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Name: Jim Macdonald
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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer who just moved from Washington, DC to Bozeman, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    Resistance and the recent BFC arrests outside Yellowstone

    Two members of the grassroots group Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) were arrested last week while monitoring hazing operations being perpetrated against Yellowstone buffalo. When I found out that one of them was injured by a police officer, a man I had met named Dan Brister, I became upset. In part, I was upset over what happened to Dan; in part, I was upset because I was pretty sure that the media and the casual observer would tend to take the police side on the issue. Because of that, I wrote a short essay honoring Dan Brister. I meant in the essay to draw upon my firsthand experience both of Dan and of my firsthand experience with the way police often act in protest situations. Being used to the criticism both from people on the right who trust the institutions of law and order and from liberals, especially in the peace movement, who claim to be followers of nonviolence, I wrote my short piece about Dan in order to challenge the natural assumptions that these camps make.

    Of course, and not to my surprise, a blogger in Montana criticized the BFC arrestees for not following the principles of civil disobedience. The blogger focused on police allegations that Peter Bogusko kicked out the rear window of the police car, of which he is expected to plead not guilty. However, writing about both arrestees, the blogger writes:

    Perhaps Bogusko has some sort of internal moral compass by which he is cosmically not guilty -- but didn't the gentlemen make a clear decision to break the law? No bison were going to be "saved" by their actions and the effort would seem to be at least in part to attract attention, in filming the happenings and perhaps also through being arrested.

    Since the two men intended to break the law - a fact not at all obvious to me - they should accept the punishment afforded to them by pleading guilty. This is classically in line, the blogger asserts, with the theory of civil disobedience practiced by early Christians up through the present. However, since the two are pleading not guilty, the blogger offers this criticism:

    What is a bit incomprehensible is the spectacle of someone making a point of breaking the law, and then claiming that they didn't -- or looking for legal loopholes to get out of punishment. Today, civil disobedience is something most associated with liberal causes, but there are other examples. For instance, there are radical abortion opponents (precious few compared to the hysteria mounted on the left about them -- but they have certainly been there) who have bombed abortion clinics using the moral justification that they are trying to save lives.

    Fine -- well, not really fine, but fine for the sake of argument. But then such an individual should show up at the police station and take credit for the bombing, taking his legal lumps -- acting like a man and accepting the punishment prescribed by law. If someone was killed in the bombing, this means pleading guilty to murder and going to jail for life or accepting the death penalty without appealing it.

    On many levels, this analysis of the situation is mistaken. For one thing, no matter the actual facts of the case (whether the police are right, whether the BFC activists are right, or something else altogether), no one was attempting anything that should be confused with civil disobedience. Secondly, even if the original intent was civil disobedience, there are plenty of situations I can imagine where the appropriate response against injustice does not require martyrdom.

    I will not be commenting on the merits of the case. As I mentioned from my own experience, I have much greater trust in the accounts given by Buffalo Field Campaign than by the police. I am much more interested in this essay in pursuing the way this event has been framed as people make moral judgments. There seem to be several assumptions that need to be challenged. One is that people engaged in resistance are necessarily looking to break the law. So, when a report about an arrest happens, there is an automatic assumption that this had to be the aim of the action. Another assumption is that people engaged in resistance are morally bound to take their lumps when arrested. So, when someone fights a charge, many assume that they are going against the higher ideals of civil resistance.

    So then, let us turn to this analysis.

    First of all, it is impossible to imagine that the BFC activists were engaged in civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the intentional breaking of a law that one deems to be unjust. The aim of civil disobedience is the soundness of the law itself. Let's contrast that with what the BFC activists were doing. The BFC activists were not aiming to break any law in order to question the soundness of the law; they were engaged in trying to document and thereby use that documentation in the longterm struggle of Yellowstone's bison population. In other words, they are engaged in resistance against the policies of the government in stopping the free movements of the buffalo population. That is, their act was one not of disobedience but of resistance. In the course of resistance, people may actually be following or breaking laws depending on the tactic of resistance, but the resistance itself is the motivation for the act, not the particular law itself that has been alledged to be broken.

