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Political Repression and Police Abuse Continues in Philadelphia

by Ammi Keller Thursday, Aug. 10, 2000 at 11:47 AM
gorillagorilla@hotmail.com

Political repression and police abuses during and after the RNC. A plea for help from those in other cities and suggestions on how to provide it, to be forwarded to all. "This is the first page in a very long book."

What's going on in Philadelphia right now is a civil rights catastrophe the magnitude of which is difficult to express in words. As I'm writing this, two well known activists are being held on 1 million dollars bail each. Both were picked up while walking down the street during the recent protests against the Republican National Convention. Others arrested have bails set as high as 500,000 dollars. Most of the 341 protesters still incarcerated, whose charges range from obstructing a highway to disorderly conduct, have bails set in excess of 10,000 dollars. These are the highest bails on record in the US for these charges. Needless to say, most cannot afford these bails and are practicing jail solidarity (refusing to give their names in order to get demands for fair treatment met) regardless. Almost all have been moved to county prisons at this point. In a country that prides itself on freedom of expression and assembly, they are political prisoners. There is simply no other term.

As I'm writing this, reports of intimidation, abuse and torture continue to pour in from the jails. Prisoners in custody up to 80 or more hours before being allowed a phone call or access to a lawyer. Prisoners being denied food and water, kept in sweltering buses until they went into heat stroke, prisoners denied life saving medication (including meds for HIV, asthma and epilepsy), prisoners with broken wrists or hands, torn ears, chipped teeth, abused genitals. This isn't a laundry list of horror stories. This is a list of testimonies I've heard personally, from the mouths of those it happened to or their friends. People red-faced, stunned, grieving. These are people I--and probably you--know. This is real. This is happening right now.

The police have isolated people they see as "leaders" for interrogation and exorbitant bails. Many have not been able to meet with lawyers. A friend of mine, a puppeteer from Austin TX, was detained by police before the protests began. This occurred outside the Haverford puppet space during the raid that destroyed nearly all the signs and props people had been building to communicate their messages during the demonstration. The puppets have since been out through an industrial shredder and my friend is being held on seven misdemeanor charges, for 250,000 dollars bail. Dozens of others, arrested miles from the demonstrations in the puppet warehouse, are still in jail on charges ranging from "conspiracy" to "obstructing a highway." The highest prison term being mentioned so far is 20-40 years, attached to a person accused of assaulting Commissioner Timoney. In addition to going after the puppets, police systematically picked off and arrested those with cell phones or radios the day of the action. Other "organizers" were weeded out of milling crowds, police having identified them by previously taken photos.

The state and federal governments are attempting to break the back of this movement and it has what seems to be unlimited resources to do so. For months before the protests, police presence near activist spaces and surveillance of activists has been extreme. They tapped phones, photographed the house I was staying in, send operatives into deep cover to befriend us and utilized a nationwide network of intelligence information to acquire knowledge about our movements as we were deciding these things ourselves. All this for a group of non-violent people planning to block traffic! Obviously, the resources delegated to stopping and punishing the protesters are there not for what we did but for why we did it.

And why is that? Ironically, the day most of the 455 protesters were taken in was themed The Criminal In-Justice system, with rallies and direct actions planned to call attention to the growing private prison system and the disproportionate number of poor people and people of color in the jails and on death row. I could restate the statistics but we all know them by heart. The politicians know them and the people on the street know them. The racist, classist prison system is part of our national heritage and national shame, something every American but the 2 million behind bars is complicit in allowing to continue.

The messages are simple, yet members of the mainstream press claimed they didn't understand. They called the message obscure, while thousands of police with batons and plastic cuffs stood in stony formation at city intersections. Demands for an end to police brutality became more and more clear as instances of police violence broke out towards the end of the day. I saw on the local news that police did "nothing more than yell at protesters" and were "a model of restraint." But I also saw a girl go down after taking a baton in the leg. And I saw my friend's broken thumb, bent back by two other hands simply because no one was there to record it.

