By Patricia Nell Warren

A & U Magazine February 2002

In these post-9/11 times, the lynch-mob mentality is showing its ugly face again.

Remember when rednecks dragged black men out of Southern jails and hanged them without a trial? Usually with a mob cheering them on? For a long time, much of our country was ruled by this brand of justice. The lynch-mob mentality goes deep in the American psyche -- it doesn't always result in actual corpses hanging from trees, but the accused gets hugely punished. And a message is sent, to make sure the public is intimidated.

In these post-9/11 times, the lynch-mob mentality is showing its ugly face again. It uses the legitimate war on terrorism as its excuse for savaging people. Innocent Middle Easterners are bashed, or wrongfully arrested. Over 100 prominent college professors are being blacklisted for being insufficiently patriotic. The FBI does noisy investigations of the tiniest flickers of anti-war sentiment. Americans rush to give up civil liberties so that real or imagined terrorists can be easily prosecuted. At a recent graduation, the editor of the Sacramento Bee was booed by students and parents when she talked about vanishing liberties.

In this ugly climate, an old trend -- escalated punishment for civil disobedience -- is accelerating. Today non-peaceful protesters, such as those who destroy property, etc. are prosecuted like airplane hijackers. Even peaceful protesters are hammered with felony charges, and huge bails and fines. For a decade now, America has been redefining "violence," making it easy to accuse someone of a violent felony even though they didn't physically assault anyone.

Right now the AIDS world has its own lynch mob screaming for the blood of San Francisco AIDS dissidents David Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis. The men were arrested in December after a phone zap they organized, and held on a total of $1,100,000 bail. They had called health officials and members of the media at home, as part of an ongoing controversy in San Francisco about HIV quarantine, AIDS statistics, corruption, conflict of interest, misspent funds and other issues. The men face over 30 felony and misdemeanor charges: criminal harassment, stalking, violating restraining orders, conspiracy. Some plaintiffs contacted the FBI and demanded that the men be prosecuted as terrorists under the Patriot Act.

The mob staged a classic trial-by-press, as media, officials, AIDS activists, even eminent writers proclaimed the two men guilty before preliminary hearings were even held. In the Los Angeles Times, Gabriel Rotello insisted that the men's actions damaged the cause of safer sex; he hoped the arrests would be a "turning point in the gay war on AIDS." Many in the mob made further allegations that the men have a past history of intimidating health officials and AIDS activists in San Francisco, though this history is not what they're being charged with.

Only a handful of media and activists worry about this case as a legal precedent. Concerned trial lawyers say that the bails are punitive, more appropriate for serial killers, that some of the felony charges are more appropriate for stalkers who physically assault their victims. Civil libertarian Bill Dobbs circulated an open letter signed by 200 people, including notables like Harvey Fierstein, who voice concerns about the severity of the prosecution.

I signed Dobbs's letter because I share their concern. Last year I wrote an editorial about Pasquarelli's previous sentencing in a San Francisco court, along with two other members of ACT UP/San Francisco. I was aware that the organization is hated by many in San Francisco, yet I was already perturbed about the previous sentencing severity they faced, a product of the trend I've mentioned. The three men were not found guilty of any felony violence charges, only of standard protest misdemeanors ("unlawful assembly," etc) -- crimes that got a few days or weeks in jail two decades ago. These 2001 sentences were on appeal when the December arrests happened.

I don't support violent activism or coercive political tactics. But whether the two men are actually guilty as charged remains to be decided by a court, not a mob. I wonder if they'll get a fair trial in San Francisco, where so many are inflamed against them.

And I don't think for a minute that the mob's motives are 100 percent altruistic. Surely its members know that issues raised by Petrelis and Pasquarelli have been raised by others -- people who aren't doing any intimidating phone zaps. Nor can failure of prevention campaigns be legally blamed on Pasquarelli and Petrelis when the S.F. Board of Supervisors went on record blaming drug ads that portray men with AIDS as sexy. The Board considered banning the ads.

Some in the mob are angriest about the two men's communications with Republican Congressional investigators who are looking into AIDS corruption. An open letter in the Bay Area Reporter, signed by 17 AIDS activists, condemned the two men's opposition to AIDS corruption as "unacceptable," alleging that they provided incorrect and misleading charges to the right wing.

Since when is it a crime to oppose corruption? What planet do these 17 activists live on? AIDS corruption does exist -- convictions are already on record. Local whistleblowers are demanding action in Florida, Texas, Indiana, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, to name a few places. Many whistleblowers aren't even AIDS dissidents. Example: international consultant Genevieve Clavreul, who is battling AIDS corruption in Los Angeles County. Surely the mob knows that these Congressional investigations are bi-partisan, with Democrat Max Baucus (chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) on point. Can it be that some in the mob fear that Congress will scrutinize them?

In short, Pasquarelli and Petrelis are targeted as much for whistleblowing as for alleged crimes they committed on the phone. The mob want to make a horrible example of the two men. The message is intimidating, and it's being sent by people who complain that Pasquarelli and Petrelis intimidated them.

How ironic that GLBT individuals who insist on justice for themselves through prosecution of hate crimes, etc. are screaming for these men to be prosecuted like serial killers. In the past, gays have often been real lynching victims. If the United States is moving towards rule by hysteria and intimidation instead of by justice, gay people will be among the FIRST to suffer. Additional irony: AIDS activists of the 80s intimidated public officials, invaded government and corporate offices, threw blood on people in their efforts to get drugs and funding. They even hanged FDA commissioner Frank Young in effigy! How quickly the critics of Pasquarelli and Petrelis forget their own violent past.

I wonder who will be next. Whether Pasquarelli and Petrelis are innocent or guilty, AIDS mobs will keep trying to criminalize dissent and whistleblowing. Next they may strike at people who've never used coercive political tactics. If that happens, there can be no real victory in the war on AIDS. I question whether such a "victory" can compel gay men to practice safer sex. And even if it does, our country may no longer be a democracy.

Patricia Nell Warren's "Fourteen Dollars" and other editorials on civil disobedience can be found at . Her newest fiction release is One Is the Sun. She can be reached by e-mail at