A Woman Is On Trial For Laughing During A Congressional Hearing

Activist was arrested by a rookie cop after laughing at a claim that Jeff Sessions treated "all Americans equally."

WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Capitol Police officer who decided to arrest an activist because she briefly laughed during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing in January is a rookie cop who had never conducted an arrest before nor worked at a congressional hearing. Nevertheless, prosecutors persisted this week in pursuing charges against the 61-year-old woman the rookie had taken into custody.

Katherine Coronado of the U.S. Capitol Police was in her second week on the job when she was assigned to keep watch over Sessions’ confirmation hearing on Jan. 10. Coronado was involved in the arrest of Desiree Fairooz, an activist affiliated with the group Code Pink, after Fairooz laughed when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said that Sessions’ record of “treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.” (Sessions had been rejected as a federal judge in the 1980s because of concerns about his views on race, and back when he was still a Democrat, Shelby himself actually ran an ad suggesting Sessions had called the Ku Klux Klan “good ole boys.”)

Fairooz was seated in the back of the room, and her laugh did not interrupt Shelby’s introductory speech. But, according to the government, the laugh amounted to willful “disorderly and disruptive conduct” intended to “impede, disrupt, and disturb the orderly conduct” of congressional proceedings. The government also charged her with a separate misdemeanor for allegedly parading, demonstrating or picketing within a Capitol, evidently for her actions after she was being escorted from the room.

A video shot by a HuffPost reporter that shows Fairooz being arrested was included as evidence in the trial, which will continue at Superior Court in D.C. on Tuesday. The video jurors saw Monday shows Coronado taking Fairooz into custody as she’s assisted by fellow officers.

Jason Covert, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys trying the case, asked Officer Coronado on Monday whether the laughter was “loud enough to draw your attention” or if she recalled “seeing other people turning around.” Coronado claimed she had seen other people turn around and later said Fairooz had been laughing “very loudly.”

Samuel Bogash, a lawyer representing Fairooz, showed a video of the audience laughing at another part of the hearing, when Sessions joked about disagreements with his wife. But Covert argued that it was appropriate for the audience to laugh when Sessions made a joke about his marriage but not when Shelby claimed Sessions had a long record of “treating all Americans equally.”

“Is that funny?” Covert asked Officer Coronado of Shelby’s praise of Sessions. “Is that a joke to you?” Coronado did not think it was.

Desiree Fairooz jumps up in front of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before Rice testifies on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24, 2007.
Desiree Fairooz jumps up in front of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before Rice testifies on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24, 2007.
Larry Downing / Reuters

Ariel Gold, a member of Code Pink who was also at the Monday hearing, testified that she believed Fairooz’s laughter was a reflex and not a purposeful interruption. She said she was “very shocked” and “appalled” when Fairooz was arrested.

Fairooz is being tried alongside Tighe Barry and Lenny Bianchi, who dressed as KKK members and pretended to support Sessions. Bianchi is representing himself, while a lawyer representing Barry argued that their political satire did not break the rules because it took place before the Senate session was gaveled open and did not cause a delay in the proceedings.

Fairooz is a protest veteran. A decade ago she put fake blood on her hands and confronted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But as she was being arrested after laughing during the hearing in January, she said she had not intended on interrupting the hearing. “Why am I being taken out of here?” she asked. “I was going to be quiet, and now you’re going to have me arrested? For what?” She referred to Sessions’ record as “evil” and Shelby’s comment as “ridiculous.”

Comedian and writer Elizabeth Croydon agreed. She tweeted Monday that she also laughed at the Sessions hearing and that Fairooz was simply reacting to a “laughable” claim.

“If my hero Desiree Fairooz wanted to make a scene, she would’ve made a scene,” Croydon said. “Desiree just had an involuntary reaction to a bogus lie that was told bold-faced in front of the American people. Jefferson Sessions has a record of not treating every American equally.”

In a statement on Code Pink’s website, Fairooz said she felt it was her “responsibility as a citizen to dissent at the confirmation hearing of Senator Jeff Sessions, a man who professes anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT policies, who has voted against several civil rights measures and who jokes about the white supremacist terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan.”

The trial is being run by Judge Robert Morin, a former death row defense attorney who recently became chief judge of D.C. Superior Court. Proceedings will resume Tuesday.

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