A jury in Ann Arbor, Michigan took four and a half hours on the evening of December 3 to acquit Catherine Wilkerson of two criminal misdemeanor charges stemming from an incident in November 2006. Wilkerson’s alleged “crimes” consisted of intervening to assist an unconscious man who in her estimate was in grave risk of asphyxiation after an Ann Arbor cop had inflicted unnecessary and sadistic force, and a paramedic had compounded the brutality by breaking three ampoules of ammonia under the unconscious man’s nose, saying, “You don’t like that, do you.”
The entire case is a parable of current trends: the criminalization of free speech; prosecutions intended to chill lawful protest; out-of-control police conduct; a spaniel press; and most sinister of all, a witch-hunting posture towards anything a cop or a prosecutor can construe as “radical terrorism”. This posture is embodied in its most sinister guise by the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007, passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 404-6 earlier this year and now under review by a committee of the U.S. Senate.
Catherine Wilkerson runs a medical clinic for poor people in Ann Arbor. She was not arrested in the November 30, 2006 episode, which I described here last week as the case went to trial. The charges came later, clearly at the instigation of the University of Michigan and intended as a warning that exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech and protest would be dealt with harshly. Although Wilkerson was acquitted we should note that she spent unpleasant months awaiting her days in court, aware that a guilty verdict could have grave professional consequences. In a just world the president of the University of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman, who signed off on this malicious witch hunt by her campus cops, working in cahoots with the Ann Arbor PD, would now spend as many months as Wilkerson wondering whether she had a professional future.
Both the campus cops and the Ann Arbor PD conducted themselves in a manner that should have resulted, should still result, in officers being disciplined or dismissed. Seven weeks after the November 2006 incident the campus police compiled a report stuffed with lies, designed to persuade the credulous that at least six armed police enforcers, somehow stood at risk from Wilkerson, as one of their number–a hulking brute–sadistically inflicted PPCT tactics on his physically slight and unresisting captive. “PPCT” stands for Pressure Point Control Tactics, the application of pressure to selected points on the victim’s head and neck. As complacently described on one site, “The application of these pressure points is to control passive or defensive resistance and are highly effective no matter what the size or strength level of the officer.” “Passive resistance” in this case meant no resistance at all, a state duly rewarded by the punitive application of ammonia to the victim by a medical tech complicit in this exercise of “law enforcement”.
It should be noted that a vigilant press could have torn this report to shreds and possibly averted the prosecution that followed. The Ann Arbor News’s reporting, as well as that of the Michigan Daily, was disgraceful from start to finish, to a level that objective assessment can justifiably stigmatize as complicity with the police and barely concealed hostility to Wilkerson, very possibly because her political activities have included solidarity with the Palestinian cause. This depressing example of shoddy journalism was balanced by very useful internet reporting before and during the trial done by the Committee to Defend Catherine Wilkerson.
The jackboot state in its local guise here took the form of the Washtenaw County Prosecutor, Brian Mackie, and assistant prosecutor Margaret Connors who, incredibly, tried to add additional charges before and during the trial. Remember that this entire legal arsenal was brought to bear on a woman who at no point did anything other than offer verbal medical advice aimed at protecting the life of an unconscious man in danger of asphyxiation. During the trial Connors made frequent efforts to demonstrate to the jury that defense witness bore the taint of having been involved in radical activities–otherwise known as lawful exercise of rights of free speech and assembly, including efforts to defend Wilkerson’s rights. To quote from the Committee to Defend’s daily web report,
During cross-examination of the witnesses who came to protest last year, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Margaret Connors highlighted the political motivations of this prosecution by frequently asking protesters about their protest history as if regularly exercising your First Amendment rights somehow makes you an untrustworthy ‘repeat offender.’ This is a police state mentality, pure and simple, one where criticizing the government makes you a suspect when your testimony contradicts the official story of police and prosecutor. At times, Connors’ courtroom antics have been laughable but
there is nothing funny about the (mis)use of state power to silence or punish government critics. One witness was also excluded at the prosecution’s request due to involvement with these updates and defendwilkerson.org, demonstrating what we already knew-police and prosecutors cruise the internet and use it to collect ‘criminal intelligence.’
“Heroes: Bill Wilkerson, [Catherine’s husband] who taught me about Ho Chi Minh, another hero and about the immorality of the US war against Vietnam.” The prosecutor made specific reference to Ho Chi Minh and his status as a hero. The intent of this line of questioning seemed to be to stress Dr. Wilkerson’s politics in an effort discredit her and her fellow protesters as dishonest radicals who contrived the whole incident last year as “political theater.”
The defense seems to have been fortunate in having a reasonable judge, Elizabeth Pollard-Hines, and–above all–a jury which had no difficulty in throwing out the absurd charges and discounting Connors’ accusations and inferences. Wilkerson’s lead attorney Buck Davis opened his final speech to the jury about telling them they should thank Wilkerson for giving them opportunity to defend the US constitution and that the University of Michigan and Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie were trying to criminalize speech and protest. So they were. In this instance they failed, albeit against a darkening national backdrop.
On October 23, 2007, the House of Representatives passed the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 by a vote of 404-6. The nays were: Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), Jerry Costello (D-IL), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), John Duncan (R-TN).
Where was Barbara Lee? She voted for it. Ron Paul? His staff says he was campaigning in New Hampshire. Where were the other few protectors of the Constitution?
There are many lessons in the Wilkerson case and her victory — of which the central one is solidarity: Wilkerson’s fidelity to her medical principles; her supporters’ efforts in her defense; overall, solidarity in support of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights against its many assailants.