Interview With Pro-Bono Civil Rights Defense Attorney Paul Hetznecker

On Monday, October 5, over 60 peace activist, anti Afghan war protesters were arrested in front of the White House. It seems like a good time to publish this interview I did on my Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show a few weeks ago with Paul Hetznecker, who defends protesters as part of his life work.

I met Paul because he is defending, pro bono, Cheryl Biren, a managing editor for, who was arrested while photographing police arresting protesters demonstrating against the Army Experience Center.

Rob Kall: Good evening. It's been a busy day today. I spent the
morning down in Philadelphia in a court room with
reporter, Cheryl Biren-Wright and the AEC 6 - the six protesters who
were arrested at the Army Experience Center a few weeks ago on
September 12. It was an interesting morning.

We have tonight, coming on in a few minutes, Paul Hetznecker. Paul
Hetznecker is a defense attorney who does a lot of work, pro bono, with
people who have been involved in protests of different sorts who are
engaged in fighting for civil rights.

He is working to defend Cheryl Biren-Wright and the six protesters
and I had a chance to meet him today and he is, as I described in the
diary announcing this radio show, he's a lion. He is an awesome guy who
is about protecting our rights, protecting our constitutional rights in

Here, I have Paul Hetznecker and I described you as a lion of a man
in my newsletter that I sent out announcing this radio show. After
seeing you in action today I was very impressed Paul.

Paul: Well, I appreciate those comments. It's very kind of you Rob.

Rob: To start off with you're defending pro bono the six
protesters who were arrested at the Army Experience Center and Cheryl
Biren-Wright, the reporter who was arrested while taking photographs

Paul:  That's correct.

Rob:  There was a
hearing today and I'm not sure just what to make out of that and what
we can say and it would be great if you could give a little bit of a
summary about how things look for them and where they're going.

Paul: Let me start out by saying that we have not received
police reports yet so I do not have their official version of what
they're claiming what the protesters actually did to prompt the
criminal charges that were brought.

But, I will say this, there has been a longstanding policy of the
Philadelphia Police Department to have their Civil Affairs Division
monitor, surveil, and conduct intelligence gathering with respect to
protesters in the city.

And, this goes way back and it is not unique to Philadelphia.
Police departments throughout the country during the 60s and 70s
established what they called Red Squads back then which were
intelligence gathering units that would show up at protests essentially
to monitor the protest, to make sure that the protest didn't become
violent and that was ostensibly their official mission.

But, their unofficial but more significant mission was really to
gather political intelligence on the protesters and there is a
longstanding tradition in many police departments of gathering this
information and then sharing it with federal authorities and other
intelligence agencies in order to essentially create a catalogue of
protesters, a kind of intelligence gathering process that goes way back
and has continued and has actually intensified over the last ten years
since the protest in Seattle ten years ago.

And so there is this longstanding tradition of what has been
phrased, and I think properly coined, a "war on dissent" in this
country and that war has been intensified not only under President
Bush, but it continues so even to this day.

Rob: Under Attorney General Holder would you say?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Certainly, Holder is a breath of fresh air
compared to the previous administration, but the infrastructure of the
surveillance and the intelligence gathering that exists within the
federal government and coordinates with local police departments
existed as I said even before Bush came into office. Certainly, it got
much more insidious and much more, I think dangerous, in the efforts
that were made post 9/11 and use of the Patriot Act and other efforts
that have been well-documented with surveillance by the NSA and by the
Pentagon and other agencies which were barred by law from conducting
domestic surveillance. What we have seen is this has carried out
throughout the course of the last ten years with a variety of tactics.

So, I make that comment only because I think it's important that
when defending individuals in a protest situation not only are the
examination of the charges and the sufficiency or lack thereof of the
evidence an important part of any defense, it's also important to know
what the underlying strategic plan of the police department has been
with respect to protests and in conjunction with that the efforts to
identify, catalogue or what has been phrased "political profiling" of
those people they believe to be the center of whatever particular
political demonstration is being conducted.

