It's a morning like any other. The family is sitting round the breakfast table watching Good Morning America. Then the front door gets kicked in. Screaming at the tops of their lungs, a heavily armored SWAT team bursts in waving automatic weapons. Before you lift a finger, you're hog-tied on the kitchen floor at gunpoint. A nervous cop threatens to shoot your dog to stop it from barking. Someone waves a piece of paper in front of your face saying something about a search warrant, while the police spread out across the house, pulling open drawers, throwing the contents into Hefty bags. Welcome to your first starring role in America's Most Wanted.
But this isn't just another Fox special; it's a growing political reality. SWAT raids and confiscations are becoming an everyday tactic against even the smallest crime; and, as many activists have recently discovered, that includes the offense of mouthing off once too often against the powers that be. Fifteen-year-old Brenton Gicker and his family found out this unpleasant fact the hard way, and their story is a chilling tale of the extremes to which one police department will go to prove their point.
The Anti-Nike Kid
On October 17, 1998, Gicker, along with a ragtag collection of 50 adolescent punk rockers and other anarchists, staged a demonstration at the Eugene, Oregon Nike Factory Store, protesting working conditions at the company's overseas facilities. During the rally, about 10 individuals entered the store and trashed the place, smashing Halloween pumpkins, knocking over displays, and even breaking a window. The police were on hand, but no arrests were made at the time.
Two weeks later, on the morning of November 2, Brenton's parents Janet and Randall Gicker were preparing to leave the house to run errands, when Randall spotted several darkly-clad figures scurrying outside the window. As he went to investigate, a battering ram smashed in the door and approximately 13 police officers in paramilitary uniforms stormed into the house, guns drawn, and ordered the Gicker family to the floor.
The two-page search warrant listed Brenton Gicker as the prime target in connection with the October 17 Nike "riot." The evidence sheets list over 360 separate items taken from the Gicker house. Brenton's room was cleared out as the cops took posters from his walls, his computer, assorted books, pamphlets, and a Ronald Reagan hockey mask. Janet, who runs an online business selling collectibles on eBay, lost her computer and her personal files, as well as the family's videotape of the Bruce Willis film Die Hard, into the police evidence bag.
Gicker was formally arrested at school on February 8 and charged with burglary, disorderly conduct, riot, and criminal mischief. After several months confined under house arrest, he faced a bench trial (meaning his fate was decided by a judge rather than a jury) in juvenile court on May 28. His lawyer, Don Diment, filed a discovery motion and found that the case against Gicker was pretty thin at best -- amounting to a smudged set of fingerprints found on a placard at the demonstration and a coerced "confession" from one Sean Downing. Downing, 22, was picked up in mid-January and charged with second-degree burglary in connection with the October 17 event. Under intense interrogation, Downing fingered Gicker as one of the culprits, even though the two had never met before.
The story doesn't end there. At the annual "Reclaim the Streets" demonstration on June 18, police spotted someone wearing a straw hat and a pair of overalls behaving badly. Naturally, they assumed it was Gicker. He was re-arrested by Eugene Police Officer Greg Kalef on July 5, charged with violating the terms of his release, and held in juvenile hall for four days. The charges were only dropped after documentary footage, aired on a local cable community service channel, showed Gicker at the demonstration in a completely different set of clothing and behaving in an orderly manner.
Unable to admit they made a mistake, the police pushed for a harsher probation for Gicker. "I just can't believe it," his mother complained, "they were proposing community service as punishment. Now it's this big probation thing where he is not allowed anywhere in town. The probation officer says he's not even allowed to go to the library and read about anarchy. He's 15 years old and he is being persecuted for his beliefs."
The trial lasted all of three hours. Downing recanted his testimony, yet Gicker was still found guilty of burglary and disorderly conduct. On July 14, Gicker was sentenced to a year in a youth correctional facility. The court then suspended the correctional facility sentence, and placed him on an extremely restrictive year-long probation. He is not allowed to be anywhere near the downtown Eugene area without the company of his parents, and must adhere to a daily 10 p.m. curfew. Despite being found not guilty on the rioting charge, he was ordered to pay a $400 restitution fine and to perform an additional 40 hours of community service.
"The cops were just making me an example, which is funny," Gicker says philosophically. "There was a whole lot of people at the Nike protest, and who knows how many actually trashed the store. I'm guessing quite a few. Only one person gets screwed over, you know? So it's well worth it."
Despite motions filed on their behalf, the Gickers have yet to receive their confiscated property. In order to continue her online business, Janet had to shell out over $1,300 for additional computer equipment.
Not Enough Donuts to Go 'Round
While the Gicker case can be viewed as an extreme example of cop behavior, Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, sees this as a disturbing trend. "Crime is down," Parenti says, "The police are not [dealing] with a lot of murders and revenge killings they have to solve. They are looking for action. There is no end in sight. Clinton's crime bills of '92 and '96 have put 100,000 new cops on the street. Some police forces have doubled in the last eight years."
The Gickers are not alone. Several incidents have occurred that bear striking similarity. In Tampa, Florida, a group known as the "Tampa Three" was subjected to FCC-sanctioned SWAT raids in an effort to shut down three pirate radio stations broadcasting in the area. Doug Brewer, operator of The Party Pirate, had $100,000 worth of electrical equipment seized on the morning of November 19, 1997. Kelly Benjamin of 87x was charged with possession when the cops found marijuana at his house, and Arthur Kobres was prosecuted for operating his Patriot-affiliated unlicensed station. All three have yet to have any of their equipment returned.
A more recent case is that of Kevin Keating. Keating was stopped by the San Francisco Police Department and arrested for carrying a backpack full of posters and pasting materials. The police were looking for "Nestor Mahkno," the sinister man behind a terrorist group calling itself "the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project." The MYEP's posters targeted new upscale bars and restaurants that have sprouted up like weeds in the working class neighborhood, vowing to reduce them to "picturesque ruins" during the "major urban riots" against "cigar bar clowns." In other words, the kind of telegraph-pole hyperbole you expect from art school refugees -- not from the Symbionese Liberation Army.
After being held incommunicado for over 15 hours, Keating was formally charged with a felony count of making terrorist threats and one misdemeanor count of malicious mischief. During those 15 hours, the SFPD executed a raid on his home and carted off boxes of his possessions. According to the 35-page evidence sheet, this included over 70 books, his computer, diskettes, and correspondence; all the materials of a nearly complete 16 mm film project; and a picture of Malcolm X. Charges against Keating were dropped pending further investigation, though he can be re-indicted up to a year from now. In the meantime, his possessions will remain with the SFPD indefinitely.
The stories of Gicker, Keating, Brewer, Benjamin, and Kobres represent the unfortunate state of policing in America. Apparently, repeated viewing of those reality cop shows has had its desired effect, making SWAT raids and confiscations accepted, commonplace events of everyday policing. Parenti concludes that this is an example of the supposedly non-political police force acting out their true political purpose. "The function of the police is to suppress dissidents and manage surplus populations. They do that if these populations are white or black; if they are well behaved or ill behaved. In a class society, the police always have this social control."
Patrick Hughes writes regularly about the book trade for GettingIt.