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2009-10-06

Twitter Crackdown: NYC Activist Arrested for Using Social Networking Site during G-20 Protest in Pittsburgh

Guests

Elliot Madison, New York-based social worker and member of the Tin Can Comms Collective. He was arrested and later had his home raided for using Twitter to spread information about police actions during the recent G-20 protests in Pittsburgh.

Martin Stolar, attorney for Elliot Madison

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Elliot Madison was arrested last month during the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh when police raided his hotel room. Police say Madison and a co-defendant used computers and a radio scanner to track police movements and then passed on that information to protesters using cell phones and the social networking site Twitter. Madison is being charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility, and possession of instruments of crime. Exactly one week later, Madison’s New York home was raided by FBI agents, who conducted a sixteen-hour search. We speak to Elliot Madison and his attorney, Martin Stolar. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For our first segment, we turn to a case of a New York activist who’s believed to be among the first to face criminal charges for communicating electronically with protesters about police actions. Elliot Madison was arrested last month during the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh when police raided his hotel room. Police say Madison and a co-defendant used computers and a radio scanner to track police movements and then passed on that information to protesters using cell phones and the social networking site Twitter. Madison is being charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility, and possession of instruments of crime.

Exactly one week later, Madison’s New York home was raided by FBI agents, who conducted a sixteen-hour search. The agents seized items including computers, clothing, books and the records of Madison’s clients in his job as a social worker. Madison has since won a temporary order barring agents from examining his seized property.

For more, Elliot Madison joins us here in the firehouse studio. We’re also joined by his attorney, Martin Stolar.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

ELLIOT MADISON: Thank you.

MARTIN STOLAR: Thank you, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Elliot, let’s begin with you. Begin by describing exactly what you were doing in Pittsburgh during the G-20 and your subsequent arrest.

ELLIOT MADISON: Well, there were protests during the G-20, and a group of people came together called the Tin Can Comm — Communications — Collective. And they were putting up basically message boards. There was a message board for food. There was a message board for legal. There was a general message board. There was a message board just for announcements.

And how Twitter works is, traditionally people can text one — instead of just texting from me to you, I could text everyone that chose to follow me, OK? So, the only difference in this setup is that we allowed points to go to everybody in the group. So, if Martin wanted to text you and me, he could. If I wanted to text the two of you, I could. So it was a point of access issue. So it changed Twitter and made it more decentralized, so people could carry on a conversation knowing that people were spread out throughout the city. Sometimes it gets loud and noisy, and it was a way for people to communicate, not substantially different than the way the three of us are talking now.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what exactly — what kind of messages were people putting out on this site?

ELLIOT MADISON: All sorts of messages. We put on the — about different trainings. There was a Know Your Rights training. We talked about the — there were messages I received about the raid on the Just Seeds food bus. There was information about where meet-ups were for different marches, like the students’ march. To be honest, I didn’t see most of the messages, because I was arrested very early on Thursday.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s the first day of the G-20.

ELLIOT MADISON: The first day. So, before the first day, there weren’t many messages, because there were just a few announcements about, you know, different meetings and things like that.

And the thing to remember is this was a public site. I mean, the AP articles with the lieutenant detective of operations says he was on our LISTSERV. CNN said they were on our LISTSERV. I mean, a whole variety of journalists, New York Times journalists, joined. Anybody could join. It was a public number. We don’t know who joined. It wasn’t important. And anybody could send information to the group, and it would be sent out to everybody.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And so, you were sitting in your hotel room, and the police came in. Describe what happened.

ELLIOT MADISON: Where there was a — door was flung open. I assume they had a key.

Just to be clear, the hotel room was under our names. Our car was parked right out front. We weren’t doing anything clandestine, weren’t expecting the police to come in.

A number of agents from the state police came in and — you know, with guns drawn, and held us for about an hour in handcuffs, though we weren’t arrested at that time, and told us we were free to go. But we decided to stay and watch them and wait for the warrant. We weren’t presented a warrant right away. A warrant finally came, but it’s a sealed warrant, so we only got to see the face sheet of it. We don’t know why — we know what they were looking for, but we don’t know the — how they got the information, because it’s sealed. According to the face sheet, it’s eighteen pages long.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Martin Stolar, explain the charges. They include charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility, and possession of instruments of crime. What does that mean?

