Labor activist gets his day in court

by Keith Barber


The 10-foot by 20-foot mobile billboard parked in front of the Forsyth County Hall of Justice on Nov. 13 spelled out the crux of Ray Rogers’ legal defense in response to charges levied by Reynolds American that the 65-year-old president of Corporate Campaign committed criminal trespassing and obstructed, resisted and delayed an investigation by Winston-Salem police officers during the company’s May 6 shareholders meeting.

“Why is Ray Rogers on trial when Reynolds American and its leadership should be in court, on trial and in jail for assaulting shareholders and prolonging farmworker misery?” the billboard read.

Organizers from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee union gathered outside the courthouse at 8:30 a.m. to express solidarity with Rogers, who was arrested at the shareholders meeting after attempting to raise a question about an open letter posted on the company’s website addressing farm labor issues.

A videotape released by Reynolds American of the shareholders meeting reveals that Rogers stood up prior to the election of Reynolds American’s corporate officers to raise his concerns. Rogers was asked several times by Reynolds American officials to take his seat, but refused. Rogers steadfastly claimed he had a right to ask a twominute question in accordance with the rules of the meeting. The videotape then reveals several off-duty Winston-Salem police officers approaching Rogers and forcibly removing him from the Reynolds American auditorium.

During the Nov. 13 court hearing, Russell See, senior director of corporate security for Reynolds American, said the company hired eight off-duty Winston- Salem police officers to provide security for the meeting. See said after Reynolds officials asked Rogers to take his seat, he personally asked Rogers to sit down. When Rogers refused, See said he signaled the off-duty officers nearest Rogers to escort him out of the building, before Rogers “collapsed.”

Cpl. Melissa Peterson of the Winston- Salem Police Department was one of the arresting officers. Peterson testified in court that she identified herself as a police officer to Rogers, who “fell to the ground” when officers attempted to arrest him.

When Rogers took the stand, he vehemently denied See’s and Peterson’s allegation that he collapsed to the floor when officers attempted to arrest him.

“I believe the video shows very clearly that I was grabbed,” Rogers said. “I was trying to ask my question and I was grabbed and pulled down. I was still trying to ask my question then they grabbed me, picked me up and carried me out, and all the time they were carrying me out, right out the door, I simply kept saying, ‘I’m going to ask my question. I’m going to ask my question.’” On two separate occasions during the hearing, District Court Judge Chester Davis, Rogers, Rogers’ attorney Bob Willis and representatives of the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office reviewed the videotape of the incident in Davis’ chambers.

Rogers also claimed that Peterson never identified herself as a police officer during the incident. Rogers said he lawfully attended the annual shareholders meeting as a proxy of Reynolds American stockholder Oscar Sanchez, and his purpose was clear.

“I traveled down here as a proxy for a stockholder to raise a question for Reynolds American to answer, which is would they address the very serious and nightmarish living and working conditions of the farmworkers of this state, that live and work in the tobacco fields of North Carolina,” Rogers said.

After Rogers was arrested, Peterson said they carried him to the lower level of the Reynolds American building, placed him inside a patrol car and transported him to the Forsyth County Jail.

After the shareholders meeting, Rogers emerged from the Magistrate’s Office at the Forsyth County Detention Center, bearing cuts and bruises on his arms, hands and nose. Rogers said he received the cuts and bruises during the altercation with the off-duty officers at the Reynolds annual shareholders meeting.

Shortly after, Rogers traveled to police headquarters on Cherry Street to file a formal complaint stating the arresting officers used excessive force in carrying out their duties at the shareholders meeting. In a letter dated July 2, Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham responded to Rogers’ complaint. Cunningham stated that an internal investigation by the department, which included a review of the Reynolds American videotape, concluded that the officers did not use excessive force in arresting Rogers.

During the Nov. 3 court hearing, Davis dismissed the state’s charge of resisting, obstructing and delaying a police investigation. Bob Willis, Rogers’ attorney, said the judge’s dismissal of the charge was significant because it supported Rogers’ claim that his resistance of “direct corporate physical oppression” was lawful.

However, Judge Davis ruled that Reynolds American had the right to set the rules for the meeting, and Rogers clearly violated them. Davis said Rogers had a legal right to be present at the meeting but under state statutes, if a person is asked to leave private property and refuses to do so, he or she is guilty of first-degree trespassing. The court found Rogers guilty of first degree tres passing with a sentence of prayer for judgment continued.

“The judge, over Reynolds American’s objections, thought that the matter was not serious enough to warrant a criminal condemnation or criminal judgment,” Willis explained.

Rogers will have to pay court costs of $125, keep his nose clean and follow the rules for public discussion at the next Reynolds American shareholders meeting, Willis added.

Rogers said he considered Judge Davis’ ruling “a terrific victory” and that he intends on coming to next year’s annual stockholders meeting to raise the same concerns about the company’s treatment of tobacco farmworkers.

“They’re certainly not going to stifle any voice I raise about the farmworker conditions here,” Rogers said. “You can be darn sure that [Reynolds CEO Susan] Ivey has not heard, nor has Reynolds American heard the last of Corporate Campaign and its relationship with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the National Farmworker Ministry and all the people out there supporting the struggle.”

Ray Rogers, president of Corporate Campaign, takes notes inCourtroom 1C at the Forsyth County Hall of Justice before his case isheard by District Court Judge Chester Davis on Nov. 13. ReynoldsAmerican filed charges of criminal trespassing and delaying, resistingand obstruction a police investigation against Rogers for his actionsat the company’s annual shareholders meeting in May. (photo by NancySiesel)