John Sellers walked into the Philadelphia courthouse two weeks ago, facing a string of charges from demonstrations during the Republican convention. The 34-year-old director of the Ruckus Society was accused of 14 misdemeanors, ranging from disorderly conduct to obstructing a highway to “possession of an instrument of crime”—his cell phone. Sellers was one of at least six activists charged during the August convention for carrying cell phones, which police and city officials claim they used to orchestrate a “well-planned conspiracy to shut down the city.”
Though Sellers had been jailed for six days on an unprecedented bail of $1 million, prosecutors at his November 14 trial abruptly dropped all counts, telling a judge there was not enough evidence against him. The stunning reversal will likely fuel a civil suit for false arrest. “We said all along that the charges were an effort to silence our dissent,” says Sellers.
His lawyer, Lawrence Krasner, is more emphatic. “The fact that they would ask for $1 million bail and then come to trial and drop all the charges without so much as presenting a single witness shows that his arrest was totally unconstitutional,” says Krasner. “The Bill of Rights specifies that unreasonable bails shall not be used as a deterrent.”
The prosecutors’ failure to develop a case against Sellers undermines their contention that a select group of “ringleaders”—many of them veterans of other mass demonstrations—had directed the GOP protests via cell phone, and were therefore responsible for the vandalism and violence that broke out during civil-disobedience actions.
One of those purported ringleaders was Terrence McGuckin, 19, who was convicted on November 14 of disorderly conduct and conspiring to obstruct a highway. A member of ACT UP and the Philadelphia Direct Action group, McGuckin was initially held on $500,000 bail and jailed for 10 days. He was sentenced to three months probation, which he plans to appeal. “They didn’t really prove their case,” says McGuckin.
During his trial, prosecutors presented only one witness: Detective Angelo Parisi of the Washington, D.C., police. Parisi, who said he came to the GOP protests as a civilian observer, testified he witnessed McGuckin “leading” a crowd of 20 people while talking on a cell phone. “He was on the cell phone pretty much constantly,” Parisi said. “The crowd’s attention was focused on him. When they walked, he was at the head of the crowd. When he stopped, the crowd stopped and gathered around him.”
Then, Parisi said, McGuckin “dropped on one knee” then “pointed his finger up 13th Street, and the crowd moved to block the street.” As evidence, the prosecutor aired a rather disjointed videotape shot by Parisi, which showed activists walking down the street, then sitting at an intersection and locking arms. Parisi claimed McGuckin was directing the action, despite the fact that he never filmed him at the scene.
In fact, prior to their arrests, both McGuckin and Sellers had been prominently identified in legal documents submitted by police in order to justify their preemptive raid of a West Philadelphia warehouse, where activists had been making puppets. Previously sealed documents reveal how prior to the convention, state troopers infiltrated the warehouse and activist planning meetings, and monitored protest Web sites. At one point, the warrant cites an obscure right-wing think tank to contend that some of the protesters are funded by “Communists and leftist parties” and a “former Soviet-allied” trade union.
Also named in the state’s undercover report is Kate Sorenson, 38, of ACT UP. Sorenson was arrested on August 1 and held for two weeks on $1 million bail for 20 felony and misdemeanor offenses, including possession of an instrument of crime—in her case, two cell phones. Detective Parisi and other police witnesses allege that Sorenson was “continuously talking” on a Nextel phone and another cell, and that she directed protesters to tear down construction fences, spray graffiti on squad cars, and ignite trash. Sorenson, who had been hired by union Local 1199 to organize a health care march earlier that week, maintains she was using her phones to help coordinate media, legal observers, and medics. While her charges have since been reduced to four felonies—rioting, risking catastrophe, criminal mischief, and conspiracy—she still faces up to 28 years in jail.
“The case is ludicrous,” says Krasner, who is also representing Sorenson. “The police have her making ridiculous statements, like ‘Deploy to that corner.’ It’s totally made up.”
So intent were police at capturing conspirators, they detained several bike messengers who were carrying cells, radios, or beepers. Last week, a judge dismissed charges against James Chancellor, a volunteer medic who was arrested and charged for carrying a two-way radio as well as a laminated map, on which he had marked the locations of several hospitals.
Video shot by the Independent Media Center shows another ACT UP member, Paul Davis, being singled out in mid-conversation as he walks down the street. Two police tackle Davis from behind. Other activists shout, “Nextel, Nextel!” and Davis attempts to toss his phone to them. Instead, one of the cops bats the phone away and kicks it under a parked car, where another officer retrieves it. Some activists believe the cops used the Nextel—which, when set to “group mode” functions like a CB radio—to listen in on their communications.
So far prosecutors haven’t had much luck getting these accusations to hold up in court. About 100 of 340 protesters charged have plead guilty to reduced summary charges, but of the 83 cases that have gone to trial, most have been acquitted or dismissed. As more details emerge about the state police’s undercover operation, defense attorneys have moved to dismiss dozens more cases because of “outrageous police misconduct.”
Those activists found guilty have vowed to appeal their cases to a jury, to expose further what they term Philly’s “criminal injustice system.” That probably won’t do much to stem increasing surveillance of activists, both at home and abroad. Recent reports by the FBI and other government agencies warn of the role that the Internet and Independent Media Centers have in facilitating protests. And with each cell phone call or Web posting, activists leave behind a digital trail that police may one day pursue in court.
Still, cops haven’t really grasped how this new mobile army of cell-phone-toting, anti-corporate globalistas really works. “The police keep trying to impose the same narrow hierarchy that they have on a movement that has lots of leadership, but no leaders,” says Sellers. “They’re looking to cut off the head of a movement that has no head.”