Pepper spray and police brutality
instead of freedom of speech
The following is a letter from Pennsylvania Abolitionist
This past weekend Pennsylvania Abolitionists organized and participated in several actions at the National Governors Association meeting at Penn State University, July 7th - 10th. The activities met with heavy police surveillance and unnecessarily violent force. Dozens of abolitionists were harassed, 16 people were arrested, and two nonviolent protestors were attacked with pepper spray.
Pennsylvania Abolitionists arrived at State College, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, July 8th. Almost immediately, anti-death penalty activists were followed by plainclothes state troopers and federal agents. Around noon, Abe Bonowitz, director of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was followed through the State College area by three cars for approximately 10 minutes on his way to a rally on the grounds of Beaver Stadium. Bonowitz, called 911 from his cell phone to report his situation; immediately, the three cars turned on flashing police lights, pulled him over, and 6 state troopers emerged. No indication was given as to why he was pulled over, and troopers demanded to search his vehicle, despite having no warrant.
Bonowitz's vehicle had several anti-death penalty bumper stickers on its exterior. He refused to permit the unlawful search and was subsequently told that he could not leave his vehicle. Bonowitz called members of Pennsylvania Abolitionists who were already at the rally site only several hundred yards away. Approximately 8 people arrived on the scene to investigate the situation. Police interrogated one individual who wrote down police vehicle license plate numbers; his identification was run through police computers, and he was asked if he was involved in the rally. Other individuals on the scene began calling members of the media and photographing the state troopers. Shortly thereafter the state police issued Bonowitz with a $93 traffic ticket for "failing to signal a turn."
Several dozen abolitionists participated in the Saturday afternoon rally, sponsored by Redirection 2000, an initiative of Penn State students.
On Saturday evening abolitionists gathered in downtown State College, where two blocks were cordoned off for the NGA-sponsored "Evening Under the Stars."
The event, complete with musicians, lights, flags, and hors d'oeuvres (for those with NGA name tags), provided an opportunity for the local community to "rub elbows" with the powerful governors. About 75 death penalty opponents set up banners and held signs across the street from the event. Using a sound system, abolitionists read the names of governors in the 38 states which have the death penalty. After each name was read, the crowd shouted, "Shame!" The names of the 84 people wrongfully convicted and released from death row during the past 25 years were also read, after which the crowd shouted, "Innocent on death row!" After an hour, abolitionists crossed the street carrying signs and mingled with the governors and their secret service agents. Rev. Melodee Smith, of the Clergy Coalition to End Executions, spoke with Virginia Gov. James Gilmore. Rev. Smith said, "We really need to do something to fix the death penalty." Gov. Gilmore responded by saying, "In Virginia we've already fixed it. It's moving faster than ever!"
Abolitionists received a different response from Alaska Governor Tony Knowles who crossed the street to thank the demonstrators for being present and to indicate his support for abolition of the death penalty in United States. NGA host, Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, emerged from his limousine and was greeted with spontaneous chanting of "Stop Tom Ridge before he kills again!" Tourists from Norway approached Gov. Ridge and told him where they were from. Gov. Ridge responded, "Welcome to Pennsylvania!" The Norwegian visitors shook their fingers at the governor and said, "Shame on you!"
Several newspaper photographers observed that it was impossible to take a photo of any governor without seeing an anti-death penalty sign in the background (which they felt was a commendable use of the forum.) An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Monday, July 10, page 3) which discussed possible Republican vice-presidential candidates included a photo of Gov. Ridge taken at the event; sure enough, four anti-death penalty signs are clearly visible in the background.
On Sunday afternoon at approximately 3:00 p.m., fifteen death penalty abolitionists began walking up the public road toward The Penn Stater Conference Center. Dozens more stood in support in the makeshift "protest pit" on the other side of the road. The goal was to speak with the governors to secure pledges from the 38 governors from death penalty states that they would impose moratoriums on executions. The fifteen abolitionists were chained together at the waist in order to prevent them from being separated and in symbolic solidarity with those who are kept in chains in preparation for execution. While still 100 yards away from the official checkpoint, the 15 moratorium supporters were charged upon by a phalanx of approximately 50 Pennsylvania State Troopers. As the abolitionists attempted to cross the road, they were stopped by the troopers blocking the roadway who began shouting that they were not permitted on the road. Within seconds the troopers began shoving the nonviolent demonstrators, knocking several people to the ground. Bolt cutters were used to speedily break the padlocks.
