Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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August 10–17, 2000

city beat

Chill Factor


Pattern of intimidation? Cheri Honkala, at KWRU’s July 31 march, says the city has "put out a signal" to future protesters.

Progressive movements throughout the country are likely to be impacted by the hundreds of arrests in Philadelphia last week.

by Gwen Shaffer

The crackdown on political activists who participated in local demonstrations last week is likely to have a "chilling effect" on progressive movements nationwide, civil rights attorneys and activists contend. Street protests are being wrongly equated with terrorism, they say.

As of Tuesday evening, a team of attorneys representing prisoners estimated that about 307 of the 470 protesters remained behind bars. The "vast, vast majority" of them are participating in "jail solidarity," refusing to provide officials with their names, says Marina Sitrin, a member of the R2K Legal Network. Some protesters stripped off their clothes to avoid identification. Numerous accounts of police brutality continue to emerge from those arrested and released.

Nearly 150 prisoners have been on a hunger strike since their arrest, and the remainder planned to join them beginning Wednesday, Aug. 9. They intend to refuse food until Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham agrees to meet with the R2K Legal Team; bail for misdemeanors is dropped; only 1 percent bond need be posted to bail out those arrested for felonies; and all prisoners receive adequate medical attention.

Thousands of activists took to city streets during the week of July 30. They used the Republican National Convention — and the media it attracted — as an opportunity to speak out on issues ranging from the death penalty to corporate globalization. The bulk of arrests took place Aug. 1, when several thousand activists blocked off six busy Center City intersections during rush hour.

But demonstrators claim intimidation from law enforcement began months ago. In early July, the Philadelphia Police Department acknowledged taking photos of activists who they suspected would participate in demonstrations during the RNC. Law enforcement agents also infiltrated protest planning meetings and monitored e-mail discussion lists.

"We raised these concerns over and over again," says Cheri Honkala, director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and a highly visible local activist.

Her organization was denied a city permit for a July 31 march against homelessness and poverty (although police allowed the event to proceed anyway). And she claims that the Philadelphia Department of Human Services intended to intimidate parents from marching when the agency said it would place children of arrested parents in foster homes and shelters.

"Plus, [Deputy Police Commissioner Robert] Mitchell has been in our office at least twice a week for the past month," Honkala says.

"The city has put out a signal that it won’t make it easy to protest. People are going to say they are willing to pay a fine or spend a few days in jail — but not this stuff," she says.

Other activists see "big picture" repercussions emanating from the events in Philadelphia as well.

"This is not about protests," says Amy Kwasnicki, an organizer for the Philadelphia Direct Action Group. "It is the beginning of a large-scale internal war on activism. If it were simply about demonstrations, [the crackdown] would already be over and done with."

She fears that the current campaign against activism means government officials are laying the groundwork for a new era of McCarthyism.

"You are going to see blacklisting of activists…‘Oh, my neighbor held a meeting last night,’ kind of thing," Kwasnicki says.

The police and District Attorney are "over-criminalizing" last Tuesday’s disturbances for an obvious reason, says Larry Frankel, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"They are sending a very strong message against speaking out," he says. "Are they taking this position because people were demonstrating against the death penalty or the Tom Jones beating?" he asks, noting that many protests were aimed at city prosecutors and cops.

The District Attorney’s office says prosecutors requested high bails — up to $1 million in the case of activist John Sellers — specifically for protest organizers. (Judge Lisa Richette reduced Sellers’ bail to $100,000 and he has since been released on bond).

This fact alone raises red flags for Paul Hetznecker, a civil rights attorney representing a batch of protesters still in jail.

"Who gave the DA’s office information that these people were organizers?" he asks. "Infiltration and what other techniques are being used? A new era of federal surveillance is emerging. It is one thing to survey mob actors, but another to chill First Amendment rights by sharing information on activists."

Civil rights attorneys say street demonstrations are being raised to the same level as terrorism.

"What does it say about a democratic system when people out there exercising their constitutional right to dissent need to be watched, and are treated like enemies of the state?" Hetznecker wonders.

New York attorney Ronald McGuire is also helping defend protesters still imprisoned. The high bails for misdemeanors set by Philadelphia prosecutors "are without precedent in the history of this country," he says.

"I’m talking about the average $15,000 to $20,000 bails, not even the $1 million bail," he says. "Aggravated jaywalking is not the same as terrorism."

According to Cathie Abookire, spokesperson for Abraham, another reason for high bails is that "many protesters are flight risks and have committed serious crimes."

But to McGuire, they represent "an attempt to write protests out of the Constitution."

The decision to be tough on protesters was made "on high," he says, "to teach all of us a lesson."

He blames Police Commissioner John Timoney for setting a "horrible tone" during the RNC. "Timoney is a commissioner, not a commando. You can’t have that mentality of leading troops into battle."

Kwasnicki agrees that her concerns are not leveled at the average cop on the street.

"I’m not blaming the entire police force for a handful of sadists. Just as they shouldn’t blame us for a handful of troublemakers."

The precedent set in Philadelphia this week will affect civil rights organizations, asserts Pedro Rodriguez, director for the Action Alliance of Senior Citizens. Although he has participated in direct actions — including stopping traffic — Rodriguez says he was never criminally charged.

"A different standard is being used this time," he says. "I call on Mayor Street to be a leader in this instance and step back from his confrontational stance. There is no reason to go on with harassment of protesters who visited Philadelphia to peacefully express their beliefs."

The mayor’s press office did not return a call.

PDAG member Jody Dodd says that, in her "20-plus years of activism," she has never seen such high bail set for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.

"This is a blatant attempt to squash freedoms and it is going to backfire on the city."

And Dodd just may be right.

A number of attorneys representing protesters promise to file civil lawsuits after their clients’ criminal charges are resolved. And with nearly 500 arrests, the city is not likely to get off cheap.

Financial repercussions are not the only thing Philadelphia officials should be worrying about, Kwasnicki stresses. "The city should be ashamed of itself now. It is alienating itself from an entire generation of youth."

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