Does this look like a crime to you?

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Mike Madden's alleged crime: Walking around the airport with this sign, and wanting to catch a ride home with his wife. Collin Michael Simmons

The facts of the case are not in dispute.

On a Sunday in January, a crowd of about 1,000 people arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to protest the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban.

Mike Madden intended to be among them. But the 62-year-old and his wife heat their St. Paul home with a wood-burning stove, and he had log-splitting to do.

“If you go against the grain, it’s a lot of work,” advises Madden, gripping a 16-pound maul. “If you go with the grain it’s a lot easier.”

It was 3 o’clock by the time his wife, Gail, dropped him at the airport. Finding no demonstrators in sight, Madden staged a one-man protest, walking up and down the baggage claim carrying a chest-sized sign. “MUSLIMS WELCOME,” it read.

Some arriving passengers nodded. The rest looked through him. As he passed by a group of East African airport workers, two made eye contact, mouthing the words “Thank you.”

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Colin Michael Simmons

Eventually Madden learned the protest had moved to another part of the airport. He tracked it down at precisely the moment a policeman barked into a bullhorn: Anyone who didn’t leave immediately would be arrested.

As other protesters jammed into an airport tram, Madden hung back. He was “informed” or “instructed” to leave eight times, according to a criminal complaint. By about the fifth time, they were quibbling over the method: Madden wanted to wait for Gail to pick him up. The cops wanted him to take the next train.

As an officer forcibly escorted his charge—“tense and resisting”—toward the light rail station, Madden quit complying. “I’m not going,” he said. “Go ahead and arrest me.” So they did.

In the annals of crime, no caper sounds less exciting than The Man Who Wanted a Ride Home from His Wife. It’s a little more interesting than it first appears.

Madden was born in 1955 to a large Irish Catholic family in northeast Minneapolis. “One older brother,” he says with a wry smile. “Seven sisters.”

Mom worked as a nurse, his father as a first-rate auto mechanic when alcoholism didn’t get in the way.

Madden took after his big brother, an outspoken protester of the Vietnam War. But Mike wanted a way into college. He waited until after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 to join the Air Force, and served five years fixing radios and radar systems.

Madden enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study Spanish and Latin American history.

“Before that, I had kind of swallowed all that stuff about America purely being a force for good,” Madden says. “College opened my eyes.”

He eventually dropped out to become a cab driver, then a house painter. He now makes ends meet as a contractor and handyman. Madden travels by bike, and gets work by word of mouth. He’s restored five neighborhood homes, and is hard at work on a sixth.

He knows the news better than most of the people who make it, casually citing the number of a congressional resolution or the percentage of energy a 20-year-old project generated by polluting indigenous Canadians’ land. 

As a member of Veterans for Peace, Madden has protested against Iraq Wars, drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay, and the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning. He can’t imagine another way.

“It’s high drama,” Madden says. “I want to live life fully engaged in this world. I’m going to be a part of it all.”

Madden says he went to the airport that cold January day because he was “offended by the clear religious discrimination.” The ban, he concluded, would do more harm than good.

“The ‘war on terror’ is perceived abroad as a war against Islam,” he says. “And Trump’s Muslim ban reinforces the idea that it is a war on Islam.”

Gail is quieter. “She writes more letters to her elected officials than anyone,” says her husband. She would prefer he take the prosecutors’ offer after his airport arrest: plead guilty, pay a $100 fine, and agree not to “trespass” at the airport again for 12 months.

That would’ve been the easy way. It’s working against the grain that’s hard. “It’s about the principle,” Madden says. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

In March, Madden refused a plea deal from the Metropolitan Airports Commission’s private attorneys, who essentially act as prosecutors-for-hire. So they upped the charge, accusing him of “trespass on critical public service facilities.”

Noted First Amendment defender Jordan Kushner thinks his client is being punished for not giving in.

Kushner also represented Michael Morey, who sat down in the middle of the airport’s dropoff section, deliberately stopping traffic. Morey took a plea deal, and a judge reduced his offense to a petty misdemeanor, the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

It’s one of those curiously American forms of injustice. “You can face a lot more punishment if you’re innocent,” Kushner says.

The lawyer has filed a motion to dismiss Madden’s case, arguing he’d gone to the airport to “publicly express his opinion on an issue... at the center of a national debate.” Madden was not interfering with airport business, Kushner asserts, and says authorities cannot dictate how a person vacates a given location.

Madden’s first court date is scheduled for August 17. If the case isn’t dropped or thrown out, he faces up to a year in prison and a $3,000 fine. For carrying a little sign that says Muslims are welcome, and for trying to catch a ride home with his wife.

It’s the sort of abuse of power that makes people rush to protest. So long as the day’s fire wood is chopped, Mike Madden would be first in line.

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