Note: This is a reposting of an article which originally ran on Counterpunch in June of 2010.
A high ranking official in government was quoted some time ago on the political marriage of public relations and governmental control regarding the 'rule of law.' Simply put, this official flatly stated that...
"It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of public opinion." (author name withheld until the end of this article).
In direct opposition to this politically incestuous arrangement, a rather infamous political activist gave a different viewpoint on the role of government, police and constitutional freedoms. In the language of a true revolutionary he claimed that...
"The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government." (author name temporarily withheld)
Both quotes have a direct relation to a case coming to trial in St. Louis, which began last summer (2009), during the media circus otherwise known as the 'healthcare town hall meetings.' Mainstream coverage of these events featured angry people in school auditoriums screaming about the healthcare crisis in America. In St. Louis, US Congressman Russ Carnahan held such a meeting in the heart of St. Louis County, 3rd district.
Activists from the Tea Party Movement were present in droves alongside more progressive groups such as Healthcare NOW, Democracy for America and union groups representing healthcare workers, primarily the SEIU.
Put bluntly the demographics favored the Tea Party, with the crowd being majority white and a small group of African-American individuals. This description is relevant in terms of the history of St. Louis, history rich in institutional racism and police abuse. This is the city of Dred Scott. The Underground Railroad goes through the heart of downtown, and slaves were openly sold on the steps of the 'old courthouse.' Housing patterns still follow racially segregated lines. True to form, this crowd included vendors selling political memorabilia, including 'don't tread on me,' flags and buttons with President Obama's image in minstrel white-face, or with the president smoking dope. Ironically, these trinkets were being offered by an African-American man named Kenneth Gladney, who is a self-avowed 'black conservative.'
Another African-American man, Reverend Elston McGowan, was offended by these materials. So were his SEIU colleagues, (McGowan was an SEIU official at the time of this event), and several friends including Mr. Brian Matthews and Ms. Javonne Spitz.
By the end of the day, Reverend McGowan, Perry Molens (another SEIU member), Brian Matthews and Javonne Spitz were arrested on charges ranging from 3rd degree assault, resisting arrest and 'interfering with police officer.' In addition, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jake Wagman was also arrested for 'resisting arrest,' and 'INTERFERING WITH POLICE OFFICER.' Wagman's sole crime was attempting to cover the altercations and confusion of the day.
In short, McGowan and Gladney got into a verbal sparring match over Gladney's inflammatory materials. Multiple people began to yell and both men separated. Later in the evening, McGowan and Gladney argued again, and in a You Tube video, a scuffle ensued. Frankly, I've seen two 8 year old boys fight better. From the video, McGowan is on the ground being kicked and Gladney is up and about. Gladney is the African-American man int he beige shirt looking quite able bodied. The videos being circulated on the web are so visually confusing that the evidence of wrongdoing is inconclusive.
Ms. Spitz attempted to photograph police behavior and was ordered to stop. She continued and was threatened with arrest, and after another verbal threat by St. Louis County Police--was thrown on the ground, maced and cuffed. Police obviously felt threatened by Spitz, all 4 feet, 9 inches of her. Matthews came to her assistance, attempting to clarify the situation and was forced face first on the ground and cuffed. Wagman was arrested for covering the events, even though he was cooperating with police. When asked to back away, Wagman complied, but was eventually arrested for the crime of journalism. It should be noted that many Tea Party members were also photographing events and none of the Tea Party members were arrested. They were listed as 'witnesses.' In fact, ironically, most of the You Tube videos documenting police abuse were taken by Tea Party activists, again, none of whom were arrested. When the police report was obtained, some of the witnesses' last names were blacked out.
Just on the facts, St. Louis County Prosecutor Patricia Redington must know she has no case. In the event she is unsure, I'll outline the problems:
The You Tube videos, the only concrete and impartial evidence--are inconclusive. The videos are so difficult to view that no evidence of guilt is clearly visible, other than the guilt of county police arresting people for constitutionally protected actions such as taking photos.
Police bias enters the picture. Differential treatment for the same actions has not been addressed. None of the tea party activists were arrested, though they photographed police in action, and they participated in a verbal mob attack...only those who were clearly identified as SEIU union members or progressive healthcare activists were targeted.