Rob:  I was there and what I saw were police somewhere
between 50 and 80 uniformed and non-uniformed police seriously
attempting to intimidate and actually threatening the media with arrest
if they stayed to cover arrests.

Paul: Right. And that's a very dangerous part of this whole
development and I think what has been seen over the years and really
started I think in real coordinated effort by local and federal
agencies to criminalize dissent but also to marginalize those who are
protesting and also kind of eliminate the press overview of their
activity is the process or the tactics that you just mentioned - the
intimidation, the threats of arrest, "you stay here," the seizing of
cameras and video cameras when there is an event that is going on in an
attempt to control, from their point of view, control the events that
are going to unfold.

So, for example, if the police decide to create an arbitrary line
of demarcation and indicate to people that you're not to go beyond this
point at a particular protest that can be documented very easily by
individuals who were there either part of the protest or independent of
the protest such as yourself who was there to simply cover the event
and it becomes an important third eye, a way in which the police
tactics and the police use of their power on the street has an
oversight and the oversight would be the media, those people present on
the scene who documented this. Well, they don't want that. They want to
have unfettered discretion in those kinds of situations.

Rob:  [station ID] We're talking to Paul Hetznecker, a
defense attorney who does a lot of pro bono civil rights work and we're
talking about the protesters and the reporter who were arrested at the
Army Experience Center.

You know Paul, one thing that I'm very interested in and aware of
is that the Obama administration promised transparency in government.
Actually OpEdNews even got a grant from the Sunlight Foundation which
focuses on government transparency. Most of what they do is aiming for
transparency in contracts and legislation and relationships with
lobbyists and things like that, but it seems to me that allowing the
press to see what the police are doing is just one of the most clearly
obvious kinds of transparencies that is out there. Isn't it?

Paul:  I agree and I think it's a much broader issue because
it's not just whether it's the Bush or Obama administration that is
called to task. It's really a question of how far government agencies
have gone to essentially marginalize our areas of privacy as well as
our areas of public protest.

Rob:  We're talking about marginalizing the Constitution aren't we?

We are. Not marginalizing, but really changing the whole kind of view
that we've had traditionally about the rights that are protected under
the Bill of Rights. Those protections that are guaranteed under the
Bill of Rights only having meaning if people are able and feel
comfortable enough and willing enough to express themselves.

So to bring the first amendment to life you have to stand on a
street corner and protest an issue and you have to be able to express
yourself without worrying about being identified or categorized as a
dissenter, as a threat to the state, someone who is now in a position
where your identity is going to be known by agencies, you're going to
be identified, you're going to be profiled, you're going to be possibly
hounded, there is going to be a file created because of your protest.

All of these efforts by the government which are longstanding, they
go back for decades, but what has happened recently is that our focus
has changed, that as a society we don't believe that those activities
that have been traditionally protected under the Bill of Rights are
ones that should be heralded, that should be lauded, that should be
cherished and now considered threats and so the dialogue has changed.

So, those people that engage in a protest such as the ones that
these individual clients have engaged in now are considered a threat, a
threat to the status quo, a threat to the particular agency or
governmental entity which they are confronting rather than what I
believe which was really was born out of a tradition of struggle the
view that this is exactly what was protected under the first amendment,
under the Bill of Rights.

"We" were here essentially on this street corner to argue, to voice
our dissent because this is a protection that is guaranteed something
that we should cherish and laud and and support rather than the
society's focus has changed and the focus is now well to what extent
are these people there to disrupt and possibly threaten a governmental
agency or a governmental entity or a particular view that is embraced
by possibly the majority of the public.

I think what we need to do is change the dialogue a little bit and
talk about how our realms of freedom or areas of freedom, our ability
to communicate, to associate and to express ourselves are further
enhanced by activity, by the kind of activity which is now deemed to be
criminalized or deemed to be marginalized.

Rob:  Cheryl Biren-Wright was charged with criminal conspiracy because she was taking pictures of police arresting protesters.

Paul:  Right.

This is just insane to me. It's not just the police who were part of
this, though, this is also the District Attorney's office right?