MARTIN STOLAR: Essentially, what Elliot is charged with is using the computer or the cell phone to put up an announcement that said that the police had issued an order to disperse. Having done that and having informed people that the police had issued the order, then it is claimed that that announcement hindered prosecution somehow by, I guess, having people avoid being arrested. It would seem to me that that is something that provides some benefit to the police department, in terms of saving them the expenditure of resources in processing people. But they’ve decided to criminalize that communication, or at least in their complaint that’s what they say, that the communication that said, “Hey, there’s been a dispersal order; everybody be aware of it,” somehow turns into a crime of hindering prosecution. The communication facility then, the cell phone or the computer that was used to post that message, becomes an instrument of the crime, and the use of that mass communication facility becomes, they claim under Pennsylvania law, a third crime.

This is just unbelievable. It is the thinnest, silliest case that I’ve ever seen. It tends to criminalize support services for people who are involved in lawful protest activity. And it’s just shocking that somebody could be arrested for essentially walking next to somebody and saying, “Hey, don’t go down that street, because the police have issued an order to disperse. Stay away from there.” All of a sudden, essentially, that becomes the crime that Elliot and his co-defendant are charged with.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And they may be the first to be charged criminally with sending information electronically to protesters about the police. What’s the significance of this in terms of First Amendment rights?

MARTIN STOLAR: It —-

ELLIOT MADISON: Can I just clarify it?

MARTIN STOLAR: Sure.

ELLIOT MADISON: We’re not -— we’re not the first. We’re the first in this country. During the Twitter revolution going on in Iran, in Moldova, in Guatemala, in the earlier newscast about Honduras, in all those cases, repressive governments have arrested folks for using Twitter. The only difference is, in all those cases the State Department, the US State Department, has condemned the arrest of these Twitter activists and had gone so far in the Iranian situation, the State Department, according to an article, asked Twitter to postpone its regular maintenance so as not to interfere with Iranian protesters to be able to send out their tweets. So the only difference is we’re the first arrested here. But this is a — over the past two years, repressive governments have been arresting people. The only difference is, the State Department has supported —- I’m expecting the State Department will come out and support us also.

MARTIN STOLAR: Oh, you think so, do you?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well -—

MARTIN STOLAR: I mean, it is shocking. This is really the first case, and my preliminary research has found that this is the only case where people involved in protest activity have been arrested for using or for passing out information. Essentially, this country has the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects speech, and it protects protest activity. And what Elliot and his co-defendant are accused of doing tends to support speech and protest activity itself. It is speech that goes out. Putting something up on Twitter is a form of speech. And we have some serious First Amendment problems in connection with the prosecution in Pennsylvania.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And I want to say, we did contact Twitter and the FBI to invite them on the program. They both declined our request. Twitter didn’t respond. But to what extent did Twitter cooperate with the police?

MARTIN STOLAR: We don’t know.

ELLIOT MADISON: We don’t know.

MARTIN STOLAR: We don’t know. We don’t know if Twitter is cooperating with the police. We don’t know if Twitter has been asked to cooperate with the police. Twitter essentially is neutral here. The police could have logged onto Twitter and seen whatever was being posted, in the same way that individuals can log onto the police radio bands and emergency service responders, all of which is up on the internet. If Elliot is receiving from the internet notice that an order to disperse has been issued at a particular location and passes that public information on to other members of the public, that’s protected speech. It is inconceivable that that could be a crime. But that’s what he’s charged with.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So, a week later after your arrest, the FBI raids your home in Queens. What happened?

ELLIOT MADISON: About 6:00 in the morning, the FBI, on a Thursday, broke into the door — we don’t know if there was a knock or not, because we were asleep — stormed up with guns — it was about twenty or so agents with Joint Terrorist Task Force; it was a combination of FBI and NYPD — and handcuffed me and my housemates, held us for a few hours, two or three hours, in handcuffs, wouldn’t let us talk, wouldn’t let us make phone calls, wouldn’t let us get dressed, because we were all asleep. And eventually, sometime after that point, they showed us a warrant. They wouldn’t let us read the warrant; they just showed it to us. Our hands were cuffed behind our back. And for sixteen hours, proceeded to take everything, from plush toys to kitchen magnets and lots of books.

