When Jackson Heights resident Elliot Madison learned last week that charges against him had been dropped by the Allegheny County District Attorney in Pennsylvania, he had little reason to celebrate. The 41-year-old Queens social worker was arrested during the G-20 in Pittsburgh, while he was using Twitter to alert other protesters about the movements of police. The formal charges were “hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime.”
Madison, a self-described anarchist, is very open about listening to a public police scanner and then tweeting police locations. (His tweet channel was open and advertised on posters.) On September 24, police stormed the room at the Carefree Inn where he was staying with Michael Wallschlaege shortly after the duo had relayed an order to disperse.
Madison doesn’t deny his involvement, but he says “it wasn’t a crime. It was protected free speech.” He tells the Voice he was merely using new technology to pass on publicly accessible information, describing it as being “the same as if you and I were walking down the street, and I said to you, ‘Hey, the police are on 42nd street, and they’ve said anyone who goes there will be arrested, so don’t go there.'”
After Madison made bail, he returned to New York City. But just a few days later, his home was raided by the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. For sixteen hours, agents went through Madison’s home, and removed items that belonged to him, his wife, and their roommates, including computers, cell phones, and “a needlepoint picture of Lenin.” Madison is a member of the Curious George Brigade, an anarchist writers collective which spoofs the Curious George series. The FBI agents seized every copy of their books, along with Curious George plush dolls and refrigerator magnets.
Madison’s attorney, Martin Stolar, says “as a lawyer, I’m not concerned at all” that the government seized stuffed animals. “It helps my client…to show how absurd it is.” However, “as a citizen, and as a representative of someone, I am very concerned that they take someone’s property which has nothing to do with a violation of federal law.” Stolar has seen the FBI use “Facebook or MySpace as investigative tools for evidence capturing” to link someone to alleged crime. But to his knowledge, this is the first time the FBI has said the posting of information itself is the crime. “Elliot put something up there that is from the public domain, from a police scanner. If you pass on information that is public domain, how is that a crime?”
Stolar says the raid in Queens was “allegedly an independent investigation. Theoretically, it has nothing to do with the arrest in Pittsburgh.” Sarcastically he adds, “just because the federal search warrant comes one week after is just a coincidence.” And now, as the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, the Pittsburgh “district attorney is stepping aside so that a federal prosecutor in New York can proceed unencumbered in a federal case.”
Though the government seized his property almost a month ago, Madison has not been charged with any crime. The day after the seizure, Stolar filed a Temporary Restraining Order to keep the government from looking at his client’s belongings. That held until last week, when Judge Dora Izzary lifted it. They have attempted to appeal the judge’s decision, which did not include a written opinion, but the motion was denied. According to Madison, the judge “said it was premature [to appeal], because we haven’t read her written opinion yet”… which she hasn’t released, so he can’t appeal. Meanwhile, his possessions are free to be examined.
Madison describes his limbo as “being like something out of Kafka” and seems most frustrated because he doesn’t know what he is being investigated for. “If you have evidence against me, and want to charge me, let’s see what it is.” For now, he can’t. Both search warrants — in Pittsburgh, and in New York — are sealed. The charges against him in Pennsylvania were dropped before anything had to be revealed in a public hearing.
Madison finds it ironic that all of this happened as the State Department has been applauding political protest usage of Twitter in Iran. The Alliance Youth Movement — which hosted a summit at Columbia University and featured speakers from the State Department and the Obama campaign — encourages grassroots activists to do exactly what Madison did, just in other countries. He notes that unpopular speech is under assault via new technology in the United States, while illegal actions, like speeding, are tolerated.
“This is at the same time that you and I can go into the Apple store and buy Trapster, which lets us know where there are speed traps on the Henry Hudson Parkway,” says Madison. The iPhone app helps users circumvent the police, yet the Executive Director of the National Association of Police Organizes is quoted on the Trapster site in a tacit endorsement.
“It’s very disappointing for a lot of people who thought this would change with Obama. They expected it under George Bush,” says Madison, “but it’s more of the same. They’re using secrecy, instead of public scrutiny.”