Courtroom 315 yesterday was full of middle-aged white people in woolly sweaters, bright scarves, and peace-sign T-shirts. These were the protesters arrested at the Capitol in September, facing their first day of trial. Since they were representing themselves in a large group, Chief Judge Rufus G. King III had to keep explaining that testifying and asking a question are different things.

For instance, one man’s question to a Capitol Police officer began, “Wasn’t the gathering of nonviolent peace activists that was gathered in opposition of an illegal war that has cost thousands of lives…” and trailed on ’til it hit the word “peaceful.” He was trying to ask, “Was it peaceful?” But King had to untangle that one for the cop. When the same defendant used the phrase “quagmire in Iraq,” the bowtied Reagan appointee cut him off. “I’m gonna ask you to ask the legally relevant questions at this stage,” King said. “You can get into the reasons that you were there later.”

Such instructions were the real business of the trial. Over the hour and a half that I watched, no one sparred with the major facts. The characterization was what mattered: Was it peaceful? Was it for a good cause? Did a line of a people singing and reading scripture really pose a threat? The two cops, stern and anxious, played foil to the idealists. “Being loud in a public building is not peaceful,” one officer said. And said Lt. Peter Demas, “We don’t allow sitting in any area where there isn’t a chair.”

All this was enough to make King raise his eyebrow as high as he could cock it. When defendant Michelle Grisé asked a question, the prosecution objected. King overruled; she could continue her question. But Grisé still thought she had to prove a point. “My concern, your honor, is,” she said. King stopped her. He stuttered, “You…you…you won!”