BY AMY BLUMENSHINE
Remember when the first Muslim travel ban abruptly and chaotically hit the airports? On January 29, 2017, many Southsiders were among those who flocked to MSP with the idea of trying to prevent harm to those caught in the confusion and to protest the president’s action.
In its wisdom and with public funds, the Metropolitan Airport Commission has just brought a protester from that day to trial. Mike Madden, who hand-wrote and carried a notebook-sized piece of cardboard saying “Muslims Welcome” at the airport that day, faced possible consequences of a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.
It is a sadly common practice for prosecutors to threaten drastic charges and potential penalties in an attempt to coerce defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge and avoid the risk and considerable personal expense of trial. Madden is someone who takes the First Amendment right to protest quite seriously, however. He has studied the Constitution in the years since he took an oath to defend it as part of his five years in the U.S. Air Force.
He decided to defend his “claim of right” (a legal term) and defend the right to protest for others. Civil rights lawyer Jordan Kushner (not to be confused with President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner) ably and vigorously represented him after their repeated efforts to get the trial dismissed were denied.
Even though the arresting officer wrote the initial charge as “failure to respond to a police officer,” Madden was tried for the more serious charge of gross misdemeanor, “criminal trespass at a critical public service facility.” The site of his arrest was the LRT end of the tram that connects to the airport.
Madden also benefited from the support of the Twin Cities peace advocating community as they kept vigil in the gallery during the five days of trial. Many of the groups are located at 42nd and Cedar: Veterans for Peace, Women Against Military Madness and Tackling Torture at the Top were among those supporting him as well as his Merriam Park, St. Paul, neighbors of long standing. The gallery burst into applause as the jury brought back the “Not Guilty” verdict after deliberating less than an hour.
Testimony established that there were no acts of violence or property damage or reports of passengers not being able to get where they needed to go associated with the protesters. A photo exhibited by the prosecution showed a cluster of smiling winter-coated Minnesotans holding colorful signs with messages like “All are welcome here.” Many were wearing their pink “pussy” hats from the then-recent Women’s March. Madden was never part of that group, however, since his wife had not dropped him at the airport until after the police had dispersed the group in the photo.
After several postponements, the trial began June 4 and took all week. One might wonder if the prosecutor, on contract from a private firm since MAC does not have its own prosecutor, was paid by the hour. She valiantly tried to associate Madden and other protesters with terrorists, chaos, disorder, inefficiency and dangerous threat to a critical infrastructure.
In contrast, airport surveillance video showed Madden walking calmly with his sign in the baggage claim area while some passengers took his photo and others passed by unperturbed. Attorney Kushner: “This whole prosecution shows no common sense. You hear about the issues of crime, [and now] you think of someone being prosecuted through the system with all this effort because he wanted to express his beliefs …
“A claim of right is based on the person’s good faith personal belief … He had a good faith belief that he had a right to come to that airport for that limited purpose of trying to express a political message. It’s very serious when anyone is charged with a crime.”
Kushner additionally pointed out in his closing statement that bringing Madden to trial for protesting was an abuse of power.
The jury did indeed speedily decide that Madden was “Not Guilty.”