By Liz Highleyman

Bay Area Reporter 20 December 2001

Activists have weighed in on the harassment charges against David Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis, with one group urging a reduction in bail and calling the case a threat to civil liberties, and others maintaining that the case is about criminal behavior, not freedom of speech.

On December 13, a group of activists released an open sign-on letter opposing the charges brought late last month against Pasquarelli and Petrelis. The two remain in jail with several felony and misdemeanor counts stemming from alleged harassing and threatening phone calls made to public health officials and members of the media (including the Bay Area Reporter).

Pasquarelli is a member is the controversial AIDS dissident group ACT UP/San Francisco; Petrelis is an independent activist known for questioning government disease statistics and demanding cuts to funding for AIDS prevention and services.

The "Open Letter of Concern," imitated by New York attorney Bill Dobbs, decries the "shockingly high" bail - $500,000 each - set for the two men; Pasquarelli has since been charged with additional felonies and misdemeanors and his bail wan increased by $100,000. The letter goes on to claim that the charges against Pasquarelli and Petrelis are "out of proportion to the harms alleged" and "suggest a political motivation for the prosecution." It ends with a call for "fair legal treatment for Petrelis and Pasquarelli" and "their immediate release on reasonable bail."

The letter was initially released with 30 signatures; over 100 more signed after the letter was circulated by e-mail. Although the list of signatories reads like a who's who of the queer left - notable names include Kay Whitlock of the Americans Friends Service Committee, Professor David Halperin, ACT UP/NY member Ann Northrop, Poz magazine founder Sean Strub, and writers Harvey Firestein, Doug Ireland, Sarah Schulman, and Barbara Smith - local signers are conspicuously scarce. Judy Greenspan of California Prison Focus was the only initial signer from the Bay area, joined in the next round by city Commissioner Denise D'Anne and nine others.

According to arrest warrants, Pasquarelli and Petrelis are charged with stalking, making terrorist threats, harassment, and conspiracy. The two have also been accused of calling in a bomb threat to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Pasquarelli and Petrelis acknowledge making repeated phone calls replete with "foul language," but deny making death threats bomb threats and say they have not visited any of their targets' homes or harassed their children. Pasquarelli and Petrelis have been arrested many times and are the subject of numerous restraining orders, but to date neither has been convicted of any violent crimes.

Signers of the open letter are particularly concerned with accusations of terrorism against the activists - especially in light of the recently passed USA PATRIOT Act, which defines "domestic terrorism" in broad terms that could potentially be interpreted to include many forms of political protest. After the arrests, San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan told the media, "We're talking about terrorism here."

According to materials obtained by lawyers for Pasquarelli and Petrelis, University of San Francisco staff members met with FBI officials on November 19 and encouraged them to take action against the two men; the FBI declined to pursue federal criminal charges.

"I don't like what (Pasquarelli and Petrelis) did, but I don't think it compares with terrorism," D'Anne told the BAR.

Some signatories distanced themselves from the actions of Pasquarelli and Petrelis. "The Letter is in no way an endorsement of their tactics," Dobbs told the BAR, but rather is intended to "put front and center the issue if political prosecution."

"I take rough and tumble tactics and rhetoric for granted in the political realm. I take a much dimmer view of projecting personal threats into someone's home," said longtime activist Scott Tucker. "The implications of this case go far beyond these two defendants. (After) 9/11, the definition of terrorism has drifted far from ground zero. The prospect of high bail and escalating criminal charges for protest is a genuine threat to civil liberties.

Others voice disagreement

Martin Delaney, founding director of Project Inform - a frequent target of ACT UP/SF - told the BAR that the sign-on letter presents a one-sided view.

"What is happening in the legal system is the consequence of (Pasquarelli and Petrelis') own behavior, their reckless disregard for the law and the well-being and rights of others," Delaney said. "Their activities violate the principles that the rest of us, as AIDS activists, stand for."

Delaney took no position on the appropriateness of the charges or bail, saying he chose to leave such decisions up to the District Attorney's office and the judges. Two judges have reviewed the case and declined to reduce Pasquarelli and Petrelis' bail. The judge presiding over the preliminary hearing last week also declined to reduce the bail, saying the defense hadn't given proper notice as required by law.

"This open letter of support not only legitimizes (Pasquarelli and Petrelis') spree of terror here, but also emboldens these men, their message, and their tactics." Said PWA advocate Eric Ciasullo. "Threatening someone's life and/or harassing them at 4:30 in the morning is not the tactic employed by decent, non-violent activists; those are the acts of extremists who will stop at nothing in their spree of hate crimes and violence. This (open letter) is one of the saddest and most irresponsible acts of armchair activism I have ever seen."

While Delaney argues that the actions of Pasquarelli and Petrelis "are not remotely comparable to the tactics of the real ACT UP groups of years past," others are concerned that actions that were previously acceptable will no longer be tolerated in today's political climate.

"The people accusing us of terrorism today are the very same people who sat their asses down on the Golden Gate Bridge and stormed the San Francisco Opera House," ACT UP/SF's Michael Bellefountaine told the BAR. "If the times had been different them, they too would have been called terrorists. Today we are watching the erosion of civil liberties, and they always start with the most unpopular people first."

The open letter likened Pasquarelli and Petrelis' bail to that of ACT UP Philadelphia member Kate Sorenson, who was slapped with numerous felony and misdemeanor charges and held on $1 million bail for her participation on protests during the Republican National Convention in August 2000; Sorenson was later cleared of all but one misdemeanor count. The letter also cited felony charges brought against members of ACT UP/New York who stormed GlaxoSmithKline's offices this past February to protest AIDS drug prices.

But others argue that the current case is not about the civil liberties of activists. "Civil liberties would be at stake if (Pasquarelli and Petrelis) were in jail for the content of their speech, " said Ellen Goldstein of UCSF, who has been on the receiving end of their calls. "But they are not in jail for their opinions or their right to have their opinions, but rather for harassment and violence. The calls they made were intended to intimidate and put fear into people; they were not about trying to argue a point."

Delaney, Ciasullo, and Goldstein are members of AIDS Activists Against Violence And Lies; a letter from that group demanding "full prosecution of Pasquarelli and Petrelis, and their collaborators" was printed in the BAR on November 15.