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Locking The Public Out Of Public Trials In Chicago

Your Rights Aren’t Worth Crap

by CHRIS GEOVANIS

Public trials are one of the fundamental tenets of American democracy. And they’ve been cancelled in Chicago, at least for the trial of the NATO 3 — three defendants battling terrorism charges for alleged ‘crimes’ wholly instigated, manufactured and advanced by undercover cops in a blatant case of entrapment. But you’ll be hard pressed to determine this for yourself, since you’re essentially banned from the courtroom unless you’re willing to surrender your right to privacy, your right to even a glimmer of free expression, or your right as a non-corporate reporter to cover the case in real time like your corporate colleagues can.

Government officials are forcing every member of the public seeking to observe the NATO 3 trial to ‘pre-register’, produce a government-issued ID, submit to a criminal background check — and, of course, trust them with your data.

This last bit is spectacularly hard to swallow, as news continues to come out about the extent of government spying and data-mining on perfectly lawful activity like talking on the phone. Government agencies have surveilled and disrupted the Occupy movement, to which the defendants had a loose affiliation, simply for existing, and we’ve barely begun to plumb the depths of cop spying in the run-up to Chicago’s NATO protest — and beyond. For Chicagoans, this comes in the wake of the Chicago cops’ notorious history of political spying, disruption and assassination going back to the days of the infamous COINTELPRO Red Squad.

In fact, there would be no criminal case against the three defendants if the city’s autocratic former mayor, Richard M. Daley, hadn’t finally succeeded in convincing the federal court in 2001 to effectively gut the Red Squad Consent Decree banning police spying, infiltration, harassment, intimidation and undercover disruption of political activity. The hollowed out decree was ultimately dissolved in 2009.

Attorneys for the NATO defendants have argued in a court finding that the ‘terrorism’ scheme they’re charged with is based on “idle chatter, laced with bravado and abetted, encouraged and egged on by the undercover police agents.” There was no actual act of vandalism committed, and there certainly was no act of ‘terror’ committed — unless you’re feeling terrorized by the prospect of undercover cops inciting thought crimes to dirty up your political beliefs. But there was, essentially, a law enforcement scheme to incite crime where no crime had been committed, wholly fomented by undercover cops engaged in manufacturing criminality — cop behavior that would have been illegal under the Red Squad consent decree.

Meanwhile, public officials continue to invoke the ‘terrorism’ meme in the NATO trial as part of a criminal prosecution that has consistently conflated dissent with criminality. And they’re taking no chances on uncontrolled spin in the case.

Besides making members of the public surrender their privacy rights to attend the trial, they’re enforcing the courts’ recently imposed ban on cell phones, lest people who CAN get in report from the ground, and have told those who are willing to ‘pre-register’ that officials are giving priority seating to those who then RE-register to attend a day before each trial date. You don’t re-register? You take your chances at getting a seat the following day. At one point, the judge even considered banning pencils and paper from the courtroom.

New rules for non-corporate reporters are equally extreme. Officials are imposing restrictions that effectively ban freelance reporters and reporters with non-corporate and non-traditional media from the kind of access and privileges — including the right to carry their cell phones — that corporate reporters will be afforded.

“It is my sense going into this trial that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office will be putting on a trial that undermines the public’s right to access much more than the US military did during Manning’s court martial,” writes Firedoglake reporter Kevin Gosztola. He should know, since he covered the Manning trial daily — and his most recent piece on the NATO 3 trial is a compelling and disturbing summary of the state’s dubious basis for its terrorism allegations.

The state’s scheme to effectively ban the public from a public — and publicly funded — trial is part of a long-standing official pattern to harass, arrest and undermine those who dissent in Chicago. For years, activists in Chicago had to fight in court for permission to rally and march against the Iraq war, and protesters have routinely been subject to arrest simply for attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights. More broadly, the restrictions that local government overlords have imposed on public access and public oversight in the NATO trial are part of a national effort to rebrand dissent as inherently dangerous.

Judge Wilson has also issued a disingenuously named ‘decorum’ order that sets the stage for massive courtroom repression. The edict is so sweeping that one could conceivably be ejected from the courtroom and cited for criminal contempt for the ‘crime’ of raising your eyebrows or shaking your head at testimony — or even smiling at a defendant. The order also bans political buttons, t-shirts, armbands and perhaps even particular colors — we won’t know until we show up wearing red or black or both. If you get up to take a leak, you can’t get back into the courtroom until the judge calls a recess — and in the jury selection of the phase, court sometimes ran past 9PM, so empty your bladder early.

