Dave Ridley has written up his perspective on the civil disobedience actions of himself and other members of the New Hampshire Underground. I publish it with the permission of the author:
, a jovial free marketeer approaches the Keene, New Hampshire IRS office on an illegal mission. Upon his head is a straw farmer’s hat. Over his shoulders a bib and blue overalls. Each hand holds an instrument of defiance, a specimen of contraband restricted from use inside the confines of this remote Federal outpost. One is a pitchfork, the other a wad of leaflets.
These devices, strangely feared and controlled by Washington regulation, are destined to set in motion a lasting, disturbing series of events. But the tall pacifist, backed by a collection of reporters and onlookers… broadcasts only mirth.
He has, some days before, announced his outlaw plans to drop the pitchfork, enter the office of this “Internal Robbery Squadron” and petition for a redress of grievances. His flyers ask that workers contemplate the ill uses to which their revenues are put, renounce torture and quit their jobs. Washington agents are waiting for him at the entrance, in force. They seize him and his straw hat long before he is able to present his handbills or trouble in person the minds of tribute collectors.
He is arrested, released, and immediately intercepted attempting the same endeavor. A court date is presented to him, along with petty charges of Federal origin. He assures authorities he will not attend such trial unless physically dragged to the Concord courtroom, one hour east. The next business day, agents from the increasingly resented Department of Homeland Security oblige him. Streaming through his front door they carry him to that very place, his wife of two years snapping a hasty but dramatic photo of the seizure.
Inside the courtroom he constructs paper airplanes as a shocked national magistrate ponders his fate. He is jailed for three weeks, released without fine or follow-up, left to pursue his libertarian agenda. Media attention is moderate. But an explosion of excitement and interest overtakes his New Hampshire-centric website and the small local paper he produces.
He is Russell Kanning, the Outlaw Leafletter.
A month passes. Then, disgruntled by news of the Federal overreaction at Keene, an imitator enters IRS facilities in nearby Nashua. Unannounced, he stands silent in the lobby, bearing a sign, a friendly expression and more forbidden but respectful pamphlets. Two reach the hands of “Robbery Squadron” agents, who eventually order him out. Upset by the slow speed of his backward withdrawal, they light Homeland Security hotlines and crowd the exit in manic impatience.
He is me, Dave Ridley, the Second Outlaw Leafletter.
Some weeks later, an article about this second protest appears in the Keene Free Press. Within days Homeland Security agents are again on the trail of a pacific petitioner. They attempt to levy me a $100 “Distribution of Handbills” fine. I am thrice summoned to petty violation dockets, thrice appear, thrice refuse to deploy lawyers. Thrice I fail or refuse to remit the fine, and swear I will never pay until our Federal overlords answer me one question.
U.S. Constitution, Amendment Ten states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So I ask to know where, in the U.S. Constitution, is Washington authorized (at least vaguely) to levy this “Distribution of Handbills” fine? No answer is ever provided or attempted by the magistrate, nor any federal employee involved. I am told of regulations, of precedent, of fires in crowded theatres and a representative Congress which generates laws. But it is almost as though they are unwilling to speak of the Constitution itself, the flawed but acceptable document that overrules all laws with which it is in conflict.
That is the backdrop. Now we resume the story, and march it toward the climactic events of .
At the third hearing, on , I am asked to give some reason why I should not be held in contempt of court for refusing to pay the fine. As usual, I rally beforehand with a dozen or so demonstrators near the front of the courthouse. I introduce myself to the latest prosecutor of the case, Mark Irish. I treat him with initial respect and ask him if he feels comfortable with the task he is being asked to perform.
I’m doing my job, he says. That is sometimes a valid excuse in the eyes of history, I reply, sometimes not. He ends the conversation. Another new prosecutor appears.
I greet the Federal employees whose names I know. Normally chatty, they look down or away. I converse with friends who have come to observe, most memorably a grinning, excited Russell Kanning. I wear a T-shirt bearing his name.
