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Monday, October 23, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Questioning Globalization
2000-10-23

Million Dollar Misdemeanor

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During the Republic National Convention on August 1st of this year, several hundred activists were arrested for protesting, among other issues, the criminal justice system and the lack of public discussion of human rights abuses by the police and in U.S. prisons. Over 400 people, including bystanders, legal observers, and medics, were rounded up by the police and held for days on end, many waiting over 100 hours before being arraigned. All faced enormous bails, ranging from $10,000 to $1 million, and were jailed for up to 2 weeks. [includes rush transcript]

They will be brought to trial over the next few months. Many of those arrested are charged with multiple felonies, facing the possibility of decades in prison. The arrests were for acts of civil disobedience, which typically bring only summary charges. The first day of trials for hundreds of arrested activists is this Wednesday, October 25.

Guest:

  • John Sellers, with the RUKUS Society. He was arrested in Philadelphia and held on $1 million bail.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sellers is with us, with the Ruckus Society. He is one of the protesters from Philadelphia who was hit with a one-million-dollar bail and now faces trial. When will that trial be?

JOHN SELLERS: The trial — the prosecution just recently last Wednesday asked for a continuance, and they have now scheduled the trial for November 14th.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you charged with?

JOHN SELLERS: I’m charged with something like fourteen counts all together. There’s nine original charges and then five counts of conspiracy on top of that. All misdemeanors.

AMY GOODMAN: How can misdemeanors end up with a one-million-dollar bail?

JOHN SELLERS: That was a mystery to most people with any kind of real knowledge of the criminal system. You know, bail is set to ensure that people return for their court dates. It has nothing to do with any kind of punitive measures, supposedly. But, obviously, this bail was set to keep me in jail. It was set egregiously high for hundreds of people to keep them in Philadelphia prisons, to keep them off the streets where they were practicing free speech, and to keep them specifically out of LA.

AMY GOODMAN: And did it work?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, it definitely kept people in jail for a significant amount of time. Most people were in jail for a week or over a week for, you know, what amounted to misdemeanor charges, so that was a very strange and very egregious kind of treatment of people. And, obviously, it was a sign that our message was very radical and something that people wanted to criminalize — was the message that we had.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what have you learned, as you prepare for the trial? What information has come out about what happened in Philadelphia?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, a lot of very disconcerting information has come out about the surveillance on behalf of the Pennsylvania state police, the kind of covert operations that law enforcement was engaging in, the underhanded nature of many of the tactics that they used, the illegal seizure of the warehouse where many of the puppets and the banners and political messages were being prepared for the actions against the prison-industrial complex and the institutional racism of the criminal justice system. And so, you know, I think that we are seeing the criminalization of dissent, of free speech, of people that have an unpopular message with regards to the status quo and the reigning power structure, and we’re seeing, you know, some tactics that probably a lot of people haven’t seen since the McCarthy Era, you know, and a lot of the information that’s come out in discovery in the trials reads like stuff out of the McCarthy era, connecting NGOs here in the United States to leftist revolutionary governments around the world, the former Soviet bloc countries, the trade unions, of all things, nefarious trade unions. So, I mean, this is stuff that reads like red baiting. And it’s really scary to think that, you know, these people can vilify good folks, civil society, that really wants to enhance democracy in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you be more specific what exactly you found?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, one of the most disconcerting things that has come out are reports by a nefarious organization called the Malden Group, that, to any kind of scrutiny, seems to be some original members of the John Birch Society, of all things. That is a far rightwing think tank that is offering unsolicited dossiers on non-governmental organizations working against corporate globalization. And they are, you know, providing multi-jurisdictional law enforcement agencies with intelligence, you know, very very, I would say, erroneous intelligence on these non-governmental organizations, vilifying us, stereotyping us and marginalizing us. And in many of the sealed affidavits, or several of the sealed affidavits coming out of Philadelphia, we see law enforcement quoting this, you know, this Malden Group as if it were a government agency, you know, as if it were fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is it based?

JOHN SELLERS: That’s — your guess is as good as mine, Amy. They don’t have a website. They don’t really seem to have an address. I don’t know that much about them. I haven’t been able to read the Malden report. I’ve only seen the quotation of the Malden Group in one of the sealed affidavits for the search and seizure of the puppet space itself. But we do now have — our attorneys now have the Malden report in their hands, and I think it will be really interesting to go through there and also to get a lot more information, start doing some digging on our side of the fence to see who the Malden Group is and what motivates them.

AMY GOODMAN: And who exactly were they saying that groups here, nonprofits, NGOs, were connected to?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, they talk about obviously the Ruckus Society. They talk about a number of the other organizations, a number of the other organizing groups around the R2K, the Philly-DAG collectives —

AMY GOODMAN: Direction Action Group.

JOHN SELLERS: Yes. The Philadelphia Direct Action Group, Philadelphia ACT UP, a number of different organizations, organizations of great standing and organizations full of people of conscience that are working for a better, you know, a better country and a better planet.

AMY GOODMAN: And will the court just accept information from any group like that? Unnamed? Or it’s named, but not knowing where it’s from?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, it’s interesting you’d ask, because, you know, that sealed affidavit did make it past some judge sitting on the bench in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Police Department was granted the legal rights to, you know, search and seize that warehouse, and they arrested upwards of seventy-five people before they even had a chance to practice free speech in the streets of Philadelphia as is their constitutional right. So, I mean, you’re seeing surgical preemptive strikes against our constitutional First Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: Was the Malden Group information given to the police before the raiding of the conversion space, the puppet space?

