Gwen Shaffer is a freelance reporter who lives in Philadelphia. She has filed pieces for Columbia Journalism Review, E/ The Environmental Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine and the Ottawa Sun. She spent four years as a staff writer for the Philadelphia City Paper, where she covered local politics and events. Prior to moving to Philadelphia, Shaffer held several editorial positions at National Public Radio in Washington.
On August 1, 2000, Philadelphia police rounded up seventy-five activists inside a West Philadelphia warehouse. It was the second day of the Republican National Convention, and the activists had been making papier-mâché puppets, which they planned to use during street demonstrations. The Philadelphia district attorney ultimately charged the activists with a slew of misdemeanors, including conspiracy to obstruct the law and resisting arrest. These self-anointed puppetistas were kept in jail until after the Republicans had dropped the last of their balloons from the First Union Center rafters.
Ultimately, charges against all the puppet makers were dismissed. Last summer more than a third of them sued the city over alleged violations of their civil rights. They assumed their cases would be strong enough to net not only substantial cash payments but significant reform in the police department. Now it looks like they'll be getting neither.
The reason, they say, is the unusually aggressive tactics of the law firm representing the city in these cases. Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin attempted to depose plaintiffs' lawyers, arguing that they encouraged protesters to engage in civil disobedience, get themselves arrested and clog the city's jails. The firm has subpoenaed activists' address books, personal tax records and entire computer hard drives. Its lawyers hired investigators to question former spouses and flew across the country to interrogate witnesses.
About twenty-seven civil suits stemming from puppet warehouse arrests are now being settled out of court. A transcript from a June 18 hearing spells out the details of the agreement for twenty-four of the cases, which have been consolidated under Traci Franks v. the City of Philadelphia. It says that plaintiffs agree to accept $72,000, which will be divvied up between two nonprofit groups: the Spiral Q Puppet Theater and Books Through Bars. The figure was derived by awarding $3,000 to each of the twenty-four plaintiffs. (Separate settlements are being negotiated for the suits filed by warehouse owner Michael Graves and two other activists.)
In July the Traci Franks file was sealed, and a gag order forbids any of the parties involved from discussing details. But whatever the final dollar amount ends up being, the settlement agreement won't drain city coffers of a dime because it's all covered by insurance.
The host committee for the RNC, a group of high-profile Philadelphians, paid $100,000 for an insurance policy seven months prior to the convention. The policy specifically covers up to $3 million for personal injury arising from claims of false arrest and wrongful imprisonment, malicious prosecution and violation of civil rights. The insurer, Lexington Insurance Company in Boston, hired Hangley Aronchick to handle the civil suits. During the June 18 hearing Hangley Aronchick attorney David Wolfsohn implied that the insurance carrier may even be able to claim a tax deduction for contributing the $72,000 settlement to charity.
Many activists agreed to settle because they fear that turning over more e-mails and meeting minutes to city attorneys could compromise future legal protests, should documents wind up in government hands. They also decided to throw in the towel when it became clear the city would not agree to a reform of police procedures. In this post-September 11 world, law enforcement agencies are expanding their scope, not narrowing it.
People embarked on these suits to get injunctive relief, says Kris Hermes, a member of for the R2K Legal Collective. Because that wasn't happening, there was less incentive to carry on.
Plus, plaintiffs are doubtful a jury would be sympathetic to political dissenters, given the current political climate. "There is a deep desire on the part of many Americans to see police officers as the bulwark protecting them, and they don't want to confront anything indicating officers have the power to abuse us," says Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Stefan Presser.
But the biggest obstacle is that the activists' attorneys want out as quickly as possible. They accepted the puppetista cases on contingency fees, and they simply can't keep pace with a major law firm eager to rack up billable hours.
Angus Love, director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, was subpoenaed and deposed by Hangley Aronchick because he worked as a legal observer during the RNC. He says the city usually does a half-assed job of litigating these cases. "But now we have a private law firm that is used to a higher level of attack," Love says. Wolfsohn is going after political protesters as if they were right-wing terrorists.
Attorneys on both sides of the lawsuits, as well as Philadelphia officials, declined to comment for this story. At the time of the warehouse raid, however, Mayor John Street was vocal on the subject. As hundreds of criminal charges were being processed on August 2, 2000, Street told reporters that he fully expected the city to be sued. "But we expect that we will defend the city.... We will defend our police department to the Supreme Court if necessary," he said.
Presser was among the attorneys Hangley Aronchick had hoped to depose. He characterizes the request as extremely unusual, noting only one similar situation during his twenty years of practicing law. Hangley Aronchick has also subpoenaed people ranging from well-known activists to plaintiffs' relatives.
Matthew Hart, the director of the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, was ordered to turn over all his e-mails, date books and phone records. He characterizes his oral deposition as bizarre and perfunctory.
"Attorneys for the city inferred this massive conspiracy that I don't even think the people involved had the capacity to pull off," Hart says. "I think their biggest intention was to move as slowly as possible and bill more hours."
Traci Schlesinger, the lead plaintiff in the consolidated suit, says her deposition brought to mind the McCarthy era.
"It seemed as though he hoped to prove I was an anarchist, and then it would be legitimate for police to arrest me," Schlesinger says.