    Thus, even if the BFC activists did as police claimed, it would be mistaken to say that their actions were intended to be acts of civil disobedience. They were acts of resistance against policy. Many acts of resistance are perfectly legal. You cannot draw an assumption about the intent of the protest simply because an arrest happened.

    As acts of resistance, however, it would not, of course, follow that any act of resistance is a just act of resistance. And, even if it were a just act of resistance, it would not necessarily amount to the best tactic of resistance. Surely, even if one would not be wrong to break a law does not mean that it would be smart to break the law. If you are in a group with limited resources, and you have to spend a great deal of your time in prison, all your righteousness in the world will not make up to your group the loss of resources you represent. Sometimes, people follow laws they don't believe in because it makes tactical sense for them to do so. I am guessing, for instance, that most anarchists pay taxes (sales taxes and/or income taxes) even though they do not believe in the legitimacy of the government. They do so not because they are hypocritical but because they could not survive long otherwise.

    To the question of resistance particular to BFC, is it right to resist what's happening to the buffalo? I believe that it is; the blogger does not question that in the blog. So, we will leave that question in this essay to the side. We will also leave to the side the question of whether breaking the law is sometimes just since by affirming civil disobedience, the blogger affirms that it might be possible to break a law in order to obey a higher law. That would certainly apply to resistance as well. The only question of relevance, then, is whether someone who has been arrested for breaking a law should ever plead not guilty.

    Of course, there are two cases now that we need to keep in mind. There is one case where someone did not actually break a law and was arrested for doing so, and there is another where someone did actually break the law. We are assuming that the cause of resistance is just and that it is sometimes just to break the law.

    In either case, whether one actually did break the law, there are different circumstances that would dictate whether it makes tactical sense to plead guilty or not guilty. Let us consider for instance one theory of resistance. In Gandhi's theory of satyagraha, the resister is using the force of one's suffering in order to bring a change of heart. In this case, the person resisting breaks the will of the perpetrator by in some sense showing the incompatibility of the perpetrator's force with his stated benevolvent intentions. The point is in some sense to speak with one's enemy in a unique way. In Gandhi's thinking, this act is meant to be forceful and active. In his time, one way to express that act was to fill up the prisons and do so cheerfully, never giving in to the supposed force of the punishment. This is exactly what the early Christians cited in the blog intended to do through their faith.

    However, is this the only way to express resistance justly? Today, people fast just as Gandhi did, they rot away in prison for years just like Gandhi did, some march off to jail just like Gandhi did, and the world no longer notices. They do not notice because the act of resistance no longer speaks. It has become a caricature of itself. People go through the mechanics of a "march to the sea" without any sense that what they are doing is intended to be an act of active resistance first and foremost. Their means no longer match their ends, and they waste away hungry for no purpose, languish in jail for no purpose, and pretend to be strong when in fact their imitation of a method of resistance has become weak. It is not resistance; hell, it's not even satyagraha. It is simply passive; people know the results, they know how the game is played. They, then pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

    What happens to BFC if all their volunteers plead guilty to crimes whether they have committed them or whether they have not? In what way is their cause advanced? What happens to the people in the field who are watching out for the bison? Will anyone notice or care, especially after each arrest, one is bound to read reactionary responses like the one offered by the blogger, assuming guilt when there may not have been any? Does pleading guilty do anything but add to their burden? How is resistance served?

    If we believe that BFC's cause is just, then we should support our friends without asking ourselves whether they are guilty. That is not relevant. We should also not expect them to lay down and accept their punishment as though that is the "nonviolent" and only ethical thing for them to do. They speak loudly enough through their witness and their action in support of the bison. There is nothing unjust about pleading not guilty if it helps to serve their resistance, and it's not a means inconsistent with the ends. If breaking the law can be consistent, so too can pleading not guilty (or pleading guilty as the case may be). If the higher law rests somewhere else, then it's to that law that people must conform.

    We can talk about the merits of Buffalo Field Campaign, of resistance in general, but if we are going to chastise people whose resistance we do not question for choosing not to suffer needlessly and passively, forgotten in jail, in the name of a caricature idea of civil disobedience, then we don't understand a thing.

    Those of us who accept that what is happening to Yellowstone bison is an act of oppression should stand in solidarity with our friends. I know I do.