Paul:  They are the charging authority, yes, and they are
provided the information by the police department. But, you're right,
it's very frightening and it is the kind of thing that happened on
several occasions and more recently the one that I think is most widely
circulated was Amy Goodman from Democracy Now being arrested last year
in Minneapolis by the police and again after she had announced herself
as a reporter who was covering the particular protest at that moment.

I think the total disregard for the freedom of the press or the
ability of reporters to cover an event is a frightening development
because there seems to be no concern about whether or not a person who
has a press credential, a person who is taking photographs, a person
who is doing exactly what the police surveillance squads are doing
which is filming the event and taking photographs of the event that
somehow that person presents a threat to the official version, whatever
official version they want to present about what happened that day.

I guarantee you that the official version of the police report is
going to differ very much from the accounts reflected in the
photographs and in the individual accounts of those who were there in
support of the protest, but also those who were there to cover it such
as Cheryl who was not a protester, who was simply a member of the press
covering the event.

Rob: You told me in our conversation earlier today that you
had an impression that the police are treating independent media
different than the establishment media. Can you talk about that a
little bit?

Paul:  Well, I think that's a broader
discussion, but it goes back to independent media, for example,
covering the Republican National Convention in 2000 and the way the
independent media had been treated by the police during the course of
the events that unfolded during that week. Part of the strategy and I
think it's a multi-faceted and multi-pronged strategy by those who
engage, those entities such as the civil affairs and in coordination
with FBI, those who engage in surveillance of political dissenters and
political protesters do not want these events covered by independent
press and independent media.

Rob:  Why?

Paul:  Because in large part it
goes back to what I said earlier that they want to be able to control
the version of what unfolds in front of them at that particular time
and have the ability to provide a version that is going to support
whatever charges are eventually brought.

Rob: So they want to prevent the press from covering the
events so that the press is unable to have visual evidence of what
happened that would refute the verbal reports and the selected visual
evidence that are presented by the police. Is that what you're saying?

Paul:  Correct. And that happens routinely. So, for example
at many demonstrations when the police begin to take action they
immediately push the press out of the way and get them out of the way
and further away from the events that are occurring. Anybody with a
camera, anybody with a video camera is identified as a threat to their
actions and so they try to move them off . Essentially it is more of a
tactic than anything else, clear them out, we don't want the press to
cover this particular event.

Now part of that I think is systemic in all police departments
because if you look for example, there were a couple of events within
the last few years that occurred in Philadelphia involving police abuse
one of which was a situation where news helicopters covered police
officers making an arrest in what they believed to be a shooting case
in which they took several men from a car and beat them in full view of
the cameras. Well, those cameras happened to be up in the helicopter so
they could not do much about preventing that from being disclosed to
the public, but it is this natural tendency on the part of the police
officials on the scene to eliminate any kind of independent review of
their activity.

Now, does that comport with the first amendment? No, of course not.
Arresting Cheryl in this particular case who was a reporter covering
the event was absolutely in violation of her rights - not only
her right to be there as she was a licensee in that area as everyone
who was invited into that particular location at the mall and this
particular Army center is inside the mall so those individuals who were
there to protest were invited into the mall to protest, she was there
as a member of the press covering the event so her place there was
completely protected and sanctioned not only by their initial action of
inviting everyone in but by the first amendment. She was there to cover
the event.

So, their actions in arresting her obviously become a much more
important, I think, important struggle for all of us to have the truth
revealed. Because, if you start to eliminate the press from any
particular location based on arbitrary police decision making then you
have essentially allowed them unfettered control of that particular
event whether it's a protest, whether it's a march, whether it's a
picket, whatever it might be it is essentially an area in which the
press has a right to be, a right to view that event, a right to cover
it, document it, record it and then disseminate it to the public and
that is all that Cheryl was trying to do that day. And, unfortunately,
she became the victim of excessive police activity.

In this particular case it looks as if based on the photographs
that I have seen that she had been targeted by one civil affairs
official and directed by one official to another official to actually
go over and make the arrest of her because she had a camera.

