Petty to the Max
They were found guilty of petty offenses, charges way too minor to warrant a jury trial. And now, as punishment for the equivalent of a parking ticket, a couple of leading activists in the fight to save Mumia Abu-Jamal face a supervised probation so restrictive they won't be able to do their political work. They think that that was the whole point.
C. Clark Kissinger and Frances Goldin were among 95 demonstrators arrested at the Liberty Bell pavilion in Philadelphia last July 3, the 17th anniversary of Abu-Jamal's sentencing. He faces execution in Pennsylvania for the murder of a police officer, and his supporters have long maintained that he did not get a fair trial. During the July 3 action, protesters blocked several doors to the Liberty Bell, and park rangers closed the pavilion for three hours. Some climbed onto the roof to hang banners. Some sat outside against the bumper of a police van.
Kissinger and Goldin say they did none of those things. They were out on the plaza with the third member of their affinity group, Mark Taylor, head of Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal. "We sat down in an area where a truck was coming, filled with already arrested prisoners," recalls Goldin, "and before we could move, we were whisked away by the park rangers. And cuffed. They never said 'Move.' They never said anything."
Charged with "failure to obey a lawful order," Goldin, Kissinger, and six other activists decided to plead not guilty, and that's where their troubles began. They are now convinced their real crime was to ask for a trial.
During the course of their three days in court, the park ranger who arrested Goldin could not identify her, and none of the videotapes entered into evidence showed the two defendants blocking anything or even sitting down. While the activists were not exactly surprised when the judge found them guilty anyway, fining them $250, they find the supervised probation draconian and sinister.
"This was a fait accompli, that they were going to get probation," says Jordan Yeager, Goldin's attorney. "In fact, the representative from the probation department was there in the courtroom waiting to handle the processing. That was before the case had been closed, before all the evidence on whether they were guilty or not guilty had been received."
Under the terms of the probation, they cannot travel outside their home federal court district (the five boroughs), cannot associate with convicted felons (Abu-Jamal), have to surrender their passports, must turn in forms every month listing all sources of income and how it was spent (for themselves and everyone in their households), all organizations to which they belong, and everyone they've been in contact with who has a criminal record. They are also subject to surprise visits from their probation officers. Goldin's dropped in a couple of weeks ago at 7:30 in the morning "to make sure I don't have an opium factory on my premises."
Goldin, who turns 76 next week, is Abu-Jamal's literary agent, has his power of attorney, and handles all his finances. (She also represents the Voice's Wayne Barrett.) Kissinger, 59, is a full-time organizer who has traveled the country to rally support for Abu-Jamal. Both visit him repeatedly on death row.
Ron Kuby, the longtime civil rights lawyer who is representing Kissinger, calls their punishment "unprecedented. These are the most restrictive conditions I've ever seen in a case that didn't involve a felony. Clearly the restrictions are designed to impede lawful, constitutionally protected political activity."
Andrew Erba, a Philadelphia lawyer who has filed appeals on behalf of several of the defendants, says that he has never before seen probation attached to a civil-disobedience arrest. Indeed, the movement foot soldiers who climbed the pavilion and blocked its doors simply entered their guilty pleas by mail and paid a $250 fine.
"I think the federal government is sending out a message," says Erba. "Mix civil disobedience, Mumia, the potential protest in July [at the Republican convention], and I think you come out with the message 'Don't demonstrate on federal property.' "
However, Richard Goldberg, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the cases, says it isn't so. "What I argued to the judge in court was that these people, when they came up for sentencing, denied their guilt even though they had been convicted," says Goldberg. "They indicated that they would do the same in the future, and because they did not indicate any intent to stop illegal conduct, the decision was made to request probation, and the judge imposed it. So the argument for probation was based on the positions taken by these defendants. Not as a result of some alleged policy."
Goldberg says the terms of the probation are not harsh, but "standard."
Last week, Kissinger was scheduled to turn in his required forms at the U.S. probation office in Brooklyn, but he had decided to "draw the line."
Shortly after his sentencing, federal agents served two subpoenas on Kissinger's wife, Judy, ordering her to turn over all her financial records for the past 10 yearseverything from cashed checks to credit-card statements. A grand jury is investigating a former employer of hers for Medicaid fraud, but Judy Kissinger is a medical technician who worked in the lab and doesn't even know what people were charged for tests. All of her financial records are also his. Clark Kissinger thinks this could be part of a whole new level of harassment aimed at Abu-Jamal's supporters just as the movement is picking up steam.
So, in an informal rally on June 6, out on the street, Kissinger announced that he had paid his fine and surrendered his passport, but he was not going to turn in all the forms they wanted. Nor would he stop his association with Abu-Jamal.
Twenty-five supporters, including Goldin, followed him into the elevators and up to the fifth floor, waving Mumia placards and chanting, "Brick by brick, wall by wall, we're going to free Mumia Abu-Jamal!"
It may have been the first protest staged in the federal probation office. Workers behind the glass reception window looked alarmed, and one man popped into the waiting room long enough to announce: "Folks, you are currently trespassing here. If you do not leave, 911 will be called and you will be arrested."
The group responded with another chant: "Mumia is fearless. So are we. We won't stop until he's free."
Police began drifting in, and things looked tense for a few minutes. But Kissinger went in to his appointment and nothing happened. Back outside, he announced that the officials upstairs were greatly annoyed but had not demanded his forms. They told him to come back July 11, and that "if I bring people again, they will report me because I disobeyed the order of a probation officer. So I want you to know that you're all invited to come back."
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