    ****
    For all the stories on this, see the Yellowstone Newspaper.

    7 Comments:

    Blogger Montana Headlines said...

    Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response.

    The Montana Headlines essay, for the record, inserted a caveat that what was written was applicable only if the police were telling the truth. It stretches credulity that a police officer would falsely state that someone kicked out a window, when that is a fact that can be checked. The other alternative is that the police officer knocked out the window himself to frame the bison advocate.

    We will assume that the bison advocates did not go into the field with the intent of breaking the law or of getting arrested.

    The question then is this: do the bison advocates intend their resistance to operate within the law (it seems that they do) or do they have the intent of breaking a law they deem wrong?

    The situation on the ground seems to have changed while they were there, and the bison advocates were told by the responsible authorities to move. Here they had a clear choice of whether or not to operate within the law (knowing that if the police order was illegal, it could be legally protested.)

    When told that they were under arrest, they again had a choice of whether to operate within the law by not resisting arrest.

    The most disturbing part of the "
    Eclectic World" response is the section that can be boiled down to this sentence: "How is resistance served?" That is, how is resistance served by pleading guilty.

    No-where was it suggested on Montana Headlines that one should plead guilty for something that person didn't do.

    The reasoning in this last part of the Eclectic World essay is, indeed, not analogous to civil disobedience at all. It is analogous to a political resistance that does not acknowledge the legitimate authority of the regime it is living under. Think the French resistance during WWII.

    When one is in this situation, one lies, cheats, steals, breaks whatev er laws necessary, pleads not guilty if caught, and does everything possible to advance the cause of liberation from illegitimate authority.

    If this is indeed the view that the bison advocates take of the laws of the U.S. government and the laws of the state of Montana, then that is disturbing.

    5/15/07 12:52 PM  
    Blogger Montana Headlines said...

    The above was posted prematurely without finishing -- a preview was intended.

    In conclusion, the Montana Headlines essay worked from the assumption that the bison advocates intend to operate within the law. A broader moral context should include an acknowledgment of the existing political and legal processes we possess in this country.

    Part of that political and legal process is to choose in certain circumstances to break the law -- whether or not they went into the field intending to break the law, at some point they did make the decision to do so.

    We would stand by our assertion that if that is the case, they should take responsibility for their actions. And in the future, do what is necessary to achieve their goals without getting arrested.

    As a final note, a perusal of the Montana Headlines archives should show that we are anything but reflexively hostile to environmental concerns. Our focus is more of an agrarian one, rather than one based on preserving bits of pristine pre-human ecosystems (although there is also a place for that.)

    We believe in the "save the baby rancher/farmer" approach. But that is another story.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful response.

    5/15/07 1:08 PM  
    Blogger Jim Macdonald said...

    Let me respond piece by piece.

    Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response.

    While I am thankful for your tone, I wish you had been a little more careful with yours.

    The Montana Headlines essay, for the record, inserted a caveat that what was written was applicable only if the police were telling the truth. It stretches credulity that a police officer would falsely state that someone kicked out a window, when that is a fact that can be checked. The other alternative is that the police officer knocked out the window himself to frame the bison advocate.

    First of all, this is not particularly relevant to what I wrote in my essay where I was careful not to assess evidence but rather the way this was framed.

    However, to speak to this, your article first of all conflated two different arrest situations into one. At times, you spoke about Peter, at times you spoke about "two." Secondly, I saw your caveat, but since it wasn't relevant to what I wrote, I'm not sure why you are raising it here. Thirdly, I don't know what happened with the police car, and I refuse to speculate. However, it does not stretch any sense of credulity that the police might not be telling the truth here. Does it stretch credulity that officers would beat a man in broad daylight like I have seen in Washington, DC? Or, sexually harrass protesters when there are hundreds of others around documenting what they are doing (one case at World Bank protests is as far as I know still in process with internal affairs) or fabricate a situation that no one is going to hold them accountable for? When people like you jump to conclusions about what stretches credulity, you make it that much easier for authoritarians to wield their power. We who are not witnesses and cannot see what little evidence we see in the scant reports there are should be very careful on how we comment about things like this. You first assumed guilt, and then went on a diatribe about civil disobedience. Because you conveniently conflated this situation to fit a preconceived notion, that needed to be corrected.


