PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia district attorney on Tuesday flatly rejected a call for the dismissal of criminal charges against hundreds of protesters arrested during last week's Republican National Convention.
A group of defense lawyers held a news conference to demand that the administration of Mayor John Street negotiate with them over the fate of about 360 so-called R2K protesters who have been charged with misdemeanor or felony offenses.
Led by the National Lawyers Guild, a New York-based civil rights group, the lawyers called on Dist. Atty. Lynne Abraham to dismiss criminal charges against nonviolent offenders and eliminate bail for an estimated 325 defendants who face misdemeanors.
The group also said it was prepared to riddle the city with civil rights lawsuits on behalf of each protester arrested, while protest organizers threatened a hunger strike if the city did not begin negotiating today.
But Abraham's response was swift and unequivocal. "Get a life," she said through a spokeswoman. "It ain't gonna happen."
About 390 people were arrested in Philadelphia last week on charges stemming from an Aug. 1 mass demonstration that tied up downtown traffic and spawned sporadic violence in which 15 police officers were injured and nearly 30 city vehicles vandalized.
Unlike Seattle and Washington, D.C., where charges against many demonstrators involved in protests were dropped, Philadelphia has vowed to throw the book at those taken into custody.
Only 30 have been charged with summary offenses, the equivalent of a traffic citation. Most face second-degree misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to two years in prison.
The city also singled out alleged ringleaders for arrest on conspiracy charges and set bail levels at unusually high levels of up to $1 million.
Meanwhile, Police Commissioner John Timoney has repeatedly called for a federal investigation of those behind protests in Philadelphia, claiming the same people helped organize violent demonstrations against the World Trade Organization last year in Seattle and the World Bank last April in Washington.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which provided protest organizers with legal counsel during the convention, angered many protest sympathizers last week by dismissing claims that protesters had been mistreated in jail.
On Tuesday, the ACLU failed to join the National Lawyers Guild's press conference but did issue a statement criticizing Timoney and Abraham for "overreacting to the disruptions and vandalism" on Aug. 1.
Police said about 155 protesters remained in jail on Tuesday, all but 10 of them activists who have refused to give their names to police in a show of solidarity. Prosecutors have suggested they could be in jail for months.
But on Tuesday, 16 protesters were released on their own recognizance after dropping out of the solidarity effort.
Also freed was John Sellers, 33, who heads the Ruckus Society, a California-based group that schools activists in the art of civil disobedience.
He was jailed for a week on a string of misdemeanor charges with bail set initially at $1 million. On Monday, a judge reduced that to $100,000 and he was able to walk free after posting a $10,000 cash bond.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Lisa Richette also reduced bail from $500,000 to $100,000 for another alleged protest ringleader, 19-year-old Terrence McGuckin of Philadelphia.