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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December 7–14, 2000

city beat

Puppet Theater of the Absurd


On the money: During the Republican convention, a protester wore a giant dollar bill made at the puppet warehouse to broadcast his message.

photo: Chett Farbstein

A judge upheld charges against puppetistas arrested during the Republican convention, after both the prosecution and defense put on quite a show.

Robert Kamzelski entered the courtroom Wednesday morning and slid into one of the benches reserved for spectators. He was dressed in the same outfit he wore to court Tuesday, the first day of the pre-trial proceedings. Kamzelski’s mustard sweater was frayed at the cuffs and a square patch concealed a rip in the elbow. Strands of hair stuck out from his head in every direction, as if he’d just stumbled out of bed. Wire rim glasses and a beard defined his face.

Moments after sitting, Kamzelski quietly slipped off his right shoe. After inspecting two holes in his sock, he unrolled a coil of purple felt. He carefully measured out two swaths of fabric, cut them and began stitching the material over the rips in his sock.

If you are going to sit through nearly four days of court proceedings, you may as well make good use of your time.

But sock darning was far from the strangest thing to take place in Judge James DeLeon’s courtroom last week. DeLeon was presiding over arguments concerning a pre-trial motion for 46 of the defendants arrested during the Republican National Convention at a West Philadelphia warehouse where puppets were being made. They are charged with a variety of misdemeanors, including conspiracy to obstruct the law and resisting arrest.

A small army of defense attorneys — including four public defenders, four private lawyers and three defendants acting as their own counsel — failed to convince DeLeon to dismiss charges on the grounds of prior restraint, destruction of evidence, outrageous police misconduct and selective prosecution.

Among highlights of last week’s proceedings: a city attorney signaling responses to a witness on the stand, serious discussion of people named "Hambone" and "Sticky," a prosecutor referring to bohemian protesters as "a bunch of yuppies," and DeLeon’s outrage over Communism.

The hearing culminated with defendants protesting the judge’s decision by covering their mouths with duct tape, hoisting a banner declaring "RESIST," and parading out of the courtroom.

Ultimately, DeLeon ordered 46 protesters arrested in the puppet warehouse at 41st and Haverford Streets on Aug. 1 to participate in a police line-up. He said charges would be dismissed against any defendant who could not be identified by undercover state troopers who infiltrated the warehouse the week of the RNC.

Pretending to be union carpenters, they volunteered at the puppet warehouse from July 24 through Aug. 1, where they helped build a float called "Corpzilla" and participating in "direct action" trainings. All four undercover troopers — Harry Keffer III, Joseph Thompson, George Garris, and Thomas Bachman — testified over the course of the hearing.

On Monday, the four men failed to pick out the single defendant who bothered attending the line-up. His charges were dismissed. The District Attorney now plans to go ahead with a trial for the 45 remaining defendants.

Seventy-five people were initially arrested at the warehouse Aug. 1. Some of them accepted three months probation and a fine offered by the District Attorney, while five other defendants opted for individual trials, scheduled for Dec. 11 and Dec. 15.

Misdemeanor charges against the owner of the warehouse, Michael Graves, were dropped Nov. 29.

During last week’s testimony, at times, both law enforcement and the protesters came across as hypocrites.

Keffer testified that demonstrator Adam Eidinger asked to join the "union guys" for a run to McDonald’s for lunch on one condition: that they not tell his friends he was eating at the fast food joint (McDonald’s representing the embodiment of corporate greed and environmental destruction, of course).

But the undercover troopers appeared completely incredible when they repeatedly testified to "never" seeing or hearing a political message during the week they spent in the puppet warehouse, at direct action trainings nor during the Unity 2000 rally. As for the tables stacked with literature on anti-globalism and political reform, the troopers all testified to never reading it. They didn’t even look at posters hanging on the wall, according to their testimony.

On the prior restraint motion, defense attorney David Rudovsky argued that police seized puppets, film and pamphlets all used for activities protected by the First Amendment. "You need an adversary hearing [in addition to a search warrant] so a judge can determine what can and cannot be seized," he said.

