bringing a child into a criminal arena.”
“It really is kind of an astonishing thing,” says Brian Terrell, a longtime activist in the area who is with the Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa. “It raises a whole lot of questions about the police, our liberties, these particular wars, and what kind of a responsive government we have.”
Terrell recalls talking to Frankie and her mom about the sit-ins. “I was the one who told Frankie about this,” he says. “I guess I’m incriminating myself.”
Addendum: Cooler heads have prevailed. On April 13, the assistant Des Moines police chief and the local DA confirmed that they were dropping the charge against Renee Lynn Espeland of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
“Looking at all the circumstances, what happened didn’t need to be addressed with a criminal charge,” said Polk County Attorney John Sarcone.
“It was never an appropriate thing to begin with,” Espeland tells The Progressive. “They were just wrong-spirited.”
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.