Wilson has also consistently ruled in the prosecution’s favor in terms of what evidence will and will not be admissible. And in one of the judge’s worst rulings, Wilson has asserted that that police are included under the terrorism definition of the state statute under which the defendants are being tried, which defines terrorism as “intent to coerce a significant portion of the civilian population.”

In short, the testimony of the undercover cops who manufactured the conditions for a ‘crime’ to be alleged should be treated like any testimony from any ‘civilian’. Jurors could essentially be asked to embrace the legal fiction that these undercover cops felt ‘coerced’ into the self-same crime they themselves were attempting to create and incite. This ruling essentially privileges testimony from cops in a police department whose officers routinely tell flat-out lies with impunity to bolster their cases.

It bears emphasizing that the undercover cops at the heart of this case are not civilians. They’re the undercover cops who told court officials they ‘lost’ a shitload of text messages that could have been exculpatory for the NATO 3 defense team — this in an age when virtually any electronic traffic anywhere lives somewhere, including in the NSA’s vast databases. Except when the NSA’s pals in the Chicago police department lose that electronic traffic. They’re the undercover cops who actually manufactured the conditions in which they could allege a crime under the notoriously vague and little used state terrorism statute under which the NATO 3 are charged. 

This is just as dunderheaded as the only other instance in which this state terrorism statute has been used to charge someone. In that case, the state convicted a college student for making a terrorist threat — even though he actually did no such thing — after cops searched his unoccupied car and found some crappy and inflammatory rap lyrics scribbled on a piece of paper. The state circuit court in that case sentenced the student — a Black man in a largely white community — to five years in prison. An appellate court later tossed out that conviction. Blacks, dissidents — hey, this state terrorism statute is perfect for Illinois’ law enforcement community!

Secret trials are abhorrent. That’s why the nation’s founders, whatever their other manifest flaws, banned them. Secret trials built on the testimony of undercover cops given broad license to manufacture and incite criminal activity to entrap defendants is particularly revolting and deeply dangerous to all of us.

“The NATO 3 trial is not about terrorism,” says Andy Thayer, who helped organize 2012’s protests against the NATO meeting. “This trial is about the government using hype ABOUT terrorism to pursue a political agenda, and as such represents a fundamental mis-use of the justice system, if we are to believe the words of the U.S. Constitution.”

The political agenda of the Cook County States Attorneys Office — the prosecutors of record of the NATO 3 and others criminally charged around the 2012 NATO protests — has included a stubborn commitment to defend its own most egregious miscarriages of justice. Cook County States Attorney and career Chicago prosecutor Anita Alvarez, who’s not been shy about chasing media face time in the NATO cases, has historically embraced the worst sorts of police excess and abuse — including cops who torture, lie and murder.

Alvarez’ local prosecutorial agenda dovetails with allied schemes in national and local government to support increasingly militarized police forces which hustle funding for their agencies on the public dime, and promote the careers of “security” industry professionals — many of whom are former members of these self-same militarized police forces.

Those self-same law enforcement agencies are also perfectly happy to collude with corporations to suppress dissent that those corporations deem unhelpful — what journalist Naomi Wolf has described as “totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent.” 

To support this agenda in Chicago, authorities are using the tried and true tactic of terrifying people into signing off on their most fundamental civil liberties — including any vestiges of privacy rights — for the ‘privilege’ of attending a public criminal trial rooted in police misdeeds. More than a few activists who assembled in Chicago in May 2012 to oppose the murderous war agenda of NATO have said they simply will not submit to the state’s draconian terms to attend the NATO 3 trial. And in that respect, the state has succeeded in locking out some of the people with the most at stake in a ‘public’ trial in which defense attorneys have been consistently thwarted in their effort to expose law enforcement’s schemes to derail dissent and manufacture crime.

The Chicago police and their overlord, Rahm “Mayor 1%” Emanuel, worked mightily to make the city safe during the NATO protests for the worst sorts of corporate criminals and their military backers. Emanuel and Alvarez remain strong allies in a shared dystopian vision of civic life in a city that routinely criminalizes people of color and undermines the fundamental tenets of economic and social justice. It’s no accident that Mayor 1% backs privatization schemes in critical public endeavors that range from education to health — just as States’ Attorney Anita Alvarez backs privatizing this critically important public trial.

So, who are the real terrorists?

Chris Geovanis is a Chicago media activist, advocacy journalist and member of the HammerHard MediaWorks collective. You can reach her via Twitter @heavyseas, via her Facebook page or at chrisgeovanis(at)gmail.com