[sixties-l] Five Years in Prison for Talking on a Cell Phone

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri Mar 16 2001 - 18:51:51 EST

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    Five Years in Prison for Talking on a Cell Phone


    Jeff Sharlet on the strange trials of the Republican Convention


    LAST MONDAY, when a Philadelphia jury found activist Kate
    Sorensen guilty in the first felony trial to emerge from last
    August's Republican Convention, they probably didn't realize
    they were issuing a historical verdict. The jury found Sorensen
    guilty of only a misdemeanor -- chatting on a cell phone, a.k.a.
    "criminal mischief" -- but the prosecuting attorney, a man
    accustomed to trying murderers, claimed victory. The win sends
    protestors "a strong message," he said, and he planned to make
    it even stronger by pressing for up to five years of prison
    time. But the real message seems to be that the movement which
    sprang into mainstream consciousness with the Battle in Seattle
    has only become more established: the courts, not just the cops,
    are finally taking it seriously.

    Despite a penchant in the press to harp on the notion that
    they're a bunch of kids blindly in love with the sixties, the
    protestors have more or less effectively carried their causes --
    stopping or reforming globalization, overhauling the prison
    system, canceling third-world debt -- to Washington, Prague,
    Philadelphia, and dozens of other cities here and abroad. Using
    terms that didn't exist in the sixties to fight problems that
    ballooned in the nineties, the new movement is a product of its
    times, a point Philadelphia's D.A. is the first official to have
    really savvied. After Seattle and even Washington, most of the
    jailed protestors were processed quickly and quietly. Charges
    were reduced or dropped, fines were paid, and prosecutors
    beamed, confident that they'd made it all go away. But in
    Philadelphia, where more than four hundred protestors were
    arrested before and during the Republican National Convention,
    the new American Troubles may well be tying up the courts for
    months or even years.

    While Philadelphia police beat a slow retreat from their claims
    that puppet-making was a cover for bomb-throwers, that jailed
    protestors hurled shit, that a zookeeper transporting rare
    animals was part of a plot to attack the conventioneers with
    snakes and other creepy-crawlies, a legal collective for the
    protestors has been preparing a counter-assault of civil suits.
    In a move that favors the activists' resolve, the press is
    switching sides. Local papers parroted police claims last summer
    only to get egg on their faces when the police later admitted
    that not only had those charges been unfounded but that they'd
    also lied about their illegal undercover surveillance. Now The
    Philadelphia Inquirer has outed some of the undercover cops
    (several of whom, if scores of protestors are to be believed,
    were so enamored of the sixties themselves that they rather
    insistently sought to score free love as well as information).
    The Inky's tabloid sister, The Daily News, announced that the
    private committee set up by the city to woo the convention had
    actually taken out an insurance policy for civil-rights
    violations. Graham Co., allegedly one of the insurers, didn't
    return my calls about just how one goes about writing a policy
    on illegal detention, censorship, and cover-ups. The local press
    hasn't reported anything more, but we can only expect so much
    from these hardworking, ink-stained wretches: Their employer,
    Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., owner of both the Inquirer and
    the News, gave $288,365 to the committee that bought the

    Lawyers for the protestors have had no better luck tracking down
    the facts -- so far. That seems likely to change once the
    outstanding criminal cases are through. The city charged
    forty-one protestors with felonies. Most charges were
    drastically reduced or, as in the case of a man charged with
    possession of a transparent plastic squirt gun, thrown out. But
    the city's D.A., Lynne Abraham -- a political star with a
    bigger-than-Philly rep -- seems determined to win the remaining
    cases, ten more following Sorensen's. Winning would mean putting
    people like William Beckler behind bars. Beckler's a soft-spoken
    recent law school graduate who's so slight in frame that he
    seems half-man, half-bird. He weighs 130 pounds, but a
    muscle-bound police officer nearly twice his size claims Beckler
    overpowered him and jumped up and down on his back.

    Jamie Graham, currently appealing a misdemeanor conviction,
    might seem at first glance a likelier candidate to assault a
    cop. He's sturdier than Beckler and wears a Philly police patch
    on the crotch of his jeans. But in court, the city claimed that
    Graham's main assault was against himself. According to the
    prosecutor, the cracked rib and torn-up face that put Graham in
    the hospital were part of protestors' plans to make police look
    bad by flinging themselves to the ground and scraping their
    faces back and forth across the pavement. Graham, Beckler, and
    Sorensen will likely join what looks to become a massive and
    diverse array of legal action against city government. By the
    time the felony trials are over, Beckler believes,
    Pennsylvania's weak sunshine laws will have finally cast a ray
    of light on that most unusual insurance policy. But it's not
    likely that any insurance will be enough to cover the
    embarrassment of a down-on-its-luck Democratic city caught
    actually planning to beat up and illegally detain protestors on
    the behalf of Republican fat cats.

    The protestors' legal collective echoes the sixties in one
    important regard: the potential of courtroom dramas to make more
    noise than 100,000 demonstrators. In 1969, Abbie Hoffman and the
    Chicago 7 ju-jitsued the charges against them for disrupting the
    '68 Democratic convention into an expos of a government with
    little respect for freedom of speech. With that lesson in mind,
    and with a long-term strategy of criminal defense and civil
    offense, the latest Left may well be about to seize a more
    lasting place in the landscape of power.
    Jeff Sharlet is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher
    Education and an editor of killingthebuddha.com.

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