Between the videos which are inconclusive in terms of assessing any logical timeline of events (much less guilt), and the use of 'hearsay' accusations in a racially tainted crowd--the police had no legitimate grounds to single out either side for arrest. Either both parties should have been arrested or no one.
Gladney, though African-American himself, was dispensing racially inflammatory materials. This is similar to yelling fire in a crowded theater. These materials were designed to incite a riot. Ironically, Gladney wanted to pursue 'hate crimes' charges against Reverend McGowan, also African-American.
Most importantly, Redington is also pursuing charges against a journalist for 'interfering with police officer.' This particular charge has been cited as a slick maneuver to use the anti-wiretapping statutes thinly disguised as this overly vague term. Politically motivated prosecutors love this vague 'interference' term, as it appears to give legal cover, should the civil rights advocates win the next set of elections. Its politically something like 'being a little bit pregnant.'
As described in multiple articles by the legal scholar Jonathan Turley, police and prosecutors around the nation are using a politically convenient misinterpretation of wiretapping statutes. In some states it is now illegal to film a police officer in public without permission. Turley has condemned such misinterpretation as..."utter nonsense," and further stipulates that ..."these laws were never intended to stop photographing public officials in public doing public functions." Can you imagine more Rodney King type beatings and no video proof? Turley has soundly condemned this practice as an unconstitutional and unethical breach of our rights.
Brian Matthews, one of those arrested (charges were dropped due to video evidence), reported that the entire police swarm of arrests began when St. Louis County Police noticed some individuals taking photos of Reverend McGowan lying on the ground, obviously hurt. To quote Matthews;
"The police on the scene were allowing people to mill around observing, but became hostile when we took pictures of them surrounding an obviously injured black man. That is when the situation escalated and the threats of arrest for 'interfering' began."
Again, none of the Tea Party activists were arrested for filming the very same thing.
Reverend McGowan went to pre-trial conference July 13th. Redington pursued the charges as the officers wrote them. In viewing this strangely insane case, a pattern emerges which coincides with a growing national problem. All over the country, people are being brutalized and arrested by police for using their right to voice political dissent. Specifically, videographers capturing police in the process of abusing minorities, women, children, multiple 'Rodney King' Kodak moments--are arresting them for recording these public abuses and posting them for all to see. These are the unofficial 'journalists' witnessing police and prosecutorial abuse. They are increasingly facing political prosecutions designed to silence any dissent in an ever expanding police state. Wagman and Spitz's arrests and eventual prosecution are the tip of the iceberg.
Just this past March, a 25 year old staff sergeant for the Maryland Air National Guard, Anthony Graber, was pulled aside for speeding on his motorcycle. He had a habit of securing a camera on top of his helmet to gain action photos of his ride. A week later, Graber posted the ticket encounter on You Tube. April 8th, Graber was arrested in his parent's home during a raid in Abingdon, Md., in front of his wife and 2 young children. It turns out that prosecutors obtained a grand jury indictment charging him with violating state wiretapping laws, by taping the officer without his consent. He faces 16 years in prison if found guilty.
This trend of police and prosecutorial abuse must stop. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum--all of us have the right to political dissent. In an era of mainstream corporate media self-censoring, with 'embedded' journalists acting as stenographers for war hawks and/or corporatists--a vibrant though undisciplined alternative media has risen. Without a vigorous press witnessing and questioning those in power; our Bill of Rights is nothing more than toilet paper. Video evidence is critical to maintaining our rights in an ever growing police state silencing dissent in the name of 'security.' It would be wrong to solely blame the police for this pattern of abusive behavior. We have to seriously investigate prosecutorial abuse of power and what appear to be 'political prosecutions,' across the nation. Whether it's Boston, St. Louis or 'Mayberry;' behind the manicured lawns is an ugly, undemocratic underbelly. The politically vague term, 'INTERFERING WITH AN OFFICER,' is the smoking gun. It has no place in a true democracy.
For those of you still curious about the earlier quotes; here are the sources:
"It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of public opinion." (Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels).
"The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government." (Patrick Henry).
I agree with Patrick Henry. I wonder which side Redington and the other prosecutors will favor. Only time, public pressure, and a conscience--will tell.
(Since the time of earlier publication, Reverend McGowan's trial has been postponed twice. In a system which constitutionally promises the 'right to a speedy trial;' McGowan's rights have been violated).
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