Lt. Dan Choi and Army Capt. James Pietrangelo girded themselves Wednesday morning at Washington, D.C.'s superior court. They were facing charges of failing to obey police orders after they chained themselves to a White House fence in defiance of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy — once in March and another time in April. But on Wednesday the Justice Department prosecutor dropped all charges, and Choi and Pietrangelo walked out of the court as free men — happy but dumbfounded. Choi, who has become the 21st-century poster boy for gay-rights–related civil disobedience, talked with The Advocate about his reactions to yesterday's news, what's next for him, and why he holds no ill will toward Kathy Griffin.
Were you surprised all the charges were dropped? And so quickly?
Surprised is not an emotion that I’ve had lately. So many things have happened. But I certainly am overwhelmed with that feeling of vindication for the whole civil disobedience, direct-action ideals. It was certainly justification — but it was clear the government was embarrassed to do that. But I didn’t think the trial would happen so quickly. We were there for five minutes. I put on my uniform and got a haircut!
I was surprised to see so many veterans there. It was cool to see them and acknowledge that today we might be on opposite sides of the case, but we’re all serving. And the bond always surprises me a little bit.
We had our case loaded, ready to go. Jim and I went through a war game strategy, asked questions of each other. I realized this year I had become accustomed to TV interviews, live interviews. As we were prepping, I thought that being cross-examined and redirected it could get really ugly to me on an emotional level because I never had time to reflect on a personal level everything that’s happened over the past year.
The judge had two other trials on the docket, so we sat in the back and acknowledged the judge and bailiff. We thought we were going to be waiting there a while, I shook the hand of the Metro Police guy that was there. And then the judge calls us right up. We got up there, myself and my lawyer, Mark Goldstone, and as I was walking up, I said, “Here we go.” I took my hat off and put it on the table. The prosecutor said the government was not going to press the cases, and Mark asked, “All four of them — two against me, two against Jim?” She said yes. It got quiet, and I thought we were supposed to say something, and the judge said you’re dismissed.
I thought we were going to have to come back — I was like, I want to have my trial today. But it was over. There was no emotional outburst, no punctuation. So we just left and said “thank you” to the judge. He acknowledged it and we went to the arresting officers and shook their hands again and had a brief exchange again where we thanked each other for our service. Jim’s lawyers asked if the stay-away order is not in effect and the judge acknowledged that. I said to the cops, “I’ll see you again soon.”
You told the Associated Press that the the case was dropped because the Obama administration didn’t want
attention brought to DADT. Do you still believe that?
the Pentagon spokesperson say some ridiculous thinks about segregation. They’re being so careful and “lawyerly” about the
repeal. You get the feeling that they’re incompetent as far as showing
It’s demoralizing —
Obama failing in leading on civil rights. It’s not like there’s so much
on his plate; we know that's a cop-out. [The Administration] is
incompetent with dealing with civil rights, and that is the most
frustrating. Obviously, I respect my commander in chief and I’ll carry
out what he requires and that’s why we quoted all his speeches where he
said, “You have to pressure me.” That’s reminiscent of FDR. But they
don’t know how to do what needs to be done. That’s very dangerous for
any commander in chief. You have to be as a commander like Truman: “Look
if you don’t like it, get the fuck out.” Don’t talk about shower
curtains; that shows abject incompetence of the older folks involved
with DADT. I don’t think they realize how much damage they’re doing to
What's next on your agenda?
I’m going to be in Las Vegas next week for Netroots Nation [a progressive political convention featuring politicians like Sen. Harry Reid]. Senator Reid is very close to me. Tonight, we’re meeting with a larger group of folks who are emboldened with civil disobedience and resistance — nonviolent, of course. The events always have to be planned by these practitioners. We have been absolutely clear since the beginning, it’s the military mindset: If you are at the leadership table, you have to be in Iraq. You have to put your money where your mouth is. You’re not getting input from wonks.
The reason these events are so impactful and embarrassing to the government is that we’re involved not only in the planning but the execution of the action. Until you’re willing to take action yourself, you’re not someone who helps. That’s one of the principles that Jim and I really discovered to be true, and with GetEqual as well. I’ve got a great time working with them. There’s a lot of other groups forming up and that was part of GetEqual’s goal.
Kathy Griffin is taking a lot of heat for her DADT episode, especially for the fact that she didn't follow you to the White House fence.
Really? I gave her two calls, and she hasn’t returned them. Well, we’re not shying away from the use of celebrities. We fully recognize they can help. They have a voice heard by many people who wouldn’t read The Advocate.
Kathy said she would go to the White House — she told me that before I got on stage [with her]. Her producers have that on tape. Everybody who is a voice out there has an immense responsibility and an inherent obligation to not only speak the truth but if you know you’re representing what you feel and know is correct then you don’t apologize for it. So she didn’t apologize for not going. It's clear that she felt that it was the right thing not to be involved in that way and if she feels that’s her role, then I respect that. But I did ask her to go because I would have welcomed her to come. I welcomed anyone to come. That would have been hypocritical of me to say, “Because you’re a certain way, you shouldn’t be there.” Anyone who has a voice should be on that fence. [Celebrities] have a platform to make people listen; they have a moral responsibility. She’s just not there at this point. I welcome her to join me at any future events.