Key activists were earmarked by police

Tom Wheeler twbounds at
Fri Aug 4 12:14:05 PDT 2000

Key activists were earmarked by police

Protesters say their leaders were arrested not for what they did, but for what they might do. Police deny this.

By Craig R. McCoy ,Thomas Ginsberg and Emilie Lounsberry INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

Even as the world's media shone a bright light on Philadelphia police clearing masses of protesters from blockaded streets this week, police were carrying out a much less public - and much more selective - operation to collar demonstration leaders.

Eyewitnesses accounts and video taken by demonstrators document police moving in to swiftly arrest at least two such leaders.

One, John Sellers, 33, a nationally known civil-disobedience activist from Berkeley, Calif., was arrested Wednesday as he walked along JFK Boulevard.

Yesterday, Sellers, who grew up in Chester County, was held on $1 million bail - even though he was only charged with misdemeanor offenses.

Defense lawyers called the sum unprecedented and punitive, while a prosecutor portrayed him as the real puppetmaster in a protest replete with puppets and other theatrical agitprop objects.

Another protester, Paul Davis, a Philadelphia activist on AIDS issues in his 20s, was arrested Tuesday as he walked on a blockaded street and spoke on a cell phone. It was unclear last night whether his bail had been set.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney yesterday spoke of "some arrests effected in the Center City area that included some of the so-called leaders," but declined to provide details.

He did say police had good reason for every arrest.

"We think we can prove they've engaged in criminal activity," the commissioner said during his morning news briefing.

There were no preemptive strikes "just to take leaders out," he said.

Furious demonstrators yesterday strongly disagreed. They said that the strikes were indeed preemptive, and that police arrested people for what they might do - and not for actual crimes.

The critics said the arrests of several protest leaders - "ringleaders," as the District Attorney's Office termed them - were part of a pattern in which police aimed to decapitate the leadership of the demonstrations. People involved in the protests acknowledged that the arrests scrambled their communications and reduced their effectiveness.

They said people had been arrested on false pretexts - especially during a Tuesday raid on a West Philadelphia warehouse that was a key protest facility.

Then, they said, protesters were held behind bars for unusually long times, thus keeping them off the streets.

As of early yesterday, they noted, police said only about 30 of 369 arrested protesters had been released. Scores more were released later in the day, but officials could provide no figures.

"The whole point of this is preventive - preventive detention. Get them all off the streets until the Republicans are out of town," said Ann Northrup, an AIDS activist from New York City with the group ACTUP. "It didn't matter if they had done anything."

Her view was echoed by Larry Gross, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor who served on a blue-ribbon panel critical of police misconduct during a 1991 protest. Gross noted that police had been photographing demonstrators in weeks before the Republican National Convention.

"They spied on the protest groups. I think they prepared a list of organizers that they were looking for, and when they found them, they arrested them," Gross said.

Yet Stefan Presser, a leading critic of the warehouse raid as legal director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union branch, said the Police Department acted within the law if it targeted leaders preparing an unpermitted and, hence, illegal demonstration.

He said helping organize an illegal demonstrations, such as by staying out of the fray and directing others via cellular phone, was criminally no different than blocking traffic.

"It's probably smart tactics," Presser said, referring to the selective arre sts. "And it probably succeeded, if you look at the speed at which the city resumed to normalcy. I don't see that there's a constitutional question here. It just makes good sense on the part of the department."

Apart from the protesters sitting on streets, police this week targeted certain activists who they knew had been involved in past protests or who simply looked as though they were organizing actions over a mobile phone.

The result was that scores of people, even medics and bicycle messengers trying to do their jobs, were swept up in the search for a select few who may have been pivotal to the protests.

Police interest in people with cellular phones and walkie-talkies led them to detain and question several bicycle messengers over the last two days, managers of several messenger firms said. Some were stopped going into Center City office towers, others near hotels or on the street.

"They wanted to make sure he wasn't scoping out the area, or starting to gather," Ted Teschner, general manager of Heaven Sent Couriers, said of an employee who was stopped.

Police seemed to key on people carrying Nextel mobile phones, favored by protest organizers because they cost about $125 each and permit users to conduct mobile conference calls.

Activists said at least 15 important players had been arrested by police in apparently targeted collars.

A similar police tactic was employed in Seattle late last fall and in Washington, D.C., in April during crackdowns on disruptive protests there.

Temple University law professor Edward Ohlbaum said that $1 million bail - which was set in Sellers' case - for a misdemeanor charge is extraordinarily high.

