Last month, in the Opera House in the small Vermont town of Plainfield, I attended a fundraising evening of drama and music for the legal costs of Institute For Social Ecology alumnus Camilo Viveiros. It was one of a number of fundraisers held to raise money for legal expenses.
Viveiros, a 30-year old social justice activist and tenantsâ€™ rights organiser with the Massachussetts Alliance of HUD Tenants was one of over 400 arrested during non-violent demonstrations at the Republican Party Convention (R2K) in Philadelphia in August 2000.
The R2K protests brought together many activists from across the USA, on a range of social and economic justice issues in the wake of the Bush â€œelectionâ€. Camilo now faces decades in jail if convicted of a first-degree felony charge for allegedly hurling a bicycle at John Timoney, Philadelphiaâ€™s police commissioner.
Camilo, whose job is to help organise mainly elderly and disabled low-income tenants to organise and improve their living conditions, emphatically denies the charge. Friends and colleagues attest to his long history of non-violent community activism. Criminal charges against most of the other protesters arrested during that time have been dropped or thrown out of court.
Camilo and his supporters believe that he is being made an example of, that his charges are part of an ongoing orchestrated police campaign to crack down on free speech and the right to dissent and to criminalise protesters, in the wake of the mass mobilizations at Seattle in 1999.
A number of civil rights lawsuits have been taken against the City of Philadelphia and settled in favour of the plaintiffs, after the violent police operation against the R2K protests, which saw many beaten and wounded on the streets and in detention.
Camilo, along with Darby Landy and Eric Steinberg, the two others who face charges of assaulting Timoney, are the scapegoats to justify the massive scale and costs associated with the security overkill at that time. Camilo was held in jail for eleven days at the time, initially on a bail of US $450,000, before it was reduced to $150,000 and he was able to return home. His next trial is set for February 18 next year.
In a statement, he recounts: â€œThe night I was arrested I was taken into an interrogation room for 13 hours. While I was in that room over 5 different detectives would come in and interrogate me. On three occasions a detective would open the door and literally say â€œshow and tellâ€, then I heard the officer that saw me on display, being coached by a detective on what to say and charge, fitting my physical appearance into scenarios they were making up on the spot.â€
â€œThe only way to stop these attempts to criminalise me and protests in general is to out-organise the forces of the state and capital that want to cheer me into prison.â€
Around the same time as the Plainfield fundraiser for Camilo Viveiros, Jaggi Singh, a good friend and comrade in Montreal circulated an email appealing for solidarity and support for his defence of criminal charges arising from arrests at political protests during the past two years.
I first got to know Jaggi during the protests and counter-activities at the 1997 Vancouver APEC Summit, when he was singled out by police for his organising work, nabbed and detained for several days while the APEC VIPs were in town.
He now faces four trials set for early 2003 in Montreal and Quebec City. While Jaggi does not face the lengthy prison sentences that hangs over Camilo Viveiros south of the border, crown attorneys are seeking to jail him for several months. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and is conducting his own defence.
Many ZNet readers may remember that Jaggi was again targeted by Canadian police during the anti-FTAA protests in April 2001, and imprisoned for 17 days. He still faces a charge of â€œparticipation in a riotâ€ from that time, which carries a six-month jail sentence. Besides Jaggi, many others still face charges from Quebec City.
Other charges against him stem from participation in the G-20 protests in Montreal in October 2000. There he was arrested with co-accused Jonathan Aspireault-Masse for â€œparticipation in a riotâ€, and the lesser charges of illegal assembly and mischief. The Montreal Police claim that Jaggiâ€™s speech against the International Monetary Fund incited the crowd and that he announced the possibility of medical help as riot police and cavalry charged the crowd.
Then in September 2001, just over a week before we spoke together at a conference in Ottawa on the criminalisation of dissent, Jaggi was arrested after addressing an anti-war demonstration in Montreal through a microphone, and subsequently charged with breaking bail conditions from Quebec City.
â€œI am forbidden from using a megaphone anywhere in Canada, and Iâ€™m forbidden to be a â€œleaderâ€ (no joke, those are my actual conditions to this day),â€ he writes. â€œI know my conditions well, which is why I announced at the beginning of my speech that I was using a â€œmicrophoneâ€, not a â€œmegaphoneâ€. Anyhow, the police canâ€™t tell the difference, and Iâ€™m going to trial before a judge in January.â€
Fighting the (in) justice system of the courts, the police and other state agencies is not designed to be easy on us. It can be a costly, time-consuming, stressful, draining, dehumanising and potentially isolating experience. On the other hand, it can also be empowering, a chance to turn the tables back on the state, and to expose an unjust system.
But not without the support of friends. For those of us that do take part in direct actions and non-violent protests, we need to remember it can be any one of us that happens to get dragged out of a crowd and arrested on any given day. For those of us that donâ€™t, canâ€™t or wonâ€™t, we need to support them in any way that we can.
In many countries, not least throughout North America, the post-September 11 environment has seen a great deal of self-censorship and the shunning of taking to the streets â€“ not to mention direct action – by some sections of the progressive community.
Some people have been saying that we all have to tone down our tactics and strategy because of September 11. That it is foolhardy to take to the streets, or organise civil disobedience actions. The more I think about it, the more I worry whether some of those advancing such arguments have latched onto September 11 as a disingenuous justification for distancing themselves from principled non-violent direct action in favour of activities which will not meaningfully challenge power or injustice.
9/11 has certainly given state authorities new justifications for coming down hard on activists, and equating political dissent â€“ especially out on the streets – with â€œterrorismâ€. And who can say what impact the reinvigorated climate of fear, suspicion and hostility towards dissent will have on court decisions in these and other cases involving police and other state security agencies.
But it has always been easy enough for the police, the corporate media and others to construct and caricature people arrested during protest actions or occupations as violent extremists, and for activist communities to become divided over whose version of events they believe. If we begin to buy into such divisiveness, the other side has already won.
Camilo Viveiros and Jaggi Singh are only two examples of many, many cases of organisers and activists in many, many communities facing trials and jail for taking principled stands against injustice. They deserve whatever support and solidarity we can offer.
Having been both a defendant and plaintiff in cases relating to political actions I know what a difference packed courtrooms, solidarity messages, moral support, and help with legal expenses can make. Attempts to demonise and isolate activists and divide movements by trying to make examples out of some of us through arrest, prosecution and the threat of imprisonment is made that much more difficult when we stand together in support of our friends through their trials and tribulations.
For more information on Camilo Viveirosâ€™ case, write: Friends of Camilo-Providence, PO Box 23169, Providence, RI 02903; Or email [email protected]
Web: www.friendsofcamilo.org, www.waste.org/~roadrunner/writing/camilo/main.htm and www.r2kphilly.org
For more information about Jaggi Singhâ€™s cases, or to offer support, contact him at [email protected] For information and support for others facing charges from the anti-FTAA mobilizations in Quebec City, see the Libertas Legal Collective website at www.quebeclegal.org