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War protesters to pay with volunteer time

Community service will erase records

Saturday, April 12, 2003

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As he reflected on his sentence, Todd Bryner, one of the 122 people arrested at the end of an anti-war protest on March 20, thought about how busy he's going to be.

A friend named Jessica leaps into the arms of Anthony Foster of Garfield outside City Court in the Municipal Courts Building along First Avenue, Downtown, yesterday. Foster was awaiting a preliminary hearing in his arrest March 20 during an anti-war demonstration. He said he felt Pittsburgh police used "excessive force," but he accepted the plea agreement of an $80 withdrawal fee and 80 hours of community service. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Now, in addition to his full-time job and his part-time studies at Point Park College, Bryner must do 80 hours of community service.

That means a lot more days that start at 6 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. And that's fine with him.

He and 88 other adult protesters yesterday accepted a deal from District Justice Cathleen Bubash of the North Side, who is waiving summary charges for obstruction for 90 days, giving protesters time to perform 80 hours of community service. (Not, however, at the Thomas Merton Center, which organized the march, because Bubash wants the protesters to "help others, not help you decide what you want to think.")

Then, after paying an $80 withdrawal fee, both to relieve the burden to taxpayers and to cover court costs, each person's record will be expunged.

"I know we were protesting against the system, that we wanted to shake it up," said Bryner, 32, of Wilkinsburg. "I don't want to be a poser. But at the same time, it's like that old saying -- you've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

While this part of the judicial experience wasn't as time-consuming as the protesters' wait to be arraigned -- some were in jail for as long as 36 hours -- and while Bubash streamlined the process, it still was a long day. The hearing began at 9:01 a.m., and the final protester was sentenced more than six hours later, at 3:20 p.m.

Cases for the juveniles who were arrested March 20, at the end of a march that wound through the Golden Triangle and the South Side for nearly 2 1/2 hours during rush hour and ended with mass arrests on William Penn Place, are being handled separately.

One adult defendant, Nathan Shaffer, was not offered the deal because one of his charges, disorderly conduct, was more serious. Four others, Mark Egerman, Ann Wooton, Andrew Horbal and Debora Scott, turned down the deal and also had hearings.

Horbal, like most of the protesters, didn't think he had done anything wrong, but he said he thought those who took the deal were right to do so. "But no one was really happy with it," he said. "I think at least a few of us should make public this very universal dissatisfaction."

Egerman, Wooton and Horbal were found guilty and fined $150 plus court costs, or 100 hours of community service. Scott, a student at the Art Institute, was found not guilty because she was filming the protest for a class.

Simply by virtue of his last name, the day's test case was that of Josh Beringer, one of the 19 protesters for whom an individual officer was prepared to testify. The proceedings went alphabetically.

Beringer, 23, a University of Pittsburgh student, was hardly a typical protester. He said later that he had joined the march after getting off the 51C bus when it was stopped at the Smithfield Street Bridge, simply because he thought it looked like fun, about 10 minutes before the arrests.

For 45 minutes, Bubash heard testimony, most centering on how often and how loudly police had ordered the marchers to disperse and whether police had blocked dispersal routes. She found there was no evidence to hold Beringer for trial on the misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and obstructing public passage.

After a summary hearing, she found him guilty of obstructing a traffic way. Having said earlier that anyone who decides to do civil disobedience should take responsibility for those actions, a la Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "who had a record as long as you and I can see, thank God," Bubash sentenced Beringer to a $300 fine or 100 hours of community service.

Then she indicated future decisions would be similar and recommended that defense lawyers confer with their clients. During the next hour and 15 minutes, the deal was worked out, and everyone eligible -- including Beringer -- went through the system.

That left only Shaffer, whom city Detective Robert Doyle testified he knew well enough to identify him as someone who moved a newspaper box onto the Smithfield Street Bridge. Shaffer left the march on the South Side and was arrested later, as he returned to Downtown alone.

Bubash found Shaffer not guilty on the obstruction charge, noting that he was "the only person here today who did actually disperse" but guilty on disorderly conduct, calling his actions "a smack in the face to everyone who ever thought that they might consider nonviolence."

She fined him $300 plus court costs and offered no option for community service. "Community service," she said, "I try to reserve for people who try to get something out of it."

Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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