Now, that's the way it looks based on the other photographs that
were taken not by her but by other individuals there and I think those
pictures are a clear example of exactly what I'm talking about which is
the police attempting to control the situation. They've made a decision
to make arrests, they are now going to conduct those arrests and they
don't want their activity to be documented independently.

Rob: This is what I saw, for example, when they threatened
the TV crew and bullied them into leaving that is exactly what it was
all about.

Paul: Let's mention that a little bit. Tell
me about that part of it. You said that there was a TV crew there that
was covering the event and what were they told by the police and who
was the TV crew?

Rob:  The TV crew was Frontline with PBS and they had been
covering this story of the protests of the Army Experience Center and I
watched the police tell the reporter - and I didn't hear every word of
it but I heard some of it and it was basically - "you gotta get out of
here now, we're giving a final warning and if you don't get out you're
going to be arrested." And, after Cheryl was arrested and I went
outside I wanted to see why didn't the police do something with the
reporter from Frontline and I asked her and she said, "Well we got out,
we left." I said why, "because they told us we'd be arrested if we
stayed." Now, this to me is just outright bullying by the police of the
press. Because I was there in May and I saw the exact same kind of
thing happen, it gives me the impression that it's a systematic policy
of the police. Not some accident. Not some rogue cop.

Paul: Yea, absolutely, I agree with that 100%. I think it is
a systematic policy in any situation where there is a protest or
demonstration and as I've said this began and it was very clear in 2000
that when arrests were unfolding that the police did not want the press
documenting those arrests. Like I said, I think it's a general police
policy but it's much more clearly effectuated in cases where it's a
high profile political demonstration where the police acting on
whatever prompting they have either from those individuals who were the
focus of the demonstration, the Army in this particular case or whether
it might be a particular governmental entity whether it's prompted by
them or by the police themselves at a certain point when they take
action they do not want it documented so you're right. It's not an
accident. It is a systematic thing.

Rob:  Does this happen all over the country would you say?

Well, it does happen. What's more important though and I want to make
this clear that the kinds of tactics that have been used by the
agencies that have investigated protest groups in this country are very
much systematic. That they are, for example, following the Seattle
protests in 1999 what was awakened was a very dangerous sleeping giant
and that was the sleeping giant that had been foreshadowed by the
COINTELPRO investigation done by the Church Committee in the 1970s
which was a series of frightening abusive tactics by the federal
government, by the FBI and other federal entities such as the defense
department and the CIA and other evidence of domestic surveillance and
intervention and illegal conduct by those agencies in an effort to
undermine the first amendment rights of political activists in this

What 1999 did in Seattle was really reawaken this as I said this
sleeping giant of domestic surveillance and the joint FBI terrorism
task force was established and what began in Seattle continued in
Washington DC in 2000 during the demonstration, I think it was the G-8
summit there in 2000 and then, of course, it came clearly into view,
the tactics that were used in 2000 here in Philadelphia during the
Republican National Convention.

What they did was and there is a series of things that they've done
and they've refined their tactics, they refined it in 2004 during the
conventions in the presidential conventions, one in New York and they
did it again last year in 2008 and what the common denominator of the
police agencies have been are several. One is what they would do is
create protest zones where people were allowed to protest far from the
situs of their particular protest so if the convention center was

Rob:  That's what's happening this week in Pittsburgh at the G20.

Paul: That's exactly right.

Rob: They've been designated...

Paul:  That's right.

Rob: Is that legal?

Paul:  Well, that's a very good question. Let me explain to
you, it really cuts to the heart of this whole issue and this battle
over the first amendment because what was developed was a strategy, for
example in 2000, the Republican National Committee I believe at the
behest of the federal authorities and swallowed up all of the public
spaces with permit requests so all of the public spaces where protest
groups would want to protest in either the center of the city or near
the Wachovia Center where the convention took place, they were
swallowed up by these permits so there was only one public space that
the City of Philadelphia authorized for a demonstration by protesters.
Everything else was swallowed up by these permit requests. That was one

The second one was to create so there are these non-protest zones
which are areas where the City says okay you're off limits and they've
done this in Pittsburgh. They've done the same thing in Pittsburgh.