    We will assume that the bison advocates did not go into the field with the intent of breaking the law or of getting arrested.

    The question then is this: do the bison advocates intend their resistance to operate within the law (it seems that they do) or do they have the intent of breaking a law they deem wrong?


    No, that is not the question. There is a distinction between civil disobedience and resistance. They were out there documenting what is happening to the bison. That was what their intent was; again you frame this in terms of the narrow confines of civil disobedience.

    The situation on the ground seems to have changed while they were there, and the bison advocates were told by the responsible authorities to move. Here they had a clear choice of whether or not to operate within the law (knowing that if the police order was illegal, it could be legally protested.)

    First of all, simply in terms of the law, no one is required to obey an officer when they are not doing anything unlawful, or else a police officer could tell us to dance and pistol whip us and be well within his rights as an authority. So, again, be careful with your distinctions. The officer of the law is not by fact of being an officer the embodiment of the law. Have you ever heard of the Euthyphro problem? Socrates asks Euthyphro if something is pious because the gods say it is pious or whether the gods say it because it is pious. Your version speaks to the former; reason (and in this case the law) speaks to the latter.

    Yet, I don't know why you are now using this tact when your original post used another. Your original tact was to agree that there might be times when someone might break a law that was unjust in order to obey a higher law. Your criticism wasn't that they were guilty (you simply assumed they were) but that they wouldn't take responsibility for being guilty. So, why are you moving down this road? If it's an attempt to prove guilt, you haven't done so. If you are making a different kind of value judgment, I hope you will be more clear.


    When told that they were under arrest, they again had a choice of whether to operate within the law by not resisting arrest.

    Why assume that anyone resisted arrest? Again, I don't know what establishes that fact. Did the fact that Dan was beaten and bloodied prove to you that he must have done something wrong? Does that strain your sense of credulity? That's starting to get in the territory of saying that a rape victim must have had it coming. I'm sure you wouldn't say that based on the fact of the rape (caveats or not); you certainly don't want to say that based on anything we've seen in reports. All I can add is my own firsthand experience with Dan, which is scant, but which suggests to me someone I can trust. I haven't had similar experiences with police. Perhaps, you have. That would add more to understanding where you are coming from than this sort of pseudo-argument.

    The most disturbing part of the "
    Eclectic World" response is the section that can be boiled down to this sentence: "How is resistance served?" That is, how is resistance served by pleading guilty.

    No-where was it suggested on Montana Headlines that one should plead guilty for something that person didn't do.


    If you read my response carefully, you'd see that I am suggesting in the narrow case I am talking about, where the resistance is just, where one agrees that there may be some good reason to break a law, that I don't say whether one should plead guilty or not. There may be cases where it's in one's best interests to plead guilty even if one is not.

    I also never suggested you said such a thing. Look more carefully at the train of the argument. The first part was to shatter the assumption of guilt by suggesting that this was not meant to be a case of civil disobedience. Given that, how is one to react? Note that something not being civil disobedience does not mean a law was not broken (I did not judge that); instead, it changes the parameters in which we make our value judgments. Unfortunately, because you missed that point, you saw what I wrote as somehow working within the framework you set up. What I was saying, "First off, it's not appropriate to look at it this way. Secondly, if we see it this way, how does this apply to the question of pleading guilty?"


    The reasoning in this last part of the Eclectic World essay is, indeed, not analogous to civil disobedience at all. It is analogous to a political resistance that does not acknowledge the legitimate authority of the regime it is living under. Think the French resistance during WWII.

    When one is in this situation, one lies, cheats, steals, breaks whatev er laws necessary, pleads not guilty if caught, and does everything possible to advance the cause of liberation from illegitimate authority.


    Is that what you take satyagraha to be? I was very careful to say that pleading not guilty is not an inconsistency of means to ends. Instead, you have claimed that I have said just the opposite. I said that if there are laws that one agrees might be broken justly (as your essay also assumed), then it's no stretch to say that there might be punishments that might be justly avoided. The reason that Gandhi did not avoid his punishments wasn't because he believed he had it coming to him for breaking laws but because he believed that it would better serve his resistance; it would force the authority to see the inconsistency of their struggle against him if their power over him was meaningless. Well, the terms of the conversation are different; one does not achieve Gandhi's ends by a mere imitation of the means (that is inconsistent means with ends) but by doing things which speak truth to power. In this case, it can be quite legitimate to plead not guilty when one is resisting, and that is the true consistency of means and ends.

