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Book 'em O'Malley: nonviolent protestors feel state's attorney's wrath

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To hear the story the state's attorney tells, this is a case of mighty versus meek.

Sometime near noon on June 5, Sue Ostfield and Tom Wilson "intentionally and knowingly and without legal justification . . . shoved, pushed and scratched" James Miller and Steve Frost, two McCormick Place security guards. The police report goes on to note that Wilson "caused bodily harm to Miller" and Ostfield "scratched Frost on the left arm."

The police arrested Ostfield, Wilson, and Craig Segal, a third defendant. State's Attorney Jack O'Malley's prosecutors are charging Wilson with battery and criminal trespass and Segal with criminal trespass (Ostfield's battery charges were dropped; more on that later).

There's one big problem with this official account: it makes no sense. Miller's well over six feet tall, and Frost's a bricklike man with linebacker shoulders and stevedore arms. By contrast, Ostfield's a scrawny, five-foot-one bookseller and Wilson's a pudgy, bespectacled practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The defendants say the charges against them are fabricated and that they are the real victims--manhandled and detained by a squad of goony McCormick Place security guards. "Look at us, then look at them, and you'll see how ludicrous this is," says Segal, a Chicago public school teacher. "Those guards are huge; they could crush us like we were ants."

Nonetheless, O'Malley's sticking with the security guards' story--no questions asked. "The prosecutors haven't even talked to us," says Segal. "If they did they'd see what a waste of time and money it is to continue this."

The case stems from House Speaker Newt Gingrich's luncheon speech at the McCormick Place convention of the American Booksellers Association. While protesters gathered outside, Segal and other activists entered the room where Gingrich would speak. "You needed a ticket to get in, and we all had tickets," says Segal. "I bought mine for $27 from the Booksellers for Social Responsibility."

Segal, as well as John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and several allies (including two nuns) were there to "engage Gingrich in a dialogue." In other words, they planned to stand and denounce Gingrich when he started talking.

"I didn't come to silence Gingrich; I can't silence him--he's everywhere: in the papers, on the TV, in bookstores," says Segal. "We wanted to show people that there's opposition to what he stands for--not everyone signed the Contract With America. John was protesting cuts in homeless programs; another person was against Medicare cuts; I was protesting cuts in the federal hot lunch program. Most of my students are eligible for these lunches and I thought I was representing them. The First Amendment covers my right to protest. It's like the Operation Rescue people. I don't agree with them but they have the right to gather outside medical clinics, just as I have the right to stand up before a very powerful and very public politician."

By the time Segal rose, Donahue and another activist were on their feet, voices raised. "I barely remember what I said," says Segal. "Mostly I stood there, showing my support for the others. At one point Gingrich looked at me and shrugged, as if to say "Why take your anger out on me? I'm not to blame."'

It went on like this for a few minutes, and then Segal says he felt the steely grip of strong fingers. "It was a guard--at least I think it was a guard, he didn't identify himself," says Segal. "He grabbed me by the arm and escorted me from the room. We were all getting led out."

But while Donahue and the others were taken outside, Segal was taken to a big windowless room in the basement. "I didn't know where I was or who they were," says Segal. "I was terrified."

Meanwhile, the protest outside was growing, joined by sympathetic conventioneers like Ostfield, a bookseller from Brooklyn. "I wanted people to know that ABA members did not endorse Gingrich or even want him invited," says Ostfield.

So Ostfield carried a protest sign to the room where Gingrich was speaking. "A security guard, who turned out to be Steve Frost, ripped the sign out of my hand and tore it up," says Ostfield. "I felt that was an aggressive power move, taking away my free speech to show me he was in charge. And, well, you see, I live in New York, where people harass each other all the time, and I felt this was like a bar brawl . . . "

So?

"I told him he had a really small penis."

You told him what?

"Well, I didn't say it really loud. I just sort of passed him in the hallway and said it softly. I wanted to challenge his masculinity and get him where it hurt."

