WASHINGTON – A gay former Army officer arrested outside the White House for protesting the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military testified at his trial Tuesday that he was proud and willing to go to jail.
Dan Choi is accused in federal court of ignoring police orders to vacate an area in front of the White House after he handcuffed himself to the fence outside the landmark building during a protest last November. He told the court he believed in his cause and drew inspiration from the civil rights movement decades ago.
"The right to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves is more than a privilege," said Choi, his voice rising with emotion during a cross-examination that turned confrontational at times. "It's a moral responsibility and I take that seriously."
Choi said he could not recall details of his arrest, but likened the scene to a "combat zone" and recalled being struck by what he considered to be aggressive and demeaning tactics by the U.S. Park Police officers who showed up.
"I do not recall a lot of what happened, but I also do not recall if I blacked out," said Choi, a 30-year-old West Point graduate who served in the Iraq war as an infantry officer.
Choi became a public face of the gay rights movement after television interviews in 2009 in which he revealed that he was gay. He said he was honorably discharged last year under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
He previously was arrested outside the White House during protests in March and April 2010. He said he was motivated partly by his disappointment in President Barack Obama, who subsequently put an end to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" police in July.
As of Sept. 20, gay service members will be able to acknowledge their sexual orientation openly. Previously, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy had barred gays from serving openly in the military since 1993.
Choi also said he was inspired by acts of civil disobedience, such as a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's department store lunch counter in North Carolina during the civil rights movement.
A dozen other protesters were arrested along with Choi at the November protest. The others have accepted plea deals that spare them jail time if they go several months without being re-arrested. Choi has rejected a similar offer, said his lawyer, Robert Feldman. Prosecutors say the police gave the protesters three separate warnings in intervals of three minutes to clear the fence.
The non-jury trial opened Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola.
Choi and his lawyer have complained that he is being selectively prosecuted because of his vocal gay rights activism and insist his case belongs in local court. He faces a fine and up to six months in jail if convicted in federal court.
Prosecutors have denied Choi's claim of selective prosecution. They say his actions violate a federal regulation requiring him to obey a lawful order from authorities.
Choi sparred repeatedly with prosecutor Angela George. She suggested Choi deliberately chose to get arrested to draw attention to himself and could have opted for less provocative methods — such as marching and holding signs - to convey the same message.
But Choi strongly disagreed. He said was flabbergasted he was on trial in the first place when people went to the White House to cheer the U.S. military raid that led to the death of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. He said those people gathered at the same fence but never faced any sanctions.
"What's the difference?" Choi demanded of George at one point. "You have not given me a reason why my free speech should be curtailed and their free speech should be amplified."