I remember marching from the jail Wednesday night in the rain. The wicks on our red candles had gone wet and black, the media had almost all left. Hundreds of cops cordoned off the hundred and fifty members of the vigil, one at the front with a rifle out, its muzzle pointed cattycorner to our thighs. I was walking with a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, telling her what I'd seen, telling her that people were being hurt. She said, "I know. But if we can't verify it, we can't print it." The ink on her pad was smeared and illegible, the paper soaked and translucent. Together we crossed the line off that rifle with our breath in our throats. My fingers had gone numb, my intestines icy, my mouth frozen open in evaporated song. I looked around and all I saw was policemen after policemen, a sea of powder blue shirts and shiny chrome bicycles. All I saw was the muzzle of that rifle and what it meant. I had the sense of history demanding something of me and every other person at that jail, in Philadelphia and in this country. I had the sense of incredible loss. And I knew that it didn't matter because no one was writing it down.

We need help. At the rallies outside the jail, people chanted "The whole world is watching." But it often felt like no one was. While isolated members of the press have worked hard to provide objective coverage, for the most part the media has been biased against us to the point of criminal negligence. This shouldn't surprise me. Newspapers and television stations are powered by and exist to serve the same corporations we in the streets hoped to unmask. Still, I am surprised. Surprised because after all these companies are staffed by people, by human beings I assume have a sense of empathy, responsibility and justice, if not simple horror at the idea of a world without first amendment freedoms. Ditto for the cops. Each man and woman in uniform in Philadelphia has seen this group of people (not to mention the many other groups who have faced and continue to face much worse) systematically vilified and abused. Don't they understand tomorrow it could be them? That (for many of them) it has been and continues to be them? I can only hope that everyone involved in the brave new police state I see cropping up all around me realizes their complicity in the situation and the power they have to stop it.

The whole world is not watching. People's lives are being destroyed. Incredible people: community organizers, gardeners, writers, dancers. The people I know behind bars cook food for the homeless, publish magazines, build bikes for kids. I have never seen or heard of any engaging in an act of violence. They are carpenters. Most would rather build an alternative physical or economic structure than break the window of an existing one. Which is exactly what makes them so threatening.

The world is not watching, and it needs to be. The press is not watching. It hasn't been for a long, long time. The convention is over but the abuse it still happening. Over three hundred people are in jail tonight in Philadelphia as part of what can only be described as a coordinated act of political repression. Thousands of demonstrators have been portrayed as dangerous criminals for continuing a tradition of civil disobedience passed on to us from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They join the millions of other Americans serving time for non-violent offenses in US jails, and the tens of millions in communities of color who are systematically terrorized with state surveillance and police violence. This is a crucial moment for anyone who considers him or herself free. As a friend put it yesterday--after we were followed and photographed yet again by a plainclothes policemen: "this is the first page in a very big book."

Please help:

* Write letters to your local newspaper and television stations. Demand coverage of the situation in Philadelphia and the demonstrators still in jail.

* Write to national media such as the NY Times and cnn.com, demanding the full story on continuing human rights violations.

* Go to the Philadelphia Inquirer http://web.philly.com/content/inquirer/ and Philadelphia Tribune http://www.phila-tribune.com/ And respond to them about thier coverage.

* Call District Attorney Lynn Abraham at 215-686-8701 and Mayor John Street (who has stated that Philly will throw the book at protesters) at 215-686-2181. Let the Mayor know that while Police Commissioner John Timoney is riding high in the press right now, Street had better distance himself from the monster before the full story about systematic physical torture and civil rights abuses reaches the public.

*Hook up with the Moms for Justice by emailing your name, phone and email to Sue Mammarella at suemam@aol.com or Carolyn McGuckin-Robinson at crobin@icdc.com.

*** Make a tax-deductable and urgently needed donation to the PDAG (Philadelphia Direct Action Group) Legal and Bail Fund by sending checks payable to "ISMCH" to PDAG/ PO Box 40683/ Philadelphia, PA 19107. Please put "legal fund" on the memo line.***

* Read the statement by the John Does at CFCS http://www.thepartysover.org/media/cfcfletter20000806.html Write prisoners in jail as the addresses become available over the www.phillyimc.org site.

* Read the LA Times Article on Upcoming DNC Protests http://www.latimes.com/news/state/20000807/t000073900.html Write them on thier coverage, let them know how important the press will be at the DNC protests and urge them to give critical focus on the issues people are demonstrating about.

* Forward this or more concise info from the links listed to everyone you know, espeically those who might be willing to help, or who might have money to contribute to the bail fund.

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