Activist Faces Jail Time for Laughing During Sessions Hearing

Image: Protesters hold signs at Jeff Sessions confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general
Protester Desiree Ali-Fairooz, center, holds a sign at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions to become attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 10, 2017.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Kalhan Rosenblatt

An activist was convicted Wednesday on criminal misdemeanor charges for laughing during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing.

Desiree Fairooz, 61, a long-time member of activist group Code Pink, was arrested on January 10 during the hearing's opening statements. Tighe Barry and Lenny Bianchi, also members of Code Pink — who were dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan as commentary on what Code Pink describes as Sessions' racist past — were also arrested for causing a disruption.

Barry and Bianchi were escorted out of the Kennedy Caucus Room and arrested first. Less than 30 minutes after the two men were removed from the room, Fairooz was removed and arrested, according to a government motion.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby testified during his opening statement that Sessions’ record of "treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented," and it was following this remark that Fairooz is alleged to have let out a laugh.

Protester Desiree Ali-Fairooz, center, holds a sign at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions to become attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 10, 2017.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

The government motion describes two bouts of laughter.

“In response to this statement, Defendant Fairooz, who had been sitting with Defendants Barry and Bianchi before their disruption and removal, let out aloud [sic] burst of laughter, followed by a second louder burst of laughter,” the document reads.

But Ariel Gold, campaign director for Code Pink who was sitting near Fairooz in the Kennedy Caucus Room, told NBC News that the noise was less than a cough.

“I would describe it as a reflex. It was such an appalling statement for Senator Shelby to make … this is such an absurdity that Mr. Sessions has a record of treating Americans equally, that she just reflexively let out a noise,” Gold said. “I was sitting about two people away, and I would say the noise was quieter than a cough.”

The case went to trial on Monday and closing arguments were made on Tuesday.

Fairooz was found guilty of disrupting Congress and parading/demonstrating on Wednesday afternoon, according to U.S. Attorney spokesman Bill Miller. Barry and Bianchi were each found guilty of parading/demonstrating and unlawful display but were found not guilty of disrupting Congress.

Miller said each charge is a misdemeanor with a statutory maximum of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Related: Code Pink Protester Disrupts the Floor at RNC

"Since CODEPINK formed at the start of the Iraq war, we have continuously been in the halls of Congress and in the streets standing up against war, militarism, and hatred. That Tighe, Lenny, and Desiree were convicted for peacefully protesting the hatred and racism of Jeff Sessions is an affront to justice and contrary to the kind of peaceful tolerant world we all deserve to live in," a group spokesperson said in a statement emailed to NBC News.

Sessions has had a complicated history with race. In 1986, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship after the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony that Sessions had made racist remarks, including calling a black U.S. attorney “boy,” and joking the Ku Klux Klan was OK until learning they smoked marijuana. Sessions denied the allegations. During the hearings, Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a letter to the committee asking that they deny Sessions the judgeship because he had attempted to “intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.” King called Sessions’ conduct “reprehensible.”

This isn’t Fairooz’s first time in court for political activism. She told Gold she has been arrested as many as 10 times, and only remembers being convicted on one charge for which she served a three-day jail sentence.

It’s also not Code Pink’s first time demonstrating against the government.

The organization was founded in 2002 as a reaction to the war in Iraq. It then grew into a political activism network for both women and men.

“We have become famous for confronting the warmongers, whether in the halls and hearing rooms of Congress, the national conventions of both the Republicans and Democrats, George Bush's fundraisers, the publicity tours of Karl Rove, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and others, and Nancy Pelosi's house,” the Code Pink website description reads.

The group has confronted leaders such as then-Senator Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Desiree Ali-Fairooz of Texas, 50, jumps up in front of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before Rice testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 24, 2007. Fairooz, an anti-war protester waved blood-colored hands in Rice's face at a congressional hearing on Wednesday and shouted "war criminal!", but was pushed away and detained by police.Larry Downing / Reuters file

In 2003, the group had a sit-down with Clinton as she defended her stance on the Iraq war, and an image of Fairooz shows the activist putting her fake blood-covered fingers in Rice’s face in 2007.

However, Gold said what Fairooz did in the courtroom was not a protest.

“[Fairooz] has been arrested while demonstrating in past,” Gold said. “But [her laugh] was not demonstrating. Generally, when Code Pink demonstrates, it’s very hard to miss.”