In the late afternoon of April 6th, phones rang in offices and homes throughout the northeast, bringing breathless words of celebration and relief. E-mails flew across the internet with subject headings like “Acquitted!!!!!!!!” and “Wooooooooooooo.” My own co-worker heard me screaming into the phone and asked, a bit cautiously, what the “f***ing awesome news” was.
The epicenter of this elation was a courtroom in Philadelphia. After a nearly four-year legal saga, local tenant organizer Camilo Viveiros, along with fellow demonstrators Darby Landy and Eric Steinberg, were acquitted of all charges stemming from their arrests outside the Republican National Convention on August 1, 2000. They had stood accused of assaulting police officers, including then-Philadelphia Police Chief John Timoney, during demonstrations which saw over 400 people arrested. The cases against nearly all other defendants had crumbled long before, leaving these defendants, dubbed the “Timoney Three,” as the scapegoats on whose backs the city could try to prove that its repressive police actions were justified. All three faced serious charges; Camilo’s charges were the heaviest and could have led to 30-40 years in prison.
In the courtroom, these charges crumbled too. Police claimed that Camilo had thrown a bicycle at Timoney and another officer, but their stories were inconsistent. Timoney, who had testified in a 2000 hearing that it was Camilo who threw the bicycle, now said that he couldn’t identify the person who threw it. Police also said that Camilo had resisted arrest, but a videotape showed him cooperating with police and then being thrown to the ground and punched. The judge rendered his verdict after only two days of trial proceedings.
Over the three and a half years between the RNC and the acquittals, Camilo's allies built a strong campaign to build support for him while also raising larger issues of injustice and repression. Dozens of community groups from all over the country, centered in communities where Camilo had lived, wrote letters on his behalf, and they joined with thousands of individuals to sign petitions, donate toward Camilo's legal bills (which were huge, especially when combined with bail), and spread the word. The support of community leaders and organizations also helped supporters to cultivate favorable media coverage leading up to the case which reached a wide range of decision-makers, including the trial judge.
This article is not a full accounting of those efforts. Instead, as the 2004 conventions grown near in an even more security-obsessed atmosphere, it is an attempt to identify some lessons which might be applicable now.
LESSON 1: THE ROLE OF THE CRIMINAL SYSTEM
Camilo was arrested during a day of protest against the criminal (in)justice system, drawing attention to issues of institutional racism and classism, the growth of prisons while schools crumble and jobs vanish, police brutality, the death penalty, and the existence of political prisoners (whose ranks he nearly joined). Through its disparate impact on low-income people and people of color, the prison system serves to maintain the unjust system we live in.
It is in this context that Philadelphia authorities used the criminal justice system to stifle protest. Of the hundreds arrested that day, many had committed no crime, and numerous others who had committed simple acts of civil disobedience like blocking streets found themselves facing multiple charges and five-figure bails. Arrests targeted progressive protesters, while a right-wing rally that blocked streets calling for the execution of Mumia Abu Jamal received no police response. The police crackdown reverberated, as it was meant to, throughout other communities. Camilo, a housing organizer, found tenants reluctant to attend rallies to defend their homes for fear of ending up “like him.”
In many ways, the debate around Camilo's case reflected two different views of the criminal justice system. Camilo's supporters argued that his arrest was a reflection of the system's function of suppressing dissent and maintaining the status quo, and that Camilo had been caught in a crackdown. On the other side, Chief Timoney and the Philadelphia District Attorney's office argued that the prosecution of “this son of a bitch,” as Timoney called Camilo in an interview, was based solely on the crimes he had committed. The minimal evidence of any crime that the police presented at trial suggests that the supporters’ analysis was correct.
LESSON 2: SOLIDARITY, SOLIDARITY, SOLIDARITY
Knowing that police will use the criminal justice system to stifle protest, we need to be ready for arrests when they come. We must not allow ourselves to be intimidated into only supporting “good” protesters who are not accused of significant crimes. Camilo's charges were not minor. He was accused of having violently assaulted someone, and that made some people reluctant to support him. One anonymous contributor on an Independent Media Center website wrote, “This guy threw a bicycle at another human being and harmed him severely, and we are supposed to be sympathetic to him?” A major flaw in this argument, of course, is that Camilo hadn't thrown a bike at anyone. But this person had accepted the police allegations at face value.