    Unfortunately, you tried to peg what I said into a stereotype (French resistance) that you can understand. In my circles, I do have vociferous arguments with just those sorts of people, who believe "all for resistance by any means necessary," but you aren't arguing with me. And, you aren't reading carefully what my argument actually entails.


    If this is indeed the view that the bison advocates take of the laws of the U.S. government and the laws of the state of Montana, then that is disturbing.

    I don't pretend to speak for the bison advocates as far as their overall stance toward the U.S. government or the state of Montana. I do know that you don't speak for my views. There's plenty you'll find disturbing in my views, but it would behoove you to understand them first.

    Cheers,
    Jim

    5/15/07 1:42 PM  
    Blogger Montana Headlines said...

    From what I can gather, we would agree on the following:

    1. There are times when someone feels a law is unjust.

    2. We should use the existing political and legal processes to try to change said law.

    3. There are times when following a "higher law" of some sort dictates that one not obey a particular unjust law.

    4. One way this can be done is through "civil disobedience," which amounts to intentionally breaking a law perceived as unjust, and being willingly arrested to make a point or simply to obey the dictates of one's conscience.


    Where it would seem that we disagree is this: you believe that when a law is unjust that it is acceptable to choose not to accept the legal consequences for breaking said law -- since the punishment is likewise unjust.

    In this case, as I understand you, it is morally acceptable to make efforts to avoid conviction and punishment. One can plead "not guilty" even though the question being asked of you is whether you broke said law.

    And that is where I would disagree. We still live in a country where it is possible to change bad policy or law by political and legal means. And if we choose civil disobedience we have a legal system that will treat us as fairly as any in the world.

    There may be occasional circumstances where one breaks the law intentionally for a higher good (speeding to take someone to the hospital, breaking into a house in a remote area to get food or find shelter) and quite justifiably make a case that one shouldn't be convicted or punished, a case that any reasonable person would understand.

    And there are provisions within the law to take extenuating circumstances into consideration -- charges are dismissed or fines reduced all the time because of such extenuating circumstances.

    We do have abusive cops, but we have the means to discipline or prosecute them.

    If America ceases to be a country where one can pursue political and legal means to change unjust laws and bad policy, then I would find your arguments persuasive. But until then, I'm not convinced.

    I obviously dug myself into something more deep than I intended in my original post, which was meant simply to point out that a guy was charged with a misdemeanor (resisting arrest) that it seemed per the news report pretty clear that he had committed -- and then he pled not guilty.

    To the general public that needs to be persuaded of the rightness of this particular cause (and that is going to be a hard sell in Montana under any circumstance,) this doesn't do the cause any good.

    If the charges of resisting arrest turn out to have been trumped up by out-of-control cops, that should be widely publicized in Montana, since it will engender a great deal of sympathy in this heavily libertarian-minded state.

    That's probably the best that I can do.

    5/16/07 9:51 AM  
    Blogger Jim Macdonald said...

    I don't think you have farily characterized our agreements, and I'm beginning to wonder whether it makes sense to continue this conversation since you don't stick to the discussion but have a tendency to throw in premises (and assumptions about my beliefs) from left field in order to carry on your argument. We are both verbose; I hope my verbosity is still relevant to the argument at hand.

    There are too many ways you have strayed from our discussion for me to go back and clean them up.

    But, I suppose the sticking point will be this:

    If America ceases to be a country where one can pursue political and legal means to change unjust laws and bad policy, then I would find your arguments persuasive. But until then, I'm not convinced.

    I have believed for a long time that America never was that place and is certainly not that place now. I think there's a wealth of my writings scattered here and across the internet which make that point. Yet, since I do not speak for Buffalo Field Campaign, who have over the years used a wide diversity of tactics and strategies, I don't know how helpful this discussion would be in this context.

