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Lawyers call protests a 'civil-rights disaster'
A group representing activists said city police broke a promise to file lesser charges. There was no deal, police say. The National Lawyers Guild accused city officials of trying to to criminalize protest. At the group's news conference yesterday were Ronald B. McGuire; Pedro A. Rodriguez; Robert Meek, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the guild; and Marina Sitrin.
By Linda K. Harris, Linda Loyd and Robert Moran
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
A team of lawyers for protesters arrested during the Republican National Convention said yesterday that police had promised that nonviolent protesters would be charged with summary offenses, the rough equivalent of a traffic ticket, and quickly released.
"The defense attorneys are very concerned with what we perceive as overcharging," said Andy Erba, a lawyer working with the R2K Network legal team, which includes many from the National Lawyers Guild.
Police Department lawyer Bradford A. Richman, however, said there was no agreement.
"We would not agree in advance to charges with lawyers," Richman said. "People were charged with whatever crime they committed."
At a news conference called by the National Lawyers Guild, the lawyers called the protests "a civil-rights disaster" and alleged that the police and district attorney intended to criminalize protest.
"The bails that have been set are without precedent in the history of this country," said Ronald B. McGuire, a a New York lawyer on the team.
A position paper released by the National Lawyers Guild said: "The response of the City and Courts of Philadelphia to protests of the Republican National Convention and the prison industrial complex seems a blatant attempt to silence dissent and seriously curtail First, Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights. Those protesters who have been arrested are experiencing the kinds of abuses that are endemic to the prison industrial complex in the United States; the very institution they seek to reform."
Said Erba: "We think in this case that a significant portion of the charges lodged against the protesters can not be legally sustained at all. We certainly ask the district attorney to reconsider each of the charges so these matters can be resolved."
Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham responded: "Get a life. It's not going to happen."
About 390 people were arrested last week during the four-day convention; most were booked as John Does or Jane Does on misdemeanor charges. Many had bail set at $10,000 or more, and two people each had their bails set at $1 million.
Earlier yesterday, in response to complaints of excessive bail, Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Lisa A. Richette lowered bail to $100,000 for Terrence McGuckin, a West Philadelphia community activist who prosecutors allege was one of the leaders of last week's protest.
After prosecutors acknowledged that McGuckin's charges were nonviolent misdemeanors and his risk of flight was low, Richette reduced McGuckin's bail from $500,000 to $100,000. Members of McGuckin's family said afterward they would try to post the necessary 10 percent - $10,000 - by last night.
Richette yesterday also freed 16 more protesters, who had initially withheld their names, after they agreed to identify themselves.
Bradley Bridge, a lawyer with the public defender's association, said 130 to 140 protesters remained jailed because they continued to withhold their names. The association is advising them that if they will give their identities, they can sign for their bail and get out of jail until their trial, he said.
Bridge said an additional 17 protesters had decided to give their names and would appear at the Criminal Justice Center today in hopes of being released.
"People have to recognize that sitting in jail for a long period, as a principle, may not make sense," Bridge said afterward. "They can continue that protest at trial."
The 11 men and five women released yesterday posted no money and signed for their bail, promising to return for trial. Three of the 16 were from Philadelphia; the rest were from outside the state, including Oregon, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Georgia.
Terrence McGuckin's mother, Carolyn McGuckin-Robinson of Willow Grove, said she was happy her son was coming home. She said he worked in community outreach for the Youth Health Empowerment Project and was devoted to nonviolence.
Assistant District Attorney Joel Rosen said the evidence at trial would show that McGuckin "was more than a protester" at last week's Republican convention.
"He was one of the leaders, directing groups to block streets, block traffic. That's why we demanded high bail in his particular case."
Marina Sitrin, an R2K Network representative, said at the news conference that all protesters who remained in jail today would join a continuing hunger strike by some of those in custody.
Pedro A. Rodriguez, former executive director of the Action Alliance of Senior Citizens and a community activist on various issues, told of a recent protest in which demonstrators were charged with summary offenses.
"Just a couple of months ago, we had a demonstration in which we stopped traffic at Broad and Cherry Streets protesting the U.S. Navy bombing of Vieques," he said.
About 14 people sat down on the street and blocked traffic, he said. All were given summary offenses.
"They were back with their families a couple of hours later," he said.
As for last week's protests, Rodriguez said: "Not all of the people who are behind bars were overturning Dumpsters."
The R2K legal group said it had accumulated testimony about 59 instances of excessive force within the prison, six incidents of sexual abuse, 22 examples of needs denied, including medications, and nine examples of mental abuse.
Said McGuire, the New York lawyer for the protesters: "We have just begun to fight here in Philadelphia."