JOHN SELLERS: Yes. It was actually in the affidavit that the police gave to the judge to justify seizing and searching the puppet space, so that affidavit was then sealed, because the police said that it was — it represented eminent risk of harm to the officers that were operating undercover, the Pennsylvania State Police. They said they would risk their lives, if they had been, you know, outed to a bunch of nonviolent activists and exposed as police officers. And so, they were able to seal that affidavit for, I think, three or four weeks. When it was finally opened, we got to see what was inside it, and, you know, it’s incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, which is one of the groups that has really helped to organize protesters in Seattle and Philadelphia and Los Angeles. And one of the things they do is have training camps for activists. What are the training camps to come?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, in January, we’re going to help a lot of folks from the Tibetan support community to put on a "Free Tibet" camp that we’re very excited about. And then we have a very full year next year. We’re looking in March at an Alternative Spring Break action camp in Florida, "Spank the Bank" action camp centered around the emerging campaign against Citigroup, as well as the World Bank, so both public and private financial institutions, and how they operate as engines of corporate globalization. And then, we’re looking at a camp in May around biotech and preparing activists that want to nonviolently confront this consortium of biotech industries that will be meeting in San Diego in June of next year. And then, further on down the road next fall, we’ll be looking at eGenius Action Camp, which will be for digital activists, looking at all kinds of different solutions for a number of different tactics that activists can use to really get their work and their struggles out to a much broader audience, you know, expanding the circle of people that are witnessing these actions. And we’re very excited about that.

AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about an Alternative Spring Break in Florida, what actually happens at a camp like this?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, we’d like to think that we’re on the cutting edge of both the debauchery of spring break and some good clean, you know, fun for folks to have on spring break and doing some real significant political work at the same time, that it’s going to be, you know, much more fun than most of the vacuous spring breaks that occur, but also, you know, politically very poignant, and we’re going to invite the vanguard of college activists to that camp and really bring people together for, you know, a cutting edge experience.

AMY GOODMAN: But what happens at the camp — I mean, in terms of all of these camps? People — I mean, where do people stay? What do people do during the day?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, it is a camp in the best sense of that word. People are camping. We set up a fully functional field kitchen and really feed people amazing gourmet vegan and vegetarian food. We have workshops going on all day, from theoretical workshops in, you know, traditional nonviolence training and media skills, and direct action planning and strategy, community organizing, political theater.

And then we have a lot of hands-on very physical training in climbing for urban areas, climbing for wilderness, you know, forest defense, blockading roads and buildings. And then we do a lot of panels and discussions at night on very significant issues. And really, you know, we’re going to tailor this camp specifically to public and private financial institutions and how they drive this global corporate juggernaut that is destroying so much of the planet that we love.

AMY GOODMAN: Why Citibank?

JOHN SELLERS: Citibank is arguably the largest financial institution in the United States. They have a hand in so many of the most nefarious, extractive kind of undertakings around the planet. They are one of the biggest supporters of the privatization of the prison industry, and they’re also redlining a number of communities, more marginalized communities, specifically communities of color in urban areas, for any kind of lending and any kind of financial influx into those communities. So, in many ways, Citigroup is one of the driving engines behind globalization and can be looked upon by a number of different divergent activist communities as a common adversary, to hopefully bring a number of different communities together around a specific discrete target.

AMY GOODMAN: Your trial that you face, and the very high bail that was set for you, has that changed what you’re able to do now?

JOHN SELLERS: No, I don’t think so. You know, I think that, you know, the charges are so outrageous and so fraudulent that I haven’t had to concern myself too much about them. I have a great lawyer. You know, I’m much more concerned about the 400 people that I was arrested with. A number of them are facing felony charges. There are thirty people that are facing — more than thirty people that are facing multiple felony charges that are, you know, facing decades of their lives, you know, young people facing decades of their lives in jail for acts that they didn’t commit, you know, and are facing fraudulent charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Like?

JOHN SELLERS: Like? Like, specifically, many of them are facing aggravated assault on police officers. And so, they are in — literally in, you know, kind of "he said, he said" cases or "he said, she said" cases against, you know, some of Philadelphia’s finest, who are going to have a lot of stature, and their testimony is going to carry a lot of weight in Philadelphia courts.

And a number of other ridiculous charges, you know, organizing a riot and, you know, stuff that references catastrophe. I mean, really ridiculous charges. And, you know, these people are literally fighting for decades of their lives, and they — you know, we don’t know how those trials are going to turn out until we see them through. And there are hundreds of people staying in solidarity in the courts in Philadelphia with them, people that could have left the judicial system. They were offered, you know, some pretty, I would say, sweet deals by the Philadelphia legal authorities, and they opted to stay in the system, to go to trial, to face trial, to exonerate themselves, and to also make sure that the eyes of the world watch these very significant cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question is, when — for listeners to remember what happened to you, you were in Philadelphia; how were you picked up?

JOHN SELLERS: Well, I was walking down the street in Philadelphia the day after the mass actions, kind of walking away from an area where there was a lot of media. I saw that I was being videotaped by Philadelphia Police Department and was literally just, you know, kind of walking away, minding my own business, and was picked up off the street by a whole plethora of Philadelphia’s "Finest" and then charged with a bunch of stuff that’s just outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: And your Palm Pilot and cell phone?

JOHN SELLERS: Actually, my Palm Pilot was safe in the apartment I was staying in. My cell phone and Swiss Army knife were taken as implements of crime.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long were you held in jail?

JOHN SELLERS: I was held in Philadelphia’s jails for about six-and-a-half days.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Sellers of Ruckus Society, thanks for being with us.

JOHN SELLERS: Thank you very much.

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