She must have succeeded. "When I came back to the luncheon room with some flyers, Frost was waiting and he was angry," she says. "He said, 'If you hand out those flyers I'll have you arrested.' I didn't believe him. At the ABA all we do is hand out flyers. I said, 'This is a First Amendment right.' But as soon as I handed out a flyer he grabbed one arm and another guard grabbed the other and they took me to the holding room where [Segal] was.

"It was very threatening. I was screaming 'Let me go!' I didn't know what to do; nothing like this had ever happened to me. Frost was really going nuts. He kept saying, 'How dare you talk about my genitalia' and 'I'm gonna charge you with trespassing. I'm gonna charge you with solicitation.' Then he said, 'Look at this scratch on my arm, you scratched me. I'm gonna charge you with battery.' I didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't scratch him."

A few moments later Wilson, a board member of ADAPT, a disability rights group, was detained. "I was outside McCormick Place when a security guard put his arm around my neck, knocking off my glasses, and dragged me into the building," says Wilson.

Eventually Wilson was brought to the basement security room. "It was scary and weird, what with [Frost] going on and on about his genitalia," says Segal. "They wouldn't let us get a drink or make a phone call or go to the bathroom. They didn't say who they were or read us our rights. They held us against our will; it was like being kidnapped."

After about 90 minutes the police arrived, and Segal, Ostfield, and Wilson were handcuffed, stashed in a paddy wagon, and carted to jail, where they were photographed, fingerprinted, and held in cells until friends came to pay their bail.

The security guards' side of the story is summarized in the arrest report, which reads: "Three subjects became disruptive. When security agents attempted to quiet them down, it was learned that two of the three did not have proper credentials to be on the premise. The security agents requested they leave but they became physical and shoved pushed and scratched the security agents. The three were then subdued with only the force necessary, and taken to the security office. . . . [Ostfield] had a ticket but she was physically abusive to the agent when he requested her to stop disrupting the speech. She pushed [Frost] and scratched him on his left arm. . . . [Segal] did not resist the agents. . . . [Wilson] was physical against [Miller], pushing and shoving him about the chest area."

In late August the state's attorney released a pretrial document that says Miller "asked [Segal] three times to leave the premises to which the defendant responded each time, "I am not leaving.' . . . On the escalator on the way to the security control room [Segal] told Mr. Miller 'I am sorry I should have left.' . . . In the security-control room [Segal] told Mr. Miller and the Chicago Police that he did not have the appropriate authorization (show badge) to enter the area in which Mr. Gingrich was speaking."

These accusations are not true, the defendants agree. "I was dragged in--how can I be charged with trespassing?" says Wilson. "And how can I be charged with battery when I was the one who was battered?"

Adds Segal: "I never refused to leave the floor, and I never said I didn't have authorization. On the contrary, I kept telling them I had bought a ticket. I have the check I made out to buy the ticket. There are people (nuns, even) who can testify that they saw me hand my ticket at the door. It's so easy to verify."

The ABA brought in a lawyer from Jenner & Block, who called O'Malley's office on Ostfield's behalf. On June 20 an assistant state's attorney stepped before a judge to say: "My supervisor consulted with the complaining witness in this case. They do not wish to proceed with these charges."

Still, many questions remain. For instance, why did the ABA help Ostfield but not Wilson and Segal? After all, it doesn't look good for the ABA, whose convention returns to McCormick Place next year, to have protesters harshly treated. And why does O'Malley, under fire in another case for not prosecuting a police officer who shot and killed a homeless man, persist in this prosecution, a petty misdemeanor?

A spokeswoman for O'Malley's office commented, "Our job is to prosecute misdemeanor cases." ABA president Oren Teicher did not return phone calls. McCormick Place officials come to the phone, but they aren't saying much. "Two of our security filed a complaint and we support them," says Yvonne Davila, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which oversees McCormick Place and Navy Pier. "Beyond that I can't comment because it's in litigation."

Wilson and Segal hired a lawyer (Jeff Haas) and appeared in court on August 28 for their trial. But the state's attorney asked for more time and the case was continued until October 6, thus running up Segal and Wilson's legal fees and forcing them to take more time from work. "The state's attorney said he needed time to find some videotape shot by CNN that would bolster their case," says Segal. "I don't know what he expects to find on the tape because what they said went on didn't even happen."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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