Ken Erickson is ashamed of his country. The 55-year-old father of three was appalled to learn that the United States, in 2001, spent more than $1 billion a day on defense, according to a Time magazine publication.
In late March, the Navy veteran decided to act on his convictions. Erickson, a fidgety man who wears spectacles and turquoise jewelry, wanted to ask congressional representatives why so much money goes to making war in the world, when health care, education and social programs are undernourished here.
He loaded the bed of his red pick-up truck with a public address system rigged to an MP3 player and drove to Cholla Magnet High School, 2001 W. Starr Pass Blvd., to find an answer. Along the way, Erickson cranked a homemade CD of bomb detonations, machine gun fire and other sounds of destruction. He then parked his truck next to the school's auditorium, where more than 100 people had reportedly gathered for a military recruitment meeting Erickson had read about in the papers.
"I wanted to give them a sense of what it was like in Iraq," he said of his "sounds of war" creation. "Our solution to everything is to first send in the CIA to effect a regime change. If that doesn't work, we bring in the bombs. I'm so upset with this government, I'm ready to move."
On Sept. 12, Magistrate Eugene Hays convicted Erickson of criminal trespass and a noise violation related to his self-described "spontaneous act of civil disobedience."
"You have a right to dissent, but you don't have a right to break the law in dissent," Hays said during the sentencing, which included a fine of $310. "If you're working for peace, be at peace yourself."
A Tucson Police Department report alleged that Erickson barged in on the meeting, an informational forum on admissions to military academies and ROTC, after blasting it with noise from the parking lot.
Jayne Song-gin, a Cholla counselor, testified that the war sounds were deafening, forcing her to close the outer lobby doors. She alleged that Erickson pushed her out of the way to get inside the auditorium after she told him to stop. He denied touching her.
"Mr. Erickson flung open the door, and then he just, like, charged in," she said. "And then it came to my realization that that was the gentleman with the truck and the speakers. I was fearful he would disrupt the event."
Some witnesses claimed an "agitated" Erickson, clad in black, yelled at Congressman Jim Kolbe--who helped sponsor the annual event--saying that all Americans should be ashamed and asking why so much money was being diverted to the Iraqi conflict.
"When he came into the auditorium, he was yelling and screaming, and everything stopped," testified Judith Hockett, a naval academy representative. "My instincts were that I had to get help. It was a very uneasy feeling that someone was not in control of himself."
There was disagreement about whether or not Erickson interrupted Kolbe. Some prosecution witnesses alleged that he shouted over the congressman, while defense witness Richard Martinez, former district director for Congressman Raúl Grijalva, said Erickson piped up after Kolbe opened the floor to questions.
In addition, Martinez claimed that Erickson was relatively calm. The people who were agitated, he said, were those audience members "who were unwilling to be tolerant of his viewpoint."
"There were others who were very rude and profane in their language and were attempting to engage in physical confrontation," testified Martinez, who had accompanied event co-sponsor Grijalva. "My concern was not in anything he said or did. It was a voice of dissent. I didn't see it as anything other than that."
Two of the four prosecution witnesses asserted that several attendees told Erickson it was inappropriate for him to be there.
"He was yelling from the moment he walked through that door," Hockett said. "It was unusual. I've never seen anything like this before. People were trying to calm him down--this wasn't the right place.
"The majority of people in there had military backgrounds. They were not coming on like the enemy, so to speak. They were coming on like this was inappropriate. They were very professional."
Although Erickson left after a brief conversation with an officer, he was reportedly stopped and arrested sometime later. Authorities took him to Pima County Jail, where, Erickson said, where he shouted anti-war slogans through the space underneath his cell door. He was released that evening.
"That's the reason I got arrested--not for what I was doing, but for what I was saying," the mustached carpenter and artist said. "They don't like those questions."
Some local activists, like 74-year-old Pat Birnie, agreed. She said there are a lot of parallels between Erickson's trial and the recent case against Keith McHenry, a well-known activist who was convicted of assaulting a marine at a local peace rally, which she attended.
"I know Keith McHenry, and he's a gentle soul--imperturbable, would never pick a fight with someone," Birnie said. "I think it's a matter that the authorities are trying to downplay the voice of opposition to the war. It appears to me that the judges are inclined to support the authority symbols--more so than to be open to opinions different from the authority figures."
Erickson insisted that he wasn't there to anger anyone.
"I really wanted an answer to my questions," he said. "And I probably would have gone away if they answered. Instead, I got intimidated. A billion dollars a day could help a lot of people in the world."
Hays applauded Erickson at his sentencing for having firm beliefs, but added that he was working at "cross-purposes" by protesting for peace in such a confrontational manner. Erickson remained resolute.
"I don't think I was guilty, of course," he said. "It's our responsibility to know and speak out against what we don't think is right. I'm going to fight for that the rest of my life."