Protesters get community service as ACLU scrutinizes police role

by Jordan Green

Many of the protesters arrested for assault and public disturbance after a confrontation with a special intelligence detective at a January rally against President Bush’s state of the union address are completing community service sentences this summer. As their charges are being resolved in the courts a state civil liberties group promises to examine whether the incident represents a violation of constitutional rights.

‘“I never entered a plea; it’s called ‘deferred prosecution,”” said George Saba, a 22-year-old student at Guilford College, who was one of seven people arrested. ‘“I do the community service, and I don’t plea out, and nothing else happens. My understanding is that I won’t be prosecuted and there will be no record of conviction.’”

Many of defendants are scattered across the country for summer break ‘— some on tour with bands ‘— but Saba said he believes most, if not all, of them took similar deals. Saba said the arresting officer, Detective Ernest Cuthbertson, approached him during his court appearance and told him all the other defendants were getting community service sentences, so he didn’t understand why he shouldn’t either. His case was disposed of the same day.

Saba is fulfilling his community service at Mujer, a battered women’s shelter for predominantly Hispanic women in Miami where his mother works as a therapist. The incident with the Greensboro Police Department provided some real-life experience to enhance his field of study. Saba plans to graduate from Guilford College next year with a major in philosophy and a minor in criminal justice. At some point in the future he is considering pursuing a law degree.

A part of him would have liked to have his assault on a government official and public disturbance misdemeanor charges go to trial, Saba said, but life imposed its own prerogatives.

‘“There’s definitely a part of me that wishes I could have done that,’” he said. ‘“I had to come back to Miami for the summer. I had a job and whatnot, and it was easier for me to take care of it. Otherwise I’d have to trek back and forth to Greensboro.’”

With no criminal trials likely, the truth of what sparked the confrontation leading to seven activists being put in handcuffs remains a matter of dispute.

‘“We all came as friends and we got arrested as friends,’” said Saba, who added that he was not involved in organizing the event.

The confrontation began when the seven protesters peeled away from a 130-strong protest on South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro and confronted Detective Cuthbertson, who was not in uniform. Cuthbertson was videotaping the license plates of cars parked along Lewis Street, and the protesters demanded to know if he was a police officer.

‘“We were a little bit spread out and following his movement, and we were going to stand and block him from looking at any of the licenses,’” Saba said. Cuthbertson put away his camera and walked past the group, then stopped before he passed the last protester, Kenneth Harris.

According to Saba, Cuthbertson bumped Harris with his shoulder, started to walk away, and then grabbed Harris’ hood and punched him in the head. Then the undercover detective pulled a gun, Saba said.

‘“I turned to run because I didn’t want to be in the line of fire,’” Saba said, ‘“and that’s when the police started rushing everybody. I ended up in the back parking lot of one of the buildings, but it was a dead end. I ended up running back into the demonstration and that’s where I was arrested. I was chased into the crowd and arrested by another officer and handcuffed.’”

‘“I know I didn’t assault anyone,’” he added.

Cuthbertson, who was reached by phone on July 12, declined to comment on the incident.

A news release by the police department on Feb. 1 directly attributes the violence of the anti-Bush protest to the protesters.

‘“Several members of this second group assaulted a plainclothes officer as he attempted to photograph them,’” the statement reads. ‘“Uniformed officers then responded to the area to ensure no further violence.’”

The incident raised alarms around the country that the seven protesters were targeted as part of a pattern of surveillance and repression of dissent against the Iraq War and the policies of President Bush. Saba said he received e-mail messages expressing support from people as far away as Europe and Australia.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina filed a request with the police department on May 15 for any records related to the department’s role in any monitoring, surveillance, observation or investigation of participants in the Jan. 31 protest. The request was filed on behalf of NC World Can’t Wait, an organization with ties to the Revolutionary Communist Party that organized the protest, and five participants, including Harris; Kent Cline, a Greensboro carpenter active with World Can’t Wait whose license plate was videotaped by Cuthbertson, Daniel Bayer (who joined YES! Weekly as a contributing writer in May); and two others. Central among the goals of the World Can’t Wait is to drive the Bush administration from power.

‘“We were trying to figure out whether they’re keeping dossiers on people engaged in peaceful protest, as we’ve seen in other cities,’” said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. ‘“It appears that none of the people we requested for have dossiers. They said they didn’t have anything on these people.’”

Rudinger questioned whether Cuthbertson’s efforts to videotape the license plates of protesters, which sparked the confrontation, was proper.

‘“It is possible the police department was violating its own standard operating procedures by engaging in photo surveillance at this event,’” she said. ‘“I think the issue was that they did not have any suspicion that these individuals or the organization sponsoring the event were involved in any criminal activity. We’re still researching some of the constitutional questions that are raised by this situation.’”

Calls requesting comment from the police on the department’s guidelines for surveillance were not returned on July 12, but a copy of the Greensboro Police Department’s ‘“Directive Manual,’” which was last updated in August 2004, states that photographic surveillance is appropriate for only two purposes.

One is ‘“to identify persons who are involved or suspected of any criminal activity or individuals who are members or associates of criminal or subversive groups or organizations’”; the other is to corroborate other information gathered by a surveillance officer. The section supervisor must be informed of all photographic surveillance, according to the manual.

The special intelligence section is responsible for monitoring events that ‘“have serious national and/or international ramifications, should violence or disorder ensue’” and ‘“groups or individuals advocating violence against government operations, police officers or public officials or violence among political, racial, religious or ethnic groups.’”

The manual states that ‘“the political beliefs or preferences of any individual, group or organization are not, per se, of concern to the public security function’” of the police, but goes on to state that the activities of political groups come under scrutiny when there is ‘“a reasonable possibility that those activities may result in violence, property damage, crowd control problems or disruption of government functions.’”

Rudinger said the Greensboro police’s surveillance activity at the World Can’t Wait event fits a pattern of domestic surveillance by both local and federal law enforcement agencies. Around the time of the presidential election in 2004, a handful of groups at NC State University in Raleigh that had been active in a weekly peace vigil against the war reported to the ACLU that they had experienced increasing surveillance. In May 2005, following a Freedom Of Information Act request to the FBI, the government released records confirming some of the activists’ fears.

‘“In fact, they had been conducting surveillance on one of the groups, Food Not Bombs,’” Rudinger said. ‘“It’s just a peace group that believes feeding people is better than blowing them up. The file we received on Food Not Bombs was heavily redacted. It was hard to say what was in it, but it did confirm that they were keeping a file on them.’”

(Full disclosure: This writer volunteers weekly with the Greensboro chapter of Food Not Bombs by preparing food and sharing it outside the downtown branch of the Greensboro Public Library.)

‘“There’s been an increase overall in domestic surveillance in innocent First Amendment activity since 9-11, and that has a chilling effect,’” Rudinger said. ‘“I can give you two examples of how it had a chilling effect on the students at NC State. First of all, they were told by fellow students, ‘Gee, I would come to your protest, but I don’t want to end up on some kind of list.’ The second way there was a chilling effect is that the group reported to us that when there is a new person they had to ask themselves, ‘Is this someone who genuinely wants to join, or are they conducting surveillance on our group?””

Saba, the Guilford College student arrested in January, said that despite having to spend $2,000 on court and legal fees, and perform about 50 hours of community service he remains undeterred in his commitment to his political beliefs.

‘“[After the arrests] there was this grandmother who was in tears,’” Saba said. ‘“She said, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing. You’re trying to create something better for everybody. I want my granddaughter to be able to live freely like I did.’ That was incredibly moving.’”

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