by Alexander Cockburn
the book at people is nothing new, but in our post 9/11 world, the screws are tightening. Take San Francisco, whose district attorney, Terence Hallinan, has the reputation of being an unusually progressive fellow.
Yet this is the same District Attorney Hallinan who's hit two gay men who are AIDS activists with an escalating barrage of charges, currently amounting to 36 alleged felonies and misdemeanors, all adding up to what he has stigmatized in the local press as "terrorism."
Held in San Francisco county jail since Nov. 28 of last year are Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli. Neither man has been able to make bail, which Hallinan successfully requested to be set at $500,000 for Petrelis and $600,000 for Pasquarelli.
Why this astonishing bail? What it boils down to is that the two accused are dissidents notorious for raising all kinds of inconvenient, sometimes obscene hell about AIDS issues. They've long been detested by San Francisco's AIDS establishment, which Petrelis, in particular, has savaged as being disfigured by overpaid executives, ineffective HIV prevention campaigns and all-round complacency and sloth.
They've taken kooky positions. Pasquarelli, for example, believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Petrelis hasn't scrupled to form alliances with right-wingers in Congress when it suits his tactical book. Being attacked by them can be an unpleasant experience. Who wants to get phoned in the middle of the night and, as one recipient alleges, be asked, "Are you there, or do you have a syphilitic penis in your mouth performing oral sex?"
The two were thrown in jail because of an escalating campaign they launched late last year amidst calls for an expansion of quarantining laws across the country, prompted by fears of bio-terrorism. Petrelis and Pasquarelli took after a San Francisco public health official, Jeffrey Klausner, for seeming to have endorsed the quarantining of people with AIDS. They also applied increasing pressure on the media, notably the San Francisco Chronicle, for relaying what the two claimed were inflated statistics about increases in the rates of syphilis and HIV in San Francisco. The higher the stats, the more dollars flow to various AIDS bureaucracies.
The Chronicle claims tremulously that not only had its reporters been showered with filthy nocturnal calls to their homes, but that there had been a bomb threat against the paper.
What does this amount to? After all, if convicted on these charges, Petrelis and Pasquarelli could face years in prison.
On the basis of what has surfaced so far, the charges and the bail are way out of kilter with the apparent facts of the case. Indeed, the charges against Petrelis and Pasquarelli defy logical explanation, unless we acknowledge the venom and loathing the pair inspire in the respectable element in San Francisco and among some well-known political organizers.
Take Kate Sorensen, an AIDS activist who herself was held on $1 million bail for leading demonstrations outside the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia two summers ago. The D.A. in that city took her to trial on three felonies, though she ended up convicted of a misdemeanor. Such experiences have not evoked any solidarity in Sorensen for the imprisoned San Francisco pair. Wrote Sorensen recently, "I will fight for our right to demonstrate. I will fight for our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not fight for you."
Sorensen's self-righteous stance was elicited by an open letter of concern addressing the prosecution of Petrelis and Pasquarelli. Organized by the radical gay civil libertarian Bill Dobbs of Queer Watch, the open letter has been signed by hundreds, including many well-known gay figures such as Harvey Fierstein, Scott Tucker, Barbara Smith and Judy Greenspan. The letter questions the motivation for the charges and makes the scarcely extremist demand that the two get fair legal treatment and reasonable bail.
Moderate though the terms of the Dobbs letter are, it has aroused much hostility, not only from Sorensen but from the San Francisco gay establishment, whose animus against Petrelis and Pasquarelli was what apparently prompted Hallinan to have the pair charged and arrested in the first place.
Time was when a decent death threat used to be a badge of honor in the Fourth Estate. Jimmy Breslin recently recalled to Dobbs his "Son of Sam" days when violent threats were so routine at the New York Daily News that the paper's switchboard operator was wont to ask such callers whether they were registering "general death threats" or "specific death threats for Mr. Breslin."
Granted, he's a terror survivor of Attack by Lizard in the L.A. Zoo, and granted that his wife Sharon Stone is the marquee celebrity for one of Petrelis' targets, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, but Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein should remember that Daily News phone operator and get his paper off its prosecutorial high horse.
Hallinan's got a radical past, and even radical pretensions. He knows as well as anyone that conspiracy charges have long been used to smash protest. And he knows as well as anyone that militant protest is at the cutting edge of social conscience. It's easy to grandstand about the foul tactics, the obscenities, the all-round vulgarity of Pasquarelli and Petrelis, but does this add up to a demand that they get thrown into prison for many years? It doesn't, and the only reason is that post 9/11 prosecutors feel that a terrorism rap is their magic bullet. Hallinan should get his sense of perspective back and drop the drastic charges.
January 31, 2002 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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