Mobsters at the Convention?

By Will Baker


The media provided extensive coverage of the Republican Convention, which was held recently in Philadelphia. Even though the event seemed heavily scripted, with the party’s candidates and platform being foregone conclusions, there were over 3,500 members of the "press corps" on hand to cover the event. With that many members of the media in attendance, I am scratching my head as to why there was little to no coverage of the one hundred and fifty to three hundred protesters (depending upon whose version of the story you choose to believe) who were arrested for mostly non-violent demonstrations associated with the event. These folks remain behind bars, and due to the uniqueness of what they have been charged with, it is quite likely that there they will remain.

You see, these folks were charged with "conspiracy" under so-called "racketeering" laws. That is correct, you heard me right: conspiracy and racketeering, the same words frequently used by the authorities against members of the Mafia. We should ask ourselves how a group of non-violent protestors engaging in acts of civil disobedience similar to the tactics used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. came to be charged with racketeering. The Prosecutor in Philadelphia explained to a reporter from National Public Radio (NPR) that since the protest organizers had met beforehand to plan the protests, that makes them conspirators, and that is a crime under the state and federal racketeering laws. It seems pretty straightforward…right?

Wrong: on March 21, 1965, thirty-two hundred people, both black and white, left from Browns Chapel in Selma, Alabama, at the start of a 54-mile march for freedom to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery. They were led by civil rights dignitaries including Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., and UN Under Secretary Ralph Bunche. Four days earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson had upheld the right of the demonstrators to stage the march. And he even ordered the State of Alabama to provide the protection necessary for the safe arrival of the marchers in Montgomery. President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and signed an order on March 20th authorizing the Secretary of Defense to utilize any federal troops he deemed requisite. His action was precipitated by the refusal of Alabama Governor George Wallace and that state's legislature to provide the assistance.

It seems to me that if one were to apply the same ham-handed logic utilized by the Prosecutor in Philadelphia, the organizers of the above referenced march would have certainly been charged with racketeering. Clearly, quite a bit of planning (read: conspiring) was necessary on the part of the Selma to Montgomery protest organizers to orchestrate this multi-day march that took the better part of a week to accomplish. This fact certainly makes me wonder about the validity of the charges being leveled against the protestors in Philadelphia.

As an aside, most of the charges (none of which, involved racketeering) made against the folks that protested the World Trade Organization meeting held last December in Seattle were subsequently dropped. Why then are these protestors in Philadelphia, the "city of brotherly love," still being held on ten thousand dollars bail each? When the NPR reporter posed this question to the Prosecutor the answer had to do with the fact that the protestors had failed to provide their true names. And when the reporter asked the protestors why they had not given their "real" names they answered that it was a mechanism for preserving group unity. It seems to me that, given the uniqueness of the charges being brought against them, perhaps this show of unity is understandable. The Prosecutor went on to say that the protestors "hold the keys to their freedom"-implying that all they have to do to gain their release is give the authorities their names. Not true. Under the current arrangement they must give the authorities their names, and ten thousand dollars each. A sum that most of the protestors simply do not possess.

So what is the big deal you might ask. Isn’t this maybe a good thing, in that it might discourage similar disruptions in the future? Well, that is exactly my point. It seems to me that, if they are allowed to stand, these charges of conspiracy, which have been made against this group, might very well have a chilling effect on the future  of civil disobedience. And lest you think that that is a good thing, perhaps you should re-read the paragraph above dealing with the Selma to Montgomery march-according to this way of thinking, the organizers of the civil rights movement would have been engaging in criminal acts of "racketeering." In other words, they would have been treated like mobsters.

Civil Disobedience has a long and proud tradition, here in this country and in other places. It provides a non-violent mechanism for courageous women and men to place themselves on the line in deference to their convictions. Many of these folks have gone to jail, including Dr. King…but they were not charged with racketeering. They were charged with violating certain existing laws, which they disagreed with, such as laws, which did not provide the right of any person, black or white to ride a city bus or eat in a restaurant of their choosing. They were charged with violating the law in question, not with racketeering. I believe that this is a very important distinction.

The cynic in me wonders whether federal authorities were complicit in the Philadelphia Prosecutor’s decision to bring these charges against the protestors. As most of us know, the Democratic Convention is just around the corner. Perhaps a message is being sent to folks "conspiring" to engage in similar instances of "racketeering" in Los Angeles. If that is the case, then it seems to me that it is not only a sad day for Los Angeles and Philadelphia, but for our whole country.


 (Essay Collection)