I’m an author. I’ve written fiction. I’ve written lots of nonfiction. I’m an anarchist, so I’ve written lots of political works. So they not only grabbed all of my works, and they grabbed anything that they felt like grabbing from our pretty large library.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And they apparently took photos, as well, posters —-

ELLIOT MADISON: Yeah.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: —- from the walls, one of Lenin and one of Curious George, apparently?

ELLIOT MADISON: Yes, yes, and they took Curious George stuffed animals. They took magnets from the refrigerator. They took a needlepoint of Lenin that my wife’s grandmother had made, a whole variety of bizarre things that they’ve taken. We don’t know everything they took, because the voucher we received is fairly vague. It will say something like "documents." So, since the house was tossed, it’s hard to tell if the documents are just lost or if they’re, you know, seized at this point.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Martin Stolar?

MARTIN STOLAR: Well, I mean, the search was just extensive. And the problem with the search warrant, which actually asked for evidence that indicated that potentially there were violations of federal rioting laws, this is the same law that was used to prosecute the Chicago Eight following the Republican Convention in Chicago in 1968. Well, what would be evidence of violations of federal rioting laws is open to question. Anarchist literature? Fiction writings that Elliot has written? Pictures of Lenin? It’s completely vague.

And so, they rambled around and searched and pulled things. They’re not only from Elliot and his wife Elena’s property, but also there were other residents of the house who are living there who had their private property taken and swept up in this, including computers and discs of somebody who’s making a film, computers and discs of somebody who produced a weekly radio show, a computer that actually belonged to the United States government. One of the residents of the house was a contract employee for one of the federal agencies, and that computer was also taken.

So, in response to that, we immediately went to federal court to say, “Hey, wait a minute. You can’t take all this stuff. This is all sorts of private property that has nothing to do with the violation of federal rioting laws, and we want it back.” And we got a federal judge to say, “Maybe you have a point there. FBI, don’t examine the boxes that you seized. Hold on, until I can examine this and issue a further order of the court.” And so, that’s what she did. She stopped them from going through the boxes, stopped them from going through and indexing, cataloging and analyzing what had been seized at the house. And that’s on hold, pending further briefing in court and pending further order of the court, which will happen a week from Friday.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Elliot, you spoke about how — the so-called Twitter revolution in Iran and how that was portrayed and condemned by the State Department in this country. I just want to go back to those days during the so-called green revolution in Iran and how the media in this country, the corporate media, the news networks, covered the use of Twitter in the protest. Let’s go to a clip of them.

    FOX 11 ANCHOR: Iranians are turning to social media websites like Twitter and Facebook to tell their stories.

    UNIDENTIFIED: Twitter.

    MARTIN SAVIDGE: Twitter.

    UNIDENTIFIED: Twitter.

    HOWARD KURTZ: Has Twitter become the CNN of the masses?

    KIRAN CHETRY: Here’s what some people have been tweeting about.

    SCOTT HURLEY: Just type in “#iranelection.”

    The US State Department actually asked the website to put off scheduled computer maintenance.

    IAN KELLY: This is about the Iranian people. This is about the — getting their voices a chance to be heard.

    ISHA SESAY: More and more tweets were appearing.

    UNIDENTIFIED: Twitter.

    KEITH OLBERMANN: A Twitter revolution.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS: Is this the first true internet uprising?

    RACHEL MADDOW: This revolution might not be televised, but it is definitely being tweeted.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Elliot Madison, some of the coverage back in summer of the Iranian uprising following the elections. Everyone’s supporting Twitter, the State Department actually asking Twitter not to — not to do an update. And now you’re being arrested for using Twitter. We’re not seeing the same kind of coverage. Your thoughts?

ELLIOT MADISON: Yeah, I think it’s a clear case where, you know, the government authorities act like government authorities in Moldova and China and Iran, where they like it when people have access to information, be it radio stations, newspapers, free press, in other countries, but they’re uncomfortable with it in their own country. And in this case, they decided to try to criminalize it.

And I think what’s very interesting in all these stories about me is that the Tin Can Communications Collective was one Twitter feed. I have found that there were at least twenty-four Twitter feeds going on, everywhere from the police to the G-20 to Ron Paul supporters. Everybody had their own Twitter feeds going on. They decided to criminalize me, I think, because of the fact that we were in solidarity with the protesters.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Elliot Madison and Martin Stolar, I want to thank you very much for joining us. We’ll continue to follow this story.

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