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Charges dropped against protesters

by Amy Kingsley

District Attorney Doug Henderson agreed to drop trespassing charges on Nov. 20 against nine activists arrested two months ago for a sit-in protest of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy at an Army Recruiting Center.

Protesters Jessica Arvidson, Alex Barbato, Matt Hill Comer, Cris Elkins, Jacquelyn Hernandez, Danielle Hoffman, Leslie Hughes, Alex Nini and Caitlin Stroud all signed statements agreeing not to return to the center for 90 days. If they uphold the agreement and do not commit any more crimes, the charges will be dropped.

Gay, lesbian and straight allies in Greensboro planned the Sept. 21 protest as part of a multi-city campaign spearheaded by Soulforce, a gay and lesbian advocacy group committed to nonviolent civil disobedience. Comer, a UNCG student and Soulforce city organizer, attempted to enlist alongside three others as openly gay Americans willing to serve their country. The sit-in protest started after the recruiter informed them they could not join the army because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Police arrested the would-be enlistees and their supporters several minutes later.

“I think that Doug Henderson was right to recognize the kind of activity we were involved in,” Comer said. “He was well aware of the process we were using and the philosophy behind it. Everyone in Greensboro grew up knowing about the Sit-In Movement because of the history of the A&T students.”

Attorney Samuel Johnson, who represented the protesters, said the agreement was not uncommon in misdemeanor trespassing cases. But Henderson could have levied stiffer punishments against the group.

“We’re very pleased,” he said. “At other demonstrations in other cities fines have been imposed.”

Comer, who started a political action committee earlier this year and has been involved in gay rights struggles since high school, said the protest motivated other participants to become more active. They have joined campus groups at UNCG and some have expressed interest in becoming more involved with Soulforce.

Comer rode with the Soulforce Equality Ride last spring. His bus traveled to Liberty University, which was founded by Jerry Falwell, where activists were arrested after crossing into campus to protest alleged discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“This year I told myself I was going to make it a point,” Comer said. “I was going to clear my schedule so I could go on at least one of the Equality Rides.”

The Right to Serve protest in Greensboro was the 16th out of 17 similar actions held in cities across the nation. The events garnered widespread media attention, but were overshadowed by the last weeks of the election, Comer said.

“The goal of this campaign was to make this issue one that everybody talks about,” Comer said. “And people were talking about it and debating it.”

Democratic gains in the midterm election might inspire Congress to revisit Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Comer said. Rep. Marty Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, promised to reintroduce the Military Readiness Enhancement Act which would repeal the law and allow openly gay adults who are otherwise eligible to serve in the military. Whether or not the bill becomes law, Comer said he is eager to see more discussion.

“The bill will be fully debated in [Meehan’s] subcommittee,” Comer said. “The best we can hope for is that it gets past the committee. At the very least the bill has the potential for being debated on the House floor.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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