Authorities provided few details of Sellers' allegedly illegal acts but did say that at one point he chained himself to a trash barrel in order to obstruct traffic.

Sellers, who has been unable to make bail, faces misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice, obstructing a highway, failure to disperse, recklessly endangering another person, and conspiracy.

Sellers was also charged with possession with an instrument of crime, but officials did not specify what that instrument was or at what point he was using it. Colleagues said yesterday that he had been carrying only a Palm Pilot and a cell phone at the time of his arrest.

Ohlbaum said he could not recall a previous case in which bail was set at $1 million for a misdemeanor.

Four other activists charged with assaults were held on lesser bails of $400,000 to $500,000.

Only one of the four, Darby Landy, 20, was charged with a felony. He was charged with robbery and assault in connection with the heavily publicized incident in which Timoney and other officers on bicycles were involved in a fight a block from Rittenhouse Square. He was held on $500,000 bail.

Lawrence Krasner, a criminal defense lawyer in Center City representing Sellers, said he was astounded at the high bail.

"The D.A.'s behavior is like nothing I've ever seen in my life," said Krasner. "This is a desperate effort to systematically punish these people without a trial, to lock them up, keep them off the streets."

When Davis, the AIDS activist, was arrested Tuesday, he was walking with other activists on a blockaded Center City street - and talking on a Nextel.

It was not immediately known what he was charged with.

In a scene Tuesday captured by a videographer working for the protesters' Independent Media Center, police rushed Davis from behind.

"Come on, you're coming with us," an officer is heard saying. At one point, a supervisor says: "I want him out of here."

As Davis is pulled backward, he can be seen pushing buttons on his Nextel even as a police supervisor reaches to grab it from him.

Then a voice, apparently that of a protester, says: "The Nextel! The Nextel! Throw it! Throw it!"

Davis, who has been active for many years with ACTUP in Philadelphia and took part in the mass protest in Washington earlier this year, tossed the phone toward other protesters, but it slipped through several hands and tumbled to the asphalt. A police supervisor, identifiable by his white shirt, kicked it about 10 yards.

The phone ended up under a police cruiser.

While the state ACLU found the police targeted arrests defensible, Presser, its legal director, joined other critics in assailing other parts of the police operation.

He and others condemned Tuesday's police raid on a West Philadelphia warehouse that served as a workshop for the satirical puppets and bizarre headdresses that have become an odd hallmark of the theatrical street protests.

Police, who said the building also stored materials to block streets, arrested 70 people there - 20 percent of all those collared this week - thus taking them out of action before the street protests began.

Timoney yesterday declined to say what objects had been seized in the raid.

The search warrant itself, signed Tuesday by a Municipal Court judge, and related paperwork, including the police affidavit outlining probable cause for the search, are under seal, barred from public inspection.

A judge sealed the file Tuesday at the request of the district attorney.

Presser and lawyers from the Public Defender's Office faulted the secrecy, with Presser calling the arrest of those at the warehouse "bogus."

All were charged with misdemeanors.

The "decision to seal the warrant only strengthens my feeling that this whole process was a pretext," he said. "It's not a question of national security, or anything that requires ongoing investigation since these demonstrations are at an end."

Once arrested, many suspects spent long hours in prison.

Court rules give police up to two days to hold suspects before a bail hearing. And Timoney said many of those held for long periods had only themselves to blame. By refusing to identify themselves, some protesters slowed down the whole process, he said.

Philadelphia lawyer David Rudovsky, who specializes in civil-rights cases and is representing some of the protesters, said some of the arraignments definitely took too long.

"There's a fair number of people that have been identified and still haven't been arraigned," Rudovsky said. "I think that's completely unfair."

Ohlbaum said long waits between arrest and release are common.

Even so, he said, many of the protesters received citations for minor infractions, which he said "generally means that bail is not an issue and everyone gets out."

One of those arrested at the West Philadelphia warehouse Tuesday, Milan Marvelous, 31, said he was kept on a bus for nine hours, from 4 p.m. Tuesday until 1 a.m. Wednesday, and then detained in a cell until he was released at 4 a.m.

"We were preventively arrested. We had done nothing wrong," said Marvelous, of the Northern Liberties section of the city.

"We were detained many hours on incredibly hot buses with incredibly painful cuffs," said Jeremy Varon, 32, a history professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, also among those arrested at the puppet factory. ************************************************* Alternative Press Review - Your Guide Beyond the Mainstream PO Box 4710 - Arlington, VA 22204

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