BELFAST, Maine — For a few minutes Monday afternoon, the packed Belfast courtroom was out of control.
Vietnam War protesters jumped up from the benches, waving signs and chanting anti-government slogans. As sheriff’s department deputies tried to wrestle the protesters out of the room, the judge banged his gavel and a group of counterprotesters raised their voices in response.
“No more war! No more war!” shouted the anti-war faction.
“Hippies, go home!” the other side screamed back.
But the chaos soon subsided, and the estimated 100 people in the court simmered down. After all, the protesting participants were all players in a mock trial held as part of the Belfast Game Loft’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
During this year’s Issues on Trial event, held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast, a young Mainer was in court to face the consequences of evading the draft during the Vietnam War.
One point of the presentation is to make history come alive for the teens and others who take part in the trial, organizers said. The issue of protesting the war had particular relevance for King, who denounced it in a 1967 speech titled “A Time to Break Silence.”
“Martin Luther King Day is about bringing up issues that were controversial,” said Nikky Boyington of Swanville, the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the Game Loft, “and bringing [the teens] to the forefront of why it was controversial, explaining both sides of the issue.”
Unfortunately for 19-year-old draft dodger Jonah Chandler, portrayed by Luke Merrithew of Belfast, the jury wasn’t convinced by his explanations. Chandler needed to make them believe he was truly a conscientious objector who could not participate in the war because of religious convictions.
“I don’t believe it’s right for anyone to kill anyone,” he said from the witness stand.
But Chandler and his defense counsel, portrayed by retired Belfast lawyer Orrin Brown, were unsuccessful in their quest, especially after a tough grilling by the prosecutor, Bangor lawyer Jim Munch.
Among other questions, Munch asked Chandler what his denomination was, which he could not answer without some help from “family” members in the courtroom.
That’s perhaps one reason the case ended in a hung jury — and then the judge, portrayed by Hallowell lawyer Jon Braff, found Chandler to be guilty of draft evasion.
John Williams, 16, of Stockton Springs, who acted as a “Norumbega County” sheriff’s deputy, said during the jury’s deliberations that he learned a lot from participating in the mock trial.
“I think it’s a really good introspection into the legal system,” he said. “In school, you just read about it.”
Also during the deliberations, a circle of people of all ages talked about the issues that had been raised in the mock trial. Before and during the trial, Vietnam protest musician Vince Gabriel, also known as Blind Albert, strummed his bluesy tunes for the crowd.
Actual Vietnam War protester Neill Peterson, who portrayed a war protester, said he thought the mock trial was “absolutely wonderful” and that Game Loft co-directors Patricia and Ray Estabrook were providing a community service.
“I think part of what they do is to show that the questions are complicated and that the answers do not come easily,” Peterson said.