The Prosecution of Petrelis and Pasquarelli

by Alexander Cockburn

Throwing the book at people is nothing new, but in our post 9/11 world the screws are tightening. Take San Francisco, whose District Attorney is Terence “Kayo” Hallinan, regarded by many with some justification as a progressive fellow. Indeed in his 2000 reelection bid Hallinan survived years of abuse in the San Francisco Chronicle for supposedly being altogether too slack a prosecutor, with poor conviction rates and kindred offenses betokening softness on crime.

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”. Terrorism’s a trigger word these days, as Sara Jane Olson, aka Kathy Soliah, recently discovered when a judge put her away for twenty years to life for acts back in the 1970s.

Held in San Francisco county jail since November 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 spikes in the rates of syphilis and HIV in San Francisco. The higher the stats, the more dollars flow to various AIDS bureaucracies.

The Chronicle claimed 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. As a gay activist puts it, “I do think the culprits in this sordid affair are the awful people who went to the police after what seemed to me to be silly phone calls that obviously were not threatening. That department of public health guy should be fired from his job and sent packing for going to the police. These people rip gays and lesbians off, get well paid for it, then when someone tries to make them accountable they go running to the cops to do even more dirty work. It’s embarrassing to be a part of a community that forgets its activist past and falls so quickly in league with the Bush/Ashcroft-send-everyone-to-jail-that-we don’t-like-in-the-name-of-fighting-terrorism crowd.”

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 DA 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 (go to the site www.openletteronline.com and look under politics, then petrelis/pasquarelli) 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, a point emphasised eloquently by Chris Farrell in a public response to Sorensen.

“I am shocked,” Farrell wrote to Sorensen, “that you don’t support free speech or the right to demonstrate-but only ‘our’ right to free speech and ‘our’ right to demonstrate. Apparently Petrelis and Pasquarelli are part of a ‘them’ who don’t deserve these rights. I don’t think you can claim to fight ‘this police state’ when you are willing to ignore prosecutions designed to chill dissent so long as the targets are people you don’t approve of. It may be convenient to have the cops lock up your opponents, but it isn’t good politics. Your resistance to the ideology and activities of ACT UP San Francisco is demeaned if you accept the FBI as an ally. A genuine commitment to civil liberties requires support for the rights of everyone, and a test of that commitment comes when it’s the rights of people we despise that are at risk. The letter seeks ‘fair legal treatment’ and ‘reasonable bail’ for Pasquarelli and Petrelis. If you value those principles, despite your anger over the tactics of ACT UP San Francisco, your endorsement of these very simple demands could be a powerful act of conscience.” Sorensen never responded.

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. On November 15 Martin Delaney of Project Inform, Mike Shriver of the Mayor’s office and fifteen others, published a letter in the Bay Area Reporter urging people to pressure Hallinan, demanding “full prosecution of Pasquarelli, Petrelis and their collaborators.”

Petrelis and Pasquarelli have a potent posse howling for their heads. “They fucked with the wrong people,” said a health official quoted in the San Francisco Examiner on January 23. The “wrong people” include a broad swath of liberals and leftists in and out of government, the AIDS establishment and media figures, and commentators including Petrelis’ erstwhile admirer Andrew Sullivan and Michelangelo Signorile, who attacked Petrelis and Pasquarelli in the New York Press in a letter that drew the following admiring note: “Michelangelo Signorile: I am a sergeant/inspector with the San Francisco Police Dept. I am the inspector who put together the case involving David Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis. I am also a lesbian. I thought your article was well-written and to the point. I have read your stuff over the years, and respect your viewpoint. Keep on writing. Lea Militello, San Francisco.”

The “wrong people” can get real nasty. On November 13, according to ACT UP San Francisco (of which Pasquarelli is a leading light) an official complaint of domestic terrorism was filed with the FBI by UCSF AIDS researcher Stephen Morin, former aide to Minority Whip Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca). Memos from Morin acquired by defense lawyers outline a plan to apply the domestic terrorism clause of the Anti-Terrorism Act to ACT UP SF as early as October 25, 2001, before it was even signed into law.

Then, on November 19, 2001 there was a meeting of officials from UCSF, the Mayor’s AIDS Office and the FBI to discuss ACT UP San Francisco. An ACT UP press release claims that people attending that November 19 meeting included “gay gadfly and UCSF media representative Jeff Sheehy and the Mayor’s AIDS Policy Advisor, Michael Shriver, a former member of ACT UP San Francisco. Shriver was a member of the group in the late eighties and was involved in a number of controversial protests including shutting down the Golden Gate Bridge and the storming of San Francisco’s Opera House on opening night.”

In December the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI had declined to intervene. But as Dobbs says, “The bit of good news about the FBI declining action is far outweighed by the fact that Bureau apparently considered this outrageous invitation, also by the specter of the Patriot Act hanging over the heads of activists across the country.”

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 LA 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? Of course it doesn’t. Judge Parker Meeks Jr should resist the entreaties of the Posse and cut the preposterous bail drastically or release them on their own recognizance. Hallinan should get his sense of perspective back, and drop the drastic charges.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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