Liberty on the Defensive

Doug Ireland

Demonstrators heckle anti-war marchers in Washington in late September.
The political mood in this country is getting uglier as the open-ended long war drags on. Frustrated at not seeing Osama bin Ladens head brought home on a stick, as one CNN commentator growled, Americans are turning on their fellow citizens and the Constitution.

In Florida, West Virginia, Indiana and elsewhere, students have been expelled from high schools for expressing anti-war views. The arrests of Jewish Defense League members in Los Angeles on charges of plotting to blow up a mosqueand the offices of a Republican congressman of Lebanese descentremind us that terrorism is not the exclusive province of rag-heads (the newly popular schoolyard epithet of choice). Those of us who have written critically of the war have become accustomed to receiving death threats of unimaginative obscenity.

The most reliable national pollconducted for the Wall Street Journal by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bob Teetershows big majorities support military tribunals for terrorist suspects, blanket roundups of legal residents of Arab descent for questioning, government monitoring of e-mails, detention of some 600 suspects without charging or naming them, and wiretapping of detainees conversations with their lawyers. Even that odious religious primitive John Ashcroft is popular, with a 57 percent approval rating (and only 13 percent critical). Thats not surprising when one considers the failure of the Senate Democrats to lay a glove on Ashcroft when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee; their spineless, powderpuff questioning was so ineffectual the Wall Street Journal chortled that it was a rout for the Holy Roller.

Poll-driven congressional Democrats have taken to heart the strategy memo written by former Clinton strategists Stan Greenberg, the pollster, and James Carville, the pit bull, which instructed them to breathe no word of criticism on the conduct of the war, either at home or abroad, and instead to concentrate their fire on the economy. But even in that they have failed to make a coherent case with populist appeal. As Russ Hemenway, veteran director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, puts it, Ordinary people cant understand what theyre talking about. They have no theme. They should be hammering on trickle-down economics and corporate welfare.

But with the partys vice presidential candidate last year, Sen. Joe Lieberman, having endorsed the Bush approach to the economytax cuts for business over help for the unemployedand the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Patty Murray, and many other Democrats supporting the $30 billion Boeing-boondoggle bailout, why be surprised that the Democratic leaderships attempts at compromise have fallen flat?

The CNN/Gallup poll confirms the Democrats failure to effectively develop a truly alternative anti-recession program: It now shows 44 percent favor the GOPs approach to only 35 percent for the Democrats (a Republican gain from November, when the numbers were even). Indeed, a plurality now believes that the recession is just a normal part of the business cycle: 49 percent oppose any direct government action on the economy, as opposed to 47 percent in favor. In other words, half the country thinks the economic stimulus package is irrelevant.

That, Hemenway says, is helping to make Democratic prospects for next years congressional elections simply dreadful. And if, as he forecasts, the Democrats lose the Senate next year and fail to gain in the House, the Republican rollback of civil liberties will continue unchecked.

But not all the predations on our civil liberties are coming from Washington. One of the most unsettling reflections of the malignant national mood can be found in the supposedly liberal city of San Francisco, where two dissident AIDS activists have been arrested as terrorists. Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli are hardly figures who inspire universal affection in the gay and AIDS communities. Petrelis is a sometimes-useful gadfly whose guerrilla-theater tactics, often targeting what he considers the AIDS and gay establishments, can range from silly to offensive to downright counterproductive. Pasquarelli is an HIV denier (meaning that he believes HIV is not the cause of AIDS) against whom restraining orders have been issued to prohibit him from harassing individuals at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Project Inform and the city health department. The duo are currently in jail, charged with making harassing phone calls to editors and reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle demanding, among other things, more attention to the threat to the AIDS community contained in the model quarantine law Bush is pushing for states in the wake of the bioterrorism scare. (The proposed law, a version of which is now working its way through the California legislature, authorizes a quarantine for any infectious disease that can be transmitted from person to person, a definition so broad that it includes HIV. The citys AIDS czar has already suggested quarantine for promiscuous HIV-infected men).

The indictment of Petrelis and Pasquarelli accuses them of stalking, terrorist threats and conspiracy on 27 countshalf of which are feloniescarrying a potential total penalty of 78 years in prison. A probable cause hearing on the indictments is not scheduled until January 23and meanwhile, the two ailing men are languishing behind bars, where they are being held on bail of $500,000 each. Both men have AIDS, are in fragile health and have complained of the inadequacy of medical attention in jail. Petrelis has esophageal candidiasis (thrush), a particularly painful affliction, and on December 8 a judge ordered him to be rushed to the prison medical unit for treatment (a serious skin condition now covers 60 percent of his body).

One can object to both Petrelis and Pasquarellis politics and actions, but what is being done to them is deeply disturbing. The prohibitively high bail for these activist marginals amounts to preventive detention. While admitting to making obscene late-night phone calls, both men vehemently deny having made a bomb threat, as the indictments charge. Those who have no sympathy for the pair should recall the case of ACT UPs Kate Sorenson, who was arrested in protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, then held on $1 million bail on felony charges, but eventually acquitted. Or the takeover of GlaxoSmithKlines New York offices last February by ACT UP activists protesting inflated drug prices, against whom felony charges are still pending.

The punishing of nonviolent civilor even uncivildisobedience with felony charges, instead of the usual misdemeanors, constitutes an attempt to repress political dissent. And while late-night obscene phone calls are a repugnant and juvenile form of political protest, the accusations of terrorism against Petrelis and Pasquarelli by San Franciscos putatively progressive District Attorney Terance Hallinanwho, with his radical past, should know bettercan only be viewed as blatant political pandering to his hometown newspaper. And it makes it difficult for the duo to get a fair trial. (As the magazine went to press, In These Times learned that Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the House Democratic Whip, had written to the Justice Department requesting that Petrelis and Pasquarelli be investigated under the USA PATRIOT Act for terrorism. New felony charges also have been added to Pasquarellis indictment by Hallinan, who had had his bail increased by another $100,000.)

An open letter initiated by Queer Watchs William K. Dobbs, a New York-based gay civil liberties lawyer, demanding bail reduction for Petrelis and Pasquarelli has already been signed by 125 prominent AIDS and gay activists, writers, lawyers and academicsfew of whom agree with the imprisoned pairs views. Judy Greenspan, an HIV advocate for California Prison Focus, has been on the receiving end of some of their phone calls, but says, I dont believe in prosecuting them on felony charges, and I certainly dont support the use of the word terrorist.

Scott Tucker, a well-known progressive gay activist and writer who co-founded ACT UP/Philadelphia, says that Petrelis has a wide reputation for being erratic and abrasive, but he has also asked some of the rude questions which have crossed the minds of others who have kept quiet. But Tucker adds: Many Americans are wondering what it means for the courts to do their thing under the shadow of Ashcroft and the USA PATRIOT Act; the implication of this case goes far beyond these two defendants. Since 9/11, the definition of terrorism has drifted far from ground zero. That should concern all activists and civil libertarians.

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Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. Hes a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.
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