Catalyst for chaos, or singled out unfairly?

Tom Wheeler twbounds at
Fri Aug 4 12:14:42 PDT 2000

Catalyst for chaos, or singled out unfairly?

John Sellers was arrested on misdemeanor charges in Center City. His bail has been set at $1 million.

By Monica Yant Kinney and Angela Couloumbis INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

They're calling him a mastermind of mayhem, a ringleader of the violence and disruption in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Talk to his colleagues and family and you'll get a different portrait of John Sellers, 33, the leader of the Ruckus Society - a group that trains activists in nonviolent civil disobedience.

Sellers is a Phoenixville native, an environmental activist who took public transportation to work for years so he would not pollute the Earth.

He is a man who traveled to the Mediterranean to protest the use of drift nets, who almost died as he hung a banner from Chicago's 110-story Sears Tower protesting the use of nuclear technology.

And he was in Philadelphia this week, those who know him insist, not to cause chaos but to merely observe.

He was arrested on misdemeanor charges while walking down a Center City street and is now in jail after failing to post $1 million bail.

Frank Sellers, a general mechanic from Phoenixville, said his son simply wanted to lend "moral support" to the thousands of activists who took to the streets to protest issues from globalization to the death penalty.

"It is ludicrous and unfair," Frank Sellers, 58, said yesterday, choking back tears. "His civil rights were violated. This is what happens when you don't hop and dance to their tune."

His son, Frank Sellers said, "is not violent. I didn't bring him up that way. I tried to instill honesty in him. I told him, 'Be a man of your word. Do what you say and say what you do.' "

The District Attorney's Office said it had limited information on why Sellers was plucked off JFK Boulevard at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and cuffed and arrested.

Assistant District Attorney Cindy Martelli said Sellers is an admitted leader of this week's violent protests.

"He sets the groundwork. He sets the stage," Martelli said during his bail hearing yesterday. "He facilitates the more radical elements to accomplish their objective of violence and mayhem."

Sellers was charged with possession with an instrument of crime, obstruction of justice, obstructing a highway, failure to disperse, recklessly endangering another person, and conspiracy. Officials did not identify the instrument of crime.

Specifically, prosecutors say, Sellers was arrested for chaining himself to, and turning over, trash cans.

The District Attorney's Office could not say where or when that occurred.

Edward Ohlbaum, a law professor at Temple University, said that $1 million bail for misdemeanor charges was high - even if prosecutors asserted evidence of terrorism.

"I can't remember ever hearing about a case where anybody got $1 million bail for a misdemeanor," Ohlbaum said.

If there was clear evidence of a serious crime, he said, a more serious felony charge should have been filed.

Sellers, who now lives in Berkeley, Calif., has a long history of environmental activism, including stints at Greenpeace.

He attended Phoenixville High School in Chester County and received a degree in sociology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

For years, he rode his bike or public transportation to and from work. Only when his profile became national did he buy a used Toyota pickup truck to travel across the country for training sessions, his father said.

Sellers has spent the last five years training activists in nonviolent resistance for the Ruckus Society.

The group, based in Berkeley, holds training camps across the country that include classroom-style instruction, advice on communicating with the media, and courses on nonviolent philosophy and practice.

In April, he attended protests in Washington against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Last fall, he was in Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization.

There, he was arrested on misdemeanor charges after climbing on a crane to hang a banner.

Celia Alario, a colleague from the Ruckus Society, said that Sellers had often been a target at protests around the country. She said she once saw him "slammed to the ground" on live television.

Alario said Sellers came to Philadelphia to "bear witness" to the events surrounding the Republican convention.

"He's in Philly. His family is from here," she said. "Why do we have to justify why we're here? Do the delegates have to?"

At his arraignment hearing yesterday, Sellers called himself "a person of conscience" who has practiced nonviolent civil disobedience for the last decade.

And, while he has been arrested before, he said he had never shirked a court appearance.

"I have parents who are proud of me," he said.

Sellers told the court that he himself encouraged Philadelphia officials to go to the society's Web site to clear up misconceptions about its intentions.

"We're an incredibly transparent group," he said. "We have nothing to hide."

In an interview earlier this year about plans for the two national political conventions, Sellers talked about the fine line of teaching nonviolent techniques to protesters who, by nature, are seeking out confrontation with police.

"We need engaged confrontation," he said.

"If we can't get a couple thousand nonviolent protesters' asses kicked in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, we haven't learned a a thing."

Yesterday, Martelli used those words against him and succeeded in setting bail so high that Sellers may not be able to leave jail any time soon.

He would have to post $110,000 bond.

"We cannot afford to post that bail," a tearful Frank Sellers said.

"Not by any stretch of the imagination." ************************************************* Alternative Press Review - Your Guide Beyond the Mainstream PO Box 4710 - Arlington, VA 22204

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