A Local Victory Against Police Repression

by Richard Hugus

March 19, 2006

On March 7, 2006, after two years of hearings and as many as 16 court dates at the Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston, charges against Richard Picariello were finally dismissed. Richard is a well known Boston antiwar activist who was targeted and arrested by Boston Police in March 2004 on two separate occasions – once while handing out antiwar leaflets near the Park Street T, and again for being present at a protest against a Bush fundraising event in Boston.

The charges in the first arrest were for "stickering" (putting up an adhesive sign in a public place), disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest . The MBTA police who made the arrest provided no evidence of the crime of stickering. They relied on a police informant who claimed to be a caretaker of an office building across the street from the T station. The informant said he was upset with antiwar messages being placed on a public utility box on the sidewalk outside his building, and of the trouble he had to take to remove them. Richard's lawyers had pictures of this same utility box with the message "Death To Arabs" written on it, which no one had taken the trouble to remove, indicating that the informant's anger may not have been about stickering but about the politics of opposing the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, Richard Picariello was not stickering; he was handing out antiwar leaflets, and he was set up by a right wing informer who, during testimony, also showed signs of being emotionally unbalanced. Resisting arrest and disorderly conduct charges are so routine in political arrests that no one takes them seriously. The police were unable to provide evidence for these charges either.

The second arrest happened in the midst of a protest at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel where George W. Bush was attending at a posh Republican Party fundraiser. In the streets outside the hotel were some 4,000 Boston area residents protesting Bush's policies of war and aggression. The protesters spoke for Haiti, for Palestine, for Iraq , for organized labor, and many other issues. They loudly voiced their disgust, from behind police lines, at the $1,000-a-plate dinners being served to the wealthy Bush supporters inside the hotel. Richard was caught on a side street away from the main area of the protest, this time by special police force called the JTTF, or "Joint Terrorism Task Force." With 4,000 people yelling and beating drums, Richard alone was charged with disorderly conduct. He was arrested because he had been profiled beforehand and specifically targeted. The police were careful to make the arrest in a place where there were no witnesses.

At issue in the second case was the "intelligence" upon which the plainclothes Boston/federal police were acting when they made the arrest. Over the course of two years of court appearances and repeated requests, Richard's lawyers were unable to obtain a file, dossier, briefing notes, or any other information which the Joint Terrorism Task Force used to target Richard. The Assistant District Attorney claimed there was no file, but this was not the case.  A Boston police official who worked in an "intelligence" unit during the time of the arrest, and who was subpoenaed by Richard's lawyers on the last day of the two day trial, admitted under oath that the police had files on Richard and other political activists going back 30 years. He said that the police have briefings on the events of left political activists in Boston every week. In short, intelligence gathering on political activists is routine.

To put this in context, March 2004 was a the time of preparation for the 2004 presidential elections. Richard's picture had recently been published on the front page in the "New York Sun" in a frontal attack on antiwar and social justice forces whom the right wanted to associate with terrorism. The New York police were involved in this attack because of the Republican National Convention in New York. The Boston police were involved because they sought massive funding for protection against the threat of "terrorism" at the August 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Terrorism is a massive make-work program for the police in general, and terrorists must be invented to make a case.

Other examples of profiling were Boston police video surveillance tapes obtained through a FOIA request which showed numerous pictures and "mug shots" of Richard, along with a score of other activists in Boston, at various antiwar rallies. In another case, Boston Police carried around pictures of Richard at an equal marriage rights rally at the State House, asking people if they knew him.

The entire two years of what amounted to judicial harassment saw an elaborate shell game being played by the police and the District Attorney – one in which the evidence under the shell was never produced. The judge hearing the case finally found that the Commonwealth's failure to comply with discovery had gone on long enough, and dismissed the charges against Richard.

This case was important because it proved that local police and the federal government have allied under the pretext of fighting terrorism in order to profile and arrest people exercising free speech in opposition to the policies of the Bush administration. Further, it showed that the police feel the information they collect on the political activities of people in this country is privileged, that they can use it to make arrests, and that they cannot be forced to provide it even by the courts where their targets are later tried. This is the same as the use of "secret evidence" by the US in other cases, where people are arrested as "terrorists" but aren't allowed to see the evidence upon which they were accused. It is well known in activist circles that the recently uncovered domestic spying being carried out by the Bush administration is not new – it's been going on for many years.

Key to the victory in this trial was the consistent presence of numerous supporters in the courtroom, which reminded the authorities that people were watching and cared about this case. Also key was the pro-bono work of Richard's defense lawyers, John Pavlos and Daniel Beck. The ACLU provided a lawyer in the end, which helped to underscore the fact that the issue was one of civil liberties.