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No Activist Left Behind

I had arrived a little late last Friday to cover the protest outside the FBI building on McCarty Avenue. As I arrived I could feel the mix of excitement and outrage that was buzzing through the crowd; a number of people rushed up to tell me that someone had gotten arrested—for playing soccer in the street, “not even in the lane of traffic, and they didn’t even give him time to move after their first warning.”

It was a small arrest, in the scheme of things, and we could have long discussions about the strategy decisions and when it is appropriate to risk arrest. But the interaction carried an extra bit of weight for everyone there, since they had showed up to protest the erosion of our civil rights and the FBI’s spying on the peace movement. The talk was of the Patriot Act, FBI spying, and targeting of Muslims post-Sept. 11.

But much like we call on the current government to remember its past, to say that the fact that the United States nurtured and armed Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden is very relevant to what’s happening today, peace and global justice activists must also remember their past. Suppression of dissent is not new in this country, and part of fighting against it must be to support those who have suffered it, those who are targeted for being leaders, for being more visible, or just to be made examples of. The ones we’d rather not talk about because it makes it harder to get people to turn out to demonstrations, harder to feel safe doing what we must do.

I am thinking right now of Camilo (pronounced Camille; he’s Portuguese) Viveiros. In the summer of 2000—before the World Trade Center fell, before the Florida recount, when the possibility and promise of the large-scale demonstrations at the November 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle were still running strong in the veins of progressive activists—the Republican Convention was held in Philadelphia. Large and diverse protests were planned, and since Philly was the locus of the widely known case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, there was a day scheduled to focus on the theme of challenging the police brutality and bias in the criminal justice system.

Given this theme, you can see it as either ironic or appropriate that the police had infiltrated many of the protest groups, and shortly before the protests preemptively arrested many of activists in the oh-so- dangerous act of making puppets.

In one of the marches that day was a young man named Camilo, son of immigrants, a tenant organizer in the communities he grew up in, known to his friends as soft-spoken and gentle, but committed. He recently made the papers in Boston for his quest to find the owner of a diamond ring he found in a parking lot.

At the end of a long, difficult day of overtime shifts, the police have admitted riding their bicycles directly into a crowd. Camilo suffered a concussion and blacked out. When he woke he was charged with a multiple felonies for supposedly smashing a bicycle over Police Chief Timoney’s head. His bail was initially $450,000, and he faces 20-30 years in jail. His case—after most of the charges were thrown out for lack of evidence and then reinstated at the personal behest of Timoney—will be heard this coming April 5.

Timoney, who went on to direct the Miami police department’s recent efforts to corral the protests surrounding the FTAA, has been quoted in the newspaper as saying, “Unfortunately for me, I picked the biggest guy there.” Interesting—first, that he said “I picked” and second, because Camilo is by no accounts a big guy, either in height or girth. “Slender” comes to mind, even.

I can’t argue the case of Camilo’s innocence here in depth. You’ll have to make your own decision (see www.friendsofcamilo.org). But if we assume for a moment that in fact it is possible he has been framed, then the outcome of this case should be high on the radar screens of everyone working to protect our free society. The fear of unjust prosecution is a powerful deterrent to our power to dissent and demand that our government listen to us.

There are many who are willing to commit civil disobedience, and accept the consequences: an arrest, a fine, even some jail time, as befits trespass, disorderly conduct, or blocking traffic. But the fear of being the one picked out and charged with a felony, of losing most of one’s life to jail, is one fewer people are able to face. Some brave ones do, but we cannot expect everyone who disagrees with the government’s policies to be ready for that.

An article about Camilo in The Nation started with this anecdote: Camilo works as a tenant organizer. He was having trouble getting one of his tenants to agree to speak at a (legal, permitted) rally, and couldn’t understand why, until the tenant told him “I don’t want to end up like you.”

It was only a few months after Camilo’s arrest that George W. Bush stole the election. There was some outcry, but around the world people wondered at how little outcry there was, in the end, in this the hallowed grounds of democracy. I won’t say that’s all, or even mostly, Timoney’s fault, but I don’t think it’s unrelated either. The fear of “ending up” in jail is a very real one. And the exhaustion and wasted energy of those fighting legal battles like his rather than proactively seeking justice is also a very real drain on progressive movements.

“It’s been really tough,” says Matt Borus, a friend of Camilo’s who has been organizing support and fund-raising for him. But, he said, “There is some obligation to do what you can. Real solidarity means you don’t say, ‘Well I got lucky,’ you say ‘That could’ve been me’ and so you work for his freedom.”

In many ways, the peace movement has been reenergized around the Iraq war. The faces at the protests are much more diverse—there are more older folks, middle class folks, not-lifelong-political folks. This is good. Some of these activists may not want to associate too strongly with the younger, more countercultural forces that led the charge in Seattle and at the 2000 conventions. That is understandable.

But it will not keep the same tactics from eventually being employed against them. If we are going to stick up for our civil rights and our right to dissent, we need to support those who have suffered from their loss—even if it was almost four years ago, in a different political climate. Social-justice activists cannot forget what happened to people like Camilo; we need to support them, just as much as we need to support victims of the anti-Muslim hysteria like Ansar Mahmood. It could be us next time.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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