What they then do is then they create this little caged zone and
say okay you want to protest here you are. You can go over here and
express yourself off in this little remote caged area and that's where
you can express your first amendment rights. Well, that was never ever
contemplated in all the litigation over the first amendment in the last
five decades. The idea was that you could take your protest to the
street, that you could take your protest to the situs of your protest
so if it was a governmental agency, a court house, a corporation you
could go to the foot of that particular entity and express yourself
because that was the whole nature of dissent in this country and the
first amendment was to allow you to express yourself and possibly with
very uncomfortable and difficult speech at the location so that you
could be heard. Not in a corn field somewhere cordoned off in a cage.

Rob:  So, we've got the G20 in Pittsburgh, there are two
locations where they've basically done exactly what you've described.
Do these protesters have the right to go somewhere else and if they
don't abide by what the police tell them to do and they get arrested do
they have something defensible and if they went all the way up to the
Supreme Court with the Neanderthal 5 that are there now would they have
any chance of getting those free speech rights?

Paul:  Excellent question and let me address it in the
following manner. And I'll address it with what has been essentially an
attempt to preempt much of this by the lawyers representing the protest
groups in Pittsburgh. Lawyers went into federal court requesting that
the illegal conduct by the police which they had searched illegally
according to the reports that I have heard and read, searched illegally
several organizations that were there to create a fair, an
environmental fair, to demonstrate the alternatives to the
environmental policies that have been embraced by the G20. Well, the
location for that particular fair was in dispute and they sought a
permit and they also sought an injunction from the federal judge to
stop the harassment, the intimidation, the illegal searches of the
individuals that were going to organize this fair and those supporters
who came to attend it. They were shot down by a federal judge so the
question of whether or not ...

Rob:  I have to throw in a couple of weeks ago I had Cyril
Wecht on, he's a world famous medical examiner who was a victim of one
of the Rove directed Bush appointed DOJ prosecutors who worked with a
Bush appointed judge who was so unbelievably inappropriate that he was
pulled off the case and the decisions reversed. This is the Pittsburgh
we're talking about here and it could be the same kind of judge
couldnt' it?

Paul:  I know a little about the Wecht case just from
newspaper accounts, I can't comment on the particular judge that made
the ruling in this case, but what I can say is this is that the hope of
these lawyers is that they would find refuge, that the first amendment
would find refuge within the walls of that particular judge's court
room and what they found was that they found no refuge so the question
of whether or not the first amendment will find protection within the
courts is an open one.

The law is a rationalization for power. The only limitations are
the limitations that we find in the document that we know as the Bill
of Rights. So the protection that we have for freedom of association,
for freedom of expression, for the protection of privacy zones whether
it be in communication or in thoughts that are communicated privately
through telephone, or Internet. All of these issues are I believe in
the battleground of this new frontier which the Internet has
essentially opened up for all of us and that new frontier is really the
battleground over our freedom of our first amendment rights whether on
the street or in our expressive modes through telephone communication
or Internet communication is what we are battling right now. And, it's
an open question whether we are going to find sanctuary in the courts
or whether we are essentially going to be shot down, but that doesn't
stop the struggle.

The first amendment only finds life and breath in the activity, the
expressive activity, of those people who embrace it. You know, dissent
was essentially one of the guiding principles in the founding of this
country was that the expression of dissent, the ability to confront
power with truth with a different point of view, with a lone voice in
the wilderness that was all built into our concept of what this country
was all about. What's been challenged over and over again over the last
three or four decades is this idea that we have this protection because
this protection has now been marginalized, it's been limited and there
are zones of privacy just like there are zones of expression are now
smaller and smaller.

So, when a court says it's illegal to stand on a street corner and
bark out your proclamation against the government because you're
disrupting someone else or when a court says we consider this
particular organization to be a threat to national security therefore
we are going to allow the federal government to investigate,
infiltrate, intimidate that particular organization we have
relinquished a zone of freedom that we may never get back without
something much greater happening. Whether that will happen in the
courts or not remains to be seen. I do not have a lot of faith in this
Supreme Court. I can be honest with you. Now over the years if Obama's
appointments change the composition of this court we'll see.