When police are trying to discredit protesters, they are unlikely to charge all of them with simple offenses like disorderly conduct or unlawful assembly. In Philadelphia, while a majority received such charges (and still had sky-high bails), a significant number were charged with felonies. Prosecutors then offered a deal to drop the charges for the former group in exchange for good behavior, which would have isolated those facing serious charges.
But while some defendants took the deal for very legitimate reasons, many refused it, standing in solidarity with those facing more serious charges. This forced prosecutors to try to prove cases in court, where most cases crumbled. That made it far easier to make the case that Camilo's charges might be bogus too. We hope, if people face serious charges after this summer's conventions (which sadly may well happen), that supporters will remember this lesson and will be skeptical when police attempt to condemn some people as “bad protesters.”
LESSON 3: VIDEOTAPE EVERYTHING, BUT DON'T RELY ON IT
While the support campaign was crucial in maintaining Camilo's spirits, raising awareness, and showing that Camilo was an important part of the community and shouldn't be locked up, another crucial element to his defense was a videotape of his arrest. As mentioned above, this tape showed not only that Camilo did not assault police officers as prosecutors alleged, but it also showed him being struck by police officers while he was handcuffed. This blew huge holes in the prosecution's credibility.
But we can't rely on the power of photographic evidence. Those who work against police brutality have long explained that for every Rodney King whose mistreatment is caught on film, there are countless others with no record of their abuse but their own injuries and nightmares. If we automatically believe police accusations unless they are disproved on film, then we are presuming our fellow activists guilty until they can prove their innocence.
LESSON 4: DON'T ISOLATE YOURSELF!
While the police tried to isolate Camilo with serious charges and accusatory rhetoric in the media, some of the most effective tools available to his support committee were the relationships he had with a wide range of people in the community. As someone who has long believed in drawing connections between different issues, Camilo had worked with numerous individuals and organizations who remembered him as a committed ally. Many working on his defense used their own webs of relationships to build support further. As a result, he won support from many organizations which one might not expect to defend someone facing charges stemming from a protest against the prison system.
Unfortunately, not all activists have these sorts of networks. Many of us, having heard many times that we're wrong, naïve, and traitorous, tend to shrink from those who may disagree with us. Many radicals shun groups that we consider too mainstream, dismissing them as sell-outs. When we do so, we isolate ourselves more effectively than any police rhetoric about “dangerous protesters.” Building up relationships with organizations that don't share all our views but may be sympathetic, as well as with neighbors and others in our community, are not just nice things to do. They are crucial to building a movement that can face repression--and win.
LESSON 5: KEEP GOING, DRAW CONNECTIONS
The comments above are aimed at the movement in general, addressing how we think about our fellow activists who face charges. I could write a much longer separate article about lessons for those doing support work. But I will attempt to put a few basics down here.
First, support and honor yourself for what you are doing. Going up against the legal system, particularly as a non-lawyer, can be deeply frustrating. It's easy to feel that your actions will have no impact on the ultimate outcome of the trial. Remember that this is not the case, that the support you bring to the defendant is crucial, and that because political trials ARE influenced by political sentiment, building support is crucial. And celebrate as you go along. We partied hard when Camilo was acquitted, but I wish we'd done so more along the way.
Secondly, one of the greatest challenges is to keep the case on people's minds. When new crises arise, we are called on to put time and energy toward them, which can leave older issues to twist in the wind, including lingering legal cases. This, too, is deeply frustrating. But because political prosecutions are part of a larger system, there are often many issues that can be connected to the case. We tried never to forget the issues of the criminal justice system which Camilo was arrested for protesting, and sought to use his case to draw attention to them. In the wake of 9/11, we also used Camilo's case to highlight efforts to clamp down on dissent and civil liberties, particularly as it impacted immigrants. The more we organized around Camilo's case as part of larger issues rather than in isolation, the more successful we were.
As the next RNC draws, it's clear that protests will be met with huge, post-9/11 law enforcement operations and the potential for many arrests. And of course, in the months and years to come, there will be many more occasions when some of us may be arrested. Those who leave the protests without legal trouble must extend our solidarity, remembering that we could be in their shoes, and that if some of us are not safe, none of us are safe. The stronger our networks are before crises hit, and the more willing we are to offer solidarity to our comrades in trouble, the stronger our movements will be.
Matthew Borus was one of many people who was very active in the support committee Friends of Camilo. Others in the group offered crucial feedback on this article, but Matt takes responsibility for any errors! A slightly edited version of this article originally appeared in Peacework magazine, at http://www.afsc.org/peacework.