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News ::
Alex Rae, Boston activist at R2K gets his case dismissed
06 Feb 2001
Phoenix article, Alex Rae, Boston activist at R2K gets his case dismissed, "First Amendment triumphs in Philly"
First Amendment triumphs in Philly


Though Alex Rae had walked into court last week prepared for the worst, he received the best news possible: his case was dismissed.

The Boston activist was one of 200 protesters on trial in Philadelphia for participating in demonstrations at the Republican National Convention last August (see “Rough Justice,” News and Features, January 19). Just seven days ago, he and 19 other defendants were facing an uncertain fate. Municipal-court judge Seamus McCaffrey — an ex-police officer and Fraternal Order of Police member — had been slated to preside at the defendants’ January 25 trial for obstructing a highway, failure to disperse, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and three counts of conspiracy. And after the notoriously pro-cop judge refused on January 16 to recuse himself from the trial, activists wrote off Rae and his fellow defendants as sure-fire convictions.

But they were in for a surprise. Minutes after Rae — sporting an eye-catching tie stenciled with the word resist — entered the courtroom with his co-defendants last Thursday, prosecutors said they didn’t have enough evidence to go forward with 17 of the 20 cases, including Rae’s. The remaining three defendants were visible on a police videotape that showed their attendance at a massive August 1 protest against the “criminal injustice” system. From this, the judge could have found them guilty on the seven misdemeanor charges.

Rather than make an example of these defendants, however, McCaffrey stunned the courtroom by doing an about-face. Indeed, he became the first judge in the RNC-protester trials to invoke the First Amendment as a justification for dismissing the cases. Recalls Rae, “He [said], ‘Well, civil disobedience is protected by the Constitution,’ and ‘Protesters had good reason to exercise their free-speech rights.’ It was so surreal.”

McCaffrey acquitted the defendants — but not before making his distaste for the protesters and their causes well known. Addressing the courtroom, he even told the defendants that, as Rae puts it, “we will probably grow old, conservative, and sell ourselves out.”

Suffice it to say, Rae and fellow activists haven’t become McCaffrey devotees. After all, they attribute the judge’s generosity to the failed January 16 recusal motion — and to the public criticism that arose after the Philadelphia Inquirer published excerpts from that hearing. The basis for the motion had been McCaffrey’s remarks to an audience at a July 2000 health-care conference that he was planning to make sure streets were cleared of protesters during the GOP convention — a sign of bias in the protesters’ eyes. In court, however, McCaffrey refused to allow testimony from witnesses who had overheard his comments. Activists, in other words, view McCaffrey’s newfound appreciation for the First Amendment as merely an attempt to salvage his public image.

Says Rae: “As a victory, it rings hollow. I mean, McCaffrey will just return to being the harsh judge he is with the next guy.”
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