Rob:  [station break] I'm talking with Paul Hetznecker. He
is a defense attorney who does a lot of pro bono work with protesters
and people who are fighting for our rights and our freedoms and Paul we
don't have that much  time left and I have a couple of things I want to
go over with you.

One is this idea of civil disobedience as part of the fight for health care for everyone. What do you think about that idea?

I think it's a fascinating idea. I think the notion that health care is
a civil right, that health care is a human right I think is an
important concept that we must embrace. You know, if we look at the way
resources are disseminated for health care, obviously there is a huge
disparity between those who have access to adequate health care and
those who have no health care at all and don't have access to the
channels of power that allow them to have access.

So, I think health care as a human right is absolutely essential in
our dialogue over this issue of changing modes of health care and
whether or not this particular bill or a new bill is passed or this
country changes its view on health care, I think fundamentally, the
dialogue has to change and the concept of health care as a human right
is an essential part of that change.

Rob:  And the civil disobedience, is there a way that you
would envision protesters engaging in it that would be directly
relevant to health care? Would they block health insurance company
doorways, would they go to hospitals. I'm just trying to envision how
civil disobedience would apply. Rosa Parks went to a bus. Somebody else
went to a lunch counter. How would people fighting for the human right
of health care engage in metaphoric actions that would basically get
the attention of the media and force the elected people to do their

Paul: It's a good question. I think it's only based on the
limit of the imagination of those activists who are conducting that
particular battle and struggle. You mention Rosa Parks, civil
disobedience has been a core part of social change in this country for
two centuries and if you look at the fundamental changes in our laws
whether they be the labor laws, civil rights laws, the laws that
allowed for equal protection and the laws that permitted women the
right to vote, they are all really fundamentally motivated by social
movements and social movements engaged in all kinds of tactics one of
which is civil disobedience so I certainly wouldn't be surprised if
civil disobedience became a part of the social movement around this
core issue of health care as a human right.

Rob:  Another question, you just got some good findings and
facts from a judge regarding a case that you were working on regarding
some protesters who were responding to a supposed KKK march. What did
you come up with. I know you were pretty pleased with the results and
the success. What was that about?

Paul:  It's an interesting case. It's a case in which what was announced...

Rob:  We have three minutes.

There was an anti-racist network that routinely confronts the Klan and
Skinheads whenever they are conducting public rallies. Two years ago
what was announced as a rally sponsored by the KKK was apparently
supposed to take place at Love Park in Philadelphia at noon on a summer

This anti-racist network caught wind of this either through the
Internet or other sources and they went as a group, not a large group,
but as a group I think in large part in disbelief. Well, there was no
rally. It was the KKK rally that never was. The people that showed up
were anti-racist protesters along with two undercover police officers
posing as Skinheads. Those two individuals eventually left the park
after a verbal confrontation, got into a black sedan driven by FBI
terrorism task force members. What happened as a result is the back
window of that vehicle was broken apparently by one of the protesters.
That is what they are alleging. Arrests were made.

As a result of those arrests police reports were generated and
unfortunately for the protesters who were arrested, the information
about those undercover officers was never revealed. We filed motions
requesting the release of that information because we had information
that there were confidential informants, it turns out they were
undercover police officers. What the judge ordered was that in fact the
Commonwealth, the District Attorney's office, had to reveal the
identity of those undercover police officers because they were material
witnesses to the event and the DA's office appealed that ruling and it
was sent back to the municipal court judge who had made the initial
ruling for findings of fact and conclusions of law that were issued
today again reaffirming the order, her original order, to release the
information about who these two undercover police officers were as
material witnesses.

Rob: This has been great. This is the Rob Kall Bottom Up
Radio Show. We've been talking to Paul Hetznecker, a lion of a defense
attorney. L-I-O-N...Paul, amazing work you're doing. Thank you so much
for doing it and for being on the show and I'd love to have you back.

Paul:  Thank you very much. I'd be honored to be back again in the future. Thank you very much for having me.

Crossposted from