Target: Dissent

When cops play peacekeeper, free speech too often becomes the enemy

Besides the hassle of a possible conviction, pleading not guilty means returning to court several times in the next few months. If you have a full-time job, legal aid probably won't pay for your defense. Informed of this, the protesters who have appeared in court so far are generally accepting Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissal, or ACDs. An ACD is no harm, no foul. Stay out of trouble for six months and the charge disappears. You don't have to come back to court or pay a lawyer. The catch? An ACD may interfere with your ability to join or file a civil lawsuit; it precludes suing for malicious prosecution, for example.

For most of those arrested, be they anarchists or Chinese-food deliverymen, the story will end there. But not for everyone. Jamal Holiday, who turned 20 on September 1, is the lone RNC protester still in jail. An African American who lives in a West Harlem group home for foster-care kids, he is charged with second-degree assault in connection with an attack on a plainclothes police officer, William Sample Jr., who drove a scooter into a crowd at the peaceful Poor People's March on Monday, August 30. According to eyewitnesses, Sample was repeatedly ramming his bike into the crowd until he was physically restrained by protesters and fell off. Videotape shows a young man punching and kicking Sample while he was on the ground.

Starbucks organizer Anthony Polanco, arrested last month
photo: Shiho Fukada
Starbucks organizer Anthony Polanco, arrested last month

Meanwhile, activists now savoring their freedom are thinking about new strategies for effective resistance. Kris Hermes demonstrated on the floor of Madison Square Garden with 10 other members of ACT UP to demand that Bush support debt relief in AIDS-racked developing nations. Four of them had been arrested earlier that week for blocking traffic while naked and painted with the slogan "Drop the debt." "We try to equate the issue with the tactic involved," said Hermes of ACT UP's confrontational, attention-getting m.o.

Inside the convention hall, the group, who had obtained legit passes, began chanting and holding up signs during a speech by White House chief of staff Andrew Card. They were dragged away by the Secret Service. During the nationally televised melee, a white male Young Republican was videotaped kicking a young female Asian protester. The ACT UP members were charged with assault, disorderly conduct, and inciting a riot; only the disorderly charge remains.

Hermes coordinated legal aid for the 2000 RNC protests in Philadelphia, which helps him know what to expect this time. Out of 420 arrests there, only 3 percent resulted in convictions. Nine protesters are currently appealing, including Kate Sorensen, an organizer famously arrested in Philadelphia while talking on her cell phone and charged with being a "ringleader" of the protests. During the trial, it came out that the FBI had been following Sorensen since April 2000. Her 10 misdemeanor and 10 felony charges were eventually reduced to a single misdemeanor.

This time around, there are even fewer serious charges than there were in 2000, when 43 protesters were initially hit with felonies. The bad news for those arrested at this RNC is that the last three felony defendants in Philly finally finished their cases only in April 2004. The so-called Timoney Three were charged with assaulting then Philly police chief John Timoney, now chief in Miami. They were acquitted.

For Hermes, publicity work to keep cases like these in the news, as well as legal-defense strategies including civil suits, is just part of protecting protest now. "We need to think creatively in order to combat these tactics that have been repeated over and over at mass demos in the past few years," Hermes says. "At nearly every one you see indiscriminate mass arrests—media, legal observers, people providing medical assistance, round 'em up. They send a message that it's not OK to protest on our streets. A fiercer offensive attack against those types of tactics is what I think needs to happen. How you do that legally is where we need to go back to the drawing board." Hermes suggests dispensing with permitted protests, for one thing, in favor of "free and spontaneous" assemblies.

Terra Lawson-Remer, of the ad hoc group Operation Sybil, agrees with the need for new strategies. She and her associates rappelled from the roof of the Plaza Hotel on Thursday, August 26, and dropped a giant banner reading TRUTH → / BUSH ←. They were apprehended by cops in climbing gear. "It was a personal risk, including the very real risk of getting arrested," Lawson-Remer said of the daredevil plan. "It demonstrated that we were serious, that we cared enough about this that we were willing to risk our futures."

But the risk was calculated. Lawson-Remer, herself a J.D.-Ph.D. student at NYU, wasted no time on a legal strategy for the group. "I recruited Gerald Lefcourt, Abbie Hoffman's attorney, long before we did anything," she said. "I got him on board before we had the climbers on board." Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is another '68 veteran who defended Hoffman in the Chicago Seven trial.

Because a police officer stepped through a skylight and scratched his leg while trying to reach them, the group now faces felony charges of assault and reckless endangerment. Lefcourt has said he plans to push for all charges to be dropped when the four appear in court on November 30. "I want to pass the bar," says Lawson-Remer. "It's not cool. We'd be facing like 20 years."

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