Housing organizer Camilo Viveiros couldn’t figure out why one tenant was afraid to speak at a rally this past summer. Only after persistent questioning did the man finally admit his fear: “I don’t want to end up like you.” For the past three years, Viveiros has been organizing with a cloud over his head–allegations, which he denies, that he threw a bicycle at three police officers during a protest at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. He faces eleven charges, including two counts of aggravated assault, which could carry over thirty years in prison.
Along with two others facing lesser charges, Viveiros is the last of the convention protesters to go to trial, scheduled for this spring in Philadelphia. What makes him special? One of the officers Viveiros allegedly attacked is John Timoney, then-Philadelphia police commissioner, who has waged an almost personal war against protesters. On the eve of protests planned for the meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Miami, where Timoney is now chief of police, the case of the so-called Timoney Three could further chill the atmosphere for First Amendment dissent. The chill is already pushing zero, thanks to the Patriot Act, and gives the green light for tactics like those used in Philly.
The 2000 GOP convention set a benchmark for repression by police, who secretly infiltrated activist groups and pre-emptively arrested dozens on trumped-up charges of conspiracy. Tensions boiled over when police on bicycles swooped down on a peaceful march, knocking heads and arresting people en masse, then holding them on bail of up to $1 million. Of the 420 arrested, more than half the cases have been thrown out. Only a few dozen have led to convictions, all on misdemeanors, with the rest disposed of through voluntary fines or probation, according to activists.
Viveiros has been pursued with special vigor. After a judge threw out most of the charges against him for lack of evidence, prosecutors fought to reinstate them, finally winning on appeal. For his part, Viveiros not only denies assaulting Timoney but says he himself was attacked from behind by other officers, his head rammed against the pavement until he blacked out. The first time he even knew the charges against him, he says, was when the commissioner shocked him by pointing him out during a preliminary hearing. “I thought when they say your jaw drops, that was just a poetic phrase,” says the soft-spoken Viveiros, sitting at a fair-trade coffee shop in Providence, where he now lives. “I had to grit my teeth to keep them from chattering.” Witnesses and video footage of the march contradict much of the police account, and supporters speculate that the case is one of mistaken identity at best, since Viveiros was arrested in the area Timoney was patrolling.
Viveiros hardly fits the profile of a violent agitator. He’s spent the past eight years organizing tenants near the same blue-collar Massachusetts community where he grew up, and his supporters include directors of local nonprofits, the Boston City Council president and two US congressmen. “He is not a violent man by any means,” says Representative Barney Frank, who has worked with Viveiros on housing issues. “He’s a very decent, low-key person dedicated to poverty issues [who was] exercising his First Amendment rights. This seems to me a clear case of unfairness.”
While Viveiros has spent the past few years distracted by the court battle, Timoney has ridden the case into the national spotlight. Known as a hard-brawling cop from New York–where he led the brutal response to the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988–Timoney bolstered that reputation in dozens of national media appearances after the Republican convention. In several, he used the alleged tussle to demonstrate his personal role in battling what he called a “cadre, if you will, of criminal conspirators who…cause mayhem and cause property damage and cause violence in major cities in America.” In 2001, Timoney turned his new national standing into a lucrative consulting position, planning security for events like the World Economic Forum in New York–where he compared protesters to Osama bin Laden. More recently he helped train Iraqi police in Kirkuk and consulted for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Boston. He was tapped this year as police chief in Miami, which city officials hope to make the headquarters for the FTAA.
Already, Timoney has talked tough about the trade talks, pushing for an ordinance to make it illegal to carry signs on sticks or to have puppets in the streets. And the misinformation is flowing freely. A security consultant has told residents to expect anarchists armed with “wrist rockets” and “squirt guns filled with acid or urine,” and Timoney has warned about “basically spoiled rich kids coming down to try to provoke you.” Raising the specter of Philly, Timoney even recounted his alleged scuffle with Viveiros to a reporter, bragging that he picked a fight with the “biggest guy” there (Viveiros is a slight 5’9″). Such posturing makes the charges against Viveiros more suspect, and the chances that more activists will “end up like him” after Miami, more likely. “If this can happen to Camilo,” says a fellow housing organizer, “it could happen to anyone.”