I didn’t fully appreciate while I was sitting in court waiting for Vernon Hershberger’s hearing to begin Friday afternoon in Baraboo, WI, that the delay was due to some important negotiations taking place outside the courtroom.

It was over whether Hershberger’s son, Andrew, could videotape the proceedings. I was aware there was a problem when I went out briefly into the hallway, and Andrew asked me whether I might be able to video the proceedings, since I was a media representative, and was sitting in a special media section up front. I agreed, though suggested it would be preferable if he came in and actually did it, since he knew much better how to use the camera. He said he had been told he couldn’t go in. The court officers present indicated when I was there that they had to inquire with higher ups as to whether he could come in and videotape. Andrew told me he would stick his head in and let me know when a decision came back.

I’ll let Hershberger pick up the story from there, from an account he wrote for his club members:

“I asked (court officials) about our video camera that Andrew was going to use to record the whole proceeding. They told me there is no way that we are allowed to take that camera inside the courtroom due to Judge’s orders. I told them that it is my constitutional right to have everything properly recorded when I am talking with government officials. I let them know that I will not go anywhere without that camera!

“I just stepped aside and sat down in a chair while they continued to scan the other people and to fill the courtroom. They continued to (try to) persuade me to go inside and sit down with family, then I could ask the Judge when the hearing starts. I firmly told them no.

“Finally it was 1:00 and they were getting nervous. I did not expect anything else besides going to jail if I don’t comply. But, I thought, I will rather go to jail than to go into the courtroom without the camera.

“After 1:00 they started conversing with the Judge and trying to make me a deal. I turned down four deals and then finally gave in when they said that Andrew could go inside and let David Gumpert operate the camera and that he (Andrew) could stand right beside him and show him how to operate it. When they finally got inside the courtroom it was 1:30.”

And that’s what happened. Andrew stood next to me as I operated the video camera to record the half-hour or so proceedings.

What’s instructive here is that the initial orders to the court officials were “no way on the video cameras.” When faced with a defendant who was prepared to stand up for his right to have the hearing be a matter of public record, the judge became personally involved in negotiating an arrangement that allowed Hershberger to have his camera in the courtroom.

Demonstrators outside the courthouse Friday in Baraboo, WI. A similar kind of situation came up during the hearing Friday, when the prosecutors said they had been prepared to present Hershberger with an offer for a settlement to the four misdemeanor charges against him at the scheduled pretrial hearing he refused to attend a couple weeks back, based on the court’s refusal to let him videotape those proceedings. The prosecutors on Friday wanted to hand Hershberger their offer letter during the hearing . One of them seemed about to dangle it from his hand.

Nothing doing, said Hershberger. He didn’t want it.

Damn, it certainly would have been tempting to me, had I been in Hershberger’s shoes, to see the offer. But, of course, it almost certainly specified terms that would have been repugnant to Hershberger–perhaps an offer to not be sentenced to any jail time if he agreed to refrain from supplying his food club members.

But Hershberger knew better than I did that accepting that offer letter was the first step down a path to certain defeat. Just as going into that courtroom without an advance commitment from the judge on the camera was a step down the same path. After all, you know, had Hershberger agreed to wait on the video decision, that the judge would have said no, and then Hershberger would have been stuck, since he was already in the courtroom.

The important lesson here is that if you going to do what Vernon Hershberger is doing, you have to be prepared to play “the game within the game.” It’s not unlike professional sports, where the teams are taking steps to intimidate (like “trash talk”), or distract, or wear the opposition down, or giving secret signals to each other, out of view of the casual fan.

Hershberger a long time ago made a decision “not to join in their game.” By that, he didn’t mean he’d opt out, but rather that he would refuse to participate in various shenanigans developed by the authorities to play fast and loose with our guaranteed rights. So while they regularly dangle various offers in front of him to tempt him toward the “easy” solution, he stands his ground, insists they abide by the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Because there was a big crowd watching, the judge gave way to do what he knew he was obligated to do, and spoke soothingly to Hershberger in the courtroom. But that will only continue happening so long as the big crowds keep showing up, and keep watch.

Hershberger clearly knows how to play with the big boys. It’s up to us to continue keeping the glare of publicity on this situation, so they’ll keep playing by the rules. Otherwise, they won’t hesitate to lock Vernon Hershberger up, and throw away the keys.


Thanks to Deborah Evans for reminding us in a comment following my previous post, about the one-year anniversary of the start of the Food Sovereignty movement, which launched out of Maine. And to Gayle Loiselle for her recap, also in a comment following my previous post, of the happenings at the Rights Workshop held last Thursday evening

I’d like to recommend as well a nicely done column by Wisconsin columnist Joe Orso comparing Vernon Hershberger to Rosa Parks.