Assuming arrests were about to begin and in an attempt to prevent injuries from the shoving troopers, several people dropped the ground and assumed a nonresistant position lying on their backs with their arms at their sides.
Two people lying on the ground (Jeff Garis and Noah Brophy) were immediately and without warning attacking with a pepper ointment. A black gloved state trooped yanked the glasses from Garis's face, smeared pepper oil in his eyes, and shoved the glasses back on his face. The 15 abolitionists were then handcuffed and thrust onto the shoulder of the road. Members of the media attempting to cover the attack were moved far back from the scene with threats of arrest. A 17-year old bystander positioned on the berm on the other side of the roadway was ordered to move; when he did not immediately comply, the juvenile was pepper sprayed, dragged across the road, and pushed into a police vehicle.
The 16 nonviolent activists were transported to an Army Reserve facility in nearby Bellfonte where a police processing center was established. The arrested abolitionists were courteous and cooperative throughout the entire ordeal. They were fingerprinted and photographed in duplicate so that records could be sent to the FBI, according to state troopers processing them. The abolitionists were transported in several groups to the Centre County District Magistrate's office where they were arraigned before Justice Bradley Lunsford on charges of "obstructing the highway" (a level 3 misdemeanor) and "disorderly conduct" (a summary offense). The disorderly conduct charge states that the defendants "caused public inconvenience . . . by an act which served no legitimate purpose." The charges carry a maximum penalty of 15 months in prison. Justice Lunsford chose to release all of the arrestees without cash bail. A preliminary hearing date was set for Wednesday, July 19, 2000, at 9:00 a.m., at Court Room #1 of the District Court, Centre County Courthouse, Bellfonte, Pennsylvania. The abolitionists will be expected to enter a plea at that time.
Several goals were met through the activities of the weekend.
First, the governors in attendance expected to meet with CEOs of the large corporations "hosting" the event. A moratorium on executions was nowhere on their agenda; we succeeded at putting it there. Members of the press repeatedly asked the governors about the death penalty and why they were not discussing it in their meetings.
Second, the growing call for a moratorium on executions was clearly visible to both the governors and the media. This movement is not a passive one, and it will not go away. A quarter-page photo of the arrest (circulated by the AP) appeared on page 7 of the Washington Post on Monday, July 10th, under the headline "Public Barred as Corporations 'Host' Governors' Meeting." The caption under the photo says "A death penalty protestor yells in pain while being forced to the ground by a state trooper."
Third, the politicians who are using the violence of the death penalty to advance their political careers demonstrated that they are more than ready to use violence against those who challenge this system - even those who do so nonviolently. There is a very visible campaign of repression and intimidation escalating against those of us who choose to resist this institutional violence. Even those who may not yet agree with our cause should be disturbed when concerned citizens attempting to nonviolently address governmental leaders are met with unreasonable force. Like a bee that causes pain with its sting, yet mortally wounds itself in the process, this system of violence and death will do far more damage to itself when it attacks nonviolent people calling for an end to killing than it does to us.
The mere fact that they now are willing to publicly attack and intimidate us demonstrates the threat that this movement poses to those whose power is
built on violence.
So, continue to push for a moratorium on executions by circulating petitions and seeking organizational endorsements from the groups with which you are involved. Encourage your Pennsylvania state senators to sign on as co-sponsors for Senate Bill 952, imposing a two-halt to executions. Put candidates for office on the spot on this issue during the campaign season.
And, if possible, come out to Bellfonte, Pennsylvania, on July 19th at 9:00 a.m. to support the abolitionists on trial for trying to nonviolently stop state-sponsored killing!