AIDS DISSIDENTS PASQUARELLI AND PETRELIS RECEIVE SUPPORT AND CONDEMNATION
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
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
"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
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