    It is a discussion worth having; nevertheless, while I'm sure we disagree about that, I still don't ultimately see the relevance of your point to the force of my argument. If you accept the principles of just resistance, just disobedience, and even in this sometimes, just avoidance of punishment, you admit that you cannot conflate resistance with civil disobedience as part of a fallacious move to establish guilt, and all you are left with is skepticism about the facts of this case, you have generally accepted the force of my argument. At this point, you are simply arguing about tactics based on one's faith in the system.

    I'll admit we don't have anywhere near the same faith in the system, but that's a very different discussion to be having. It's one thing to say that one should take one's lumps; it's quite something else to say that one should take one's lumps because the system is pretty good. I think, perhaps, we've drawn each other out. And, that's a good thing. People should be having discussions based on their actual value assumptions and not on the pretentious value judgments that your original commentary expressed. I felt it was necessary to at least combat the thinking in the original commentary because it keeps us from serious discussion.

    The serious discussion is the political and economic system that bison, that you and me, and that all of us labor under. It's not about whether someone pleads not guilty in a cause they feel is just. Unfortunately, left and right, too often people get caught up in nonsense.

    In the end, I think we will be turning to the buffalo, how they and we got to where we are, and re-assessing the values that make them caught in the ideological crosshairs. The first step is making people understand that this is in fact an ideological dispute, not one about science, or obeying laws, but about values, the reasons for those values, and our experience. It is about a world and how we have lost touch with community, how we've lost sense with being both wild and a herd. That may seem to wander - I'll admit it does - but I think it wanders right into the relevant places, where the chips fall as they may.

    5/16/07 10:29 AM  
    Blogger kalanubuffalo said...

    This post has been removed by the author.

    5/16/07 6:58 PM  
    Blogger kalanubuffalo said...

    Montana Headlines thinks it's obvious that Dan was committing a misdemeanor, but if you read the following written by Dan from the last BFC email update, you'll see this is not true:
    "A freelance photographer had made arrangements to come photograph a hazing operation and on Wednesday afternoon I escorted her into the field, with the goal of positioning ourselves to document bison being chased by the helicopter. We arrived on highway 191 near the Madison and attempted to position ourselves for a good view of the operation. We tried to set up in a few spots but were quickly approached by Forest Service and MHP police officers and told to move. Eventually a Forest Service officer told us we could photograph from a gravel road that runs parallel to highway 191 on the east side of the highway. As soon as we'd positioned ourselves on the road with our cameras ready bison began to emerge from the woods across the highway and I began to film.

    As I trained the lens on a group of mothers and their bright red calves I heard screaming from the woods and a moment later the words "my patrol partner is being assaulted" came through my two-way FM radio. Then I heard Pete screaming from the woods, "Get my camera! I'm being arrested!" At this, I decided to head further along the gravel road in the direction of Pete's calls. As I made my way down the road a MHP car came into view and I quickly realized Pete was in custody in the back. I saw a highway patrolman standing near his car and with the camera recording I asked him why Pete had been arrested and what he was being charged with. The officer wouldn't tell me and appeared very uncomfortable with me filming him. I told him I had a right to be there, on public lands, documenting government activities. He approached me and tried to grab the camera from my hands. I did not attempt to run from him and he reached out, grabbed my arm, and forcibly removed the camera and placed it on the trunk of his car. The next thing I knew I was being tackled to the ground. As the officer still had my arm I couldn't break the fall and my head hit the gravel hard. The officer is a heavy man and he dug his knee into my back with his considerable weight behind it. As I lay on the ground with my head in the gravel, I was handcuffed. The officer started to pull me up by my wrists and I complained, saying I could stand on my own. I gained my feet and stood at the back of the patrol car with my hands cuffed behind my back. In front of the car hundreds of bison, being chased by agents and their helicopter, ran eastward."
    I am a former BFC volunteer, I have been in the field filming operations similar to the one that went on this week, and I know Dan well enough to tell you that every word you read written by him is true.
    I can tell you first-hand that when we are out in the field the intent is to document hazing operations, not break laws, regardless of how we feel about the law. So this whole discussion, while very interesting, seems irrelavant to the situation.

    5/16/07 6:58 PM  

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