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.