Then the hearing begins. Courtroom decorum wavers. Clerks are already angry I was two minutes late and unhappy with our complacent reactions to their scoldings. The judge lectures his prosecutors on a matter of criminal vs. civil contempt and the need for witnesses. He says the trial is criminal and the attorneys retreat from their desk in disarray. I make a sort of zombie face at the scrambling lawyers; the audience laughs but I immediately regret it. Gloating isn’t good, and I know in any event I won’t have long to do it. They are sure to win this case, and I am sure to pay a price.
When given opportunity to declare why I should not be held in contempt I give the same answer I have always given, basically: No one should ever be punished for peaceably defending the Constitution. But I would be honored to suffer for this cause if need be, and consider this a good hill to die on. I question the lone witness, perhaps my chief tormentor. He is Mike Therrien, an ex-Air Force colonel now directing Homeland Security bureaucracies for northern New England. I ask him if he has sworn an oath to the Constitution. He has. I ask if he is familiar with Amendment Ten. He is not. I quote it and attempt to inform him that he is in violation. Attorney Irish objects and is sustained. Therrien looks uncomfortable. He is meant to be. But, to his credit, he seems to take no pleasure depositing his sabre in my gut.
The judge provides me three backhanded compliments. He says he believes I will pay no fines, that I will not likely comply with any probationary sentence and that I am not a threat to the community.
Then he finds me in contempt, sentences me to four days incarceration. You’re coming with me, says a gruff voice behind. The voice orders me to place my hands behind my back, but I just stand there. A Marshal seizes my wrists, places them behind me and secures handcuffs. I leave the room slowly to the chagrin of the officer, but our interaction is not destined to remain harsh.
Once away from onlookers our conversation evolves. Did you take an oath to the Constitution, I ask. None of your business, he replies… a little louder than need be. Is this the kind of thing you signed on for, locking people up for handbill distribution? I don’t lock people up, he says. He presses the button on an elevator which takes me to lockup. I thank him, and note that button pressing is easier for him than for me.
“That it is,” he replies.
Now more questions ensue, and he begins to answer them. Would you shoot Ed Brown? He would in certain circumstances, but would prefer not to. He refers to the Marshals’ relative restraint in the case. I inform him I appreciate that, as far as it goes.
A second Marshal or security person joins us. We enter a processing area. The environment continues to ease. Who is Russell Kanning, they ask me. He’s the last guy you arrested for doing this. He’s the man your boys inflicted pain on because he wouldn’t walk where they told him to. We discuss physical noncompliance, the “go limp” approach, which I’ve never tried. They are glad of this, inform me it serves no purpose and just makes it harder on the prisoner. Jailers arrive. I discover, or at least recall, the second Marshal’s name is Tom. They all react comfortably when I refuse to answer most questions and enter my birthdate as “1/1/20.”
Four of them are now with me in the room and engage me regarding my concerns. I thank them for this. One says he’d rather go after sex offenders than demonstrators like me. I say I would rather he did that and nothing else. His name is Deputy Barry, the picture of friendly professionalism. I should probably check the constitutionality of Federal sex crime hunts, but granting his wish would certainly would be an improvement over this!
I suggest they quit their jobs, but am half joking. I tell them if I were a Fed I’d probably keep my job and, from that station, try to minimize the harm such a job inflicts on the public.
Now I am moved to a holding cell in leg irons. This is where you’ll spend the afternoon, they tell me. Alone, I get to work scrawling “NHfree.com” on the seatbacks. The Marshal Mark returns to ask me a question. Instead he shakes his head in mild exasperation… are you doing that with your fingernails? Nothing else to do, I respond… does it look okay? He turns to leave. Didn’t you have a question for me? Seems to have slipped my mind, he responds dryly.
After six hours, men in blue appear with chains. County deputies. Secretly, they load me into a vehicle ominously decorated with Massachusetts tags. They ship me to the Essex County Jail in Middleton, Mass. Meanwhile a half dozen of my friends, perhaps cleverly tricked, proceed to besiege the New Hampshire facility I am mistakenly expected to enter.
Destined instead for an increasingly alien land, condemned to grapple with a more hardened and malevolent system than exists in New Hampshire… I jostle and squirm in a deathtrap excuse for a paddy wagon. Soon I will enter the dark world of penal Massachusetts, and my real trial will begin.
To be continued…
“This is the half history of ‘My Prisons,’” Thoreau might have said. I look forward to the next installment.