The Commonwealth argued that had police not thwarted demonstrators’ plans by raiding the warehouse, activists would have blockaded an intersection outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center. And they planned to don lock boxes — devices made of PVC pipe and chicken wire that demonstrators slip over their arms, forcing cops to cut them apart.

Rudovsky also argued that because the search warrant affidavit relies heavily on inaccurate information supplied by a right-wing think tank, the Maldon Institute, the warrants themselves are invalid.

The affidavits draw a connection between Communists in U.S. trade unions and in the former Soviet Union.

Ruling that inaccuracies do not invalidate the entire affidavit, DeLeon chastised the state police for calling demonstrators "Communists," a label he warned could "stigmatize" them for life.

On the destruction of evidence motion, the defense argued that officers from the Philadelphia Police Department and the Department of Licenses & Inspections trashed puppets made of PVC pipe and chicken wire, as well as political literature, that would have proven the protesters’ innocence.

Troopers testified that two nine-foot tall puppets — "Anti-Sam" and "the pig" — were to be plopped in the middle of intersections as blockades on Aug. 1. The defense argued that the papier mâché puppets were lightweight enough for police to quickly remove them, but couldn’t prove it because L&I destroyed both pieces.

L&I Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi testified that he and his inspectors found numerous electrical and fire code violations when they were summoned to the warehouse by police.

Inspectors threw all "flammables" into a trash compactor, Verdi said. They could not distinguish between piles of empty food containers, and stacks of cardboard skeletons and money sacks, he testified.

The defense played a television news clip showing puppetistas cordoned off with police tape, as the jaws of the trash truck devour their creations. It was not clear on the tape, but defendants say they were yelling for inspectors to hand them their puppets.

If L&I were to discover code violations at the Forrest Theater, questioned public defender Karl Baker, would inspectors seal the building and destroy all the chairs, furniture and props?

"Is that standard practice?" Baker asked.

Verdi responded that L&I acts only to protect "public safety."

"If the owner of the property is there and asks for custody of his belongings, yes, we’d turn them over," Verdi said.

Perhaps the city is already thinking ahead to the civil suits likely to be filed by jailed protesters whose charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.

During Verdi’s testimony, public defender Margaret Flores leaped out of her seat to point out that Cheryl Gaston, chief deputy city soliciter, was nodding her head "yes" and "no" each time a defense lawyer questioned Verdi on the stand. He would then answer based on her cue.

A number of defendants included in the upcoming mass trial were also arrested Aug. 1 in a van driven by Trooper Keffer. The 17 passengers were on their way from the warehouse to the Convention Center, when state troopers and Philadelphia police arrested them and searched the van.

Officers confiscated 19 lock boxes, duct tape and other items from inside the van.

During the hearing, defendants testified that the vehicle also contained props symbolic of campaign finance reform and criminal justice reform, as well as literature explaining their "message." Police apparently lost this evidence, as none of it shows up on property receipts.

On cross-examination, Keffer acknowledged that his supervisors had ordered him not to "exercise any form of command or control" over demonstrators. Yet Keffer was driving the van when it was pulled over.

The undercover state troopers working the RNC were also told "not to gather information pertaining to the individual identities of activists" unless specific criminal activities could be connected to the person. Yet, their investigation report names numerous people whose cars were simply parked outside the warehouse or who mentioned plans to travel to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention.

The troopers’ investigation report was written between July 26 and Aug. 2, while the department had 4100 Haverford Ave. under surveillance.

The report refers to this address as "a known location utilized by the Spiral Q Puppett [sic] Theatre [sic]." Investigators watching the warehouse made notes describing "individuals wearing grunge style clothes," and characterizing a bearded man reading a magazine on the stoop as a "Charles Manson type i.e. look alike."

Assistant District Attorneys Trevan Borum and Joseph LaBar said they won’t have to link evidence to specific individuals during the upcoming trial because of the "unique" nature of the conspiracy charges.

After DeLeon’s ruling, Borum commented that "the judge was very fair."

Public Defender Bradley Bridge left the motion proceedings with a different impression. "Was this a legitimate criminal investigation or an investigation into political activities protected by the First Amendment?"

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