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The Right to Dissent and the Trial of Camilo Viveiros

Linda Setchell | 01.04.2004 15:14 | Repression

April 7 is the beginning of the trial in Philadelphia, USA of community organizer Camilo Viveiros. This is the last of the criminal trials from the 2000 Republican National Convention. Will a steadfast and dedicated political organizer beat the fate of political imprisonment or will Police Chief John Timoney begin to be exonerated?

Camilo with tenet leader
Camilo with tenet leader

"Bully with a Badge"
"Bully with a Badge"

Before the tear gas even cleared the skies over Miami, Florida last November during the FTAA Summit, union leaders, civil rights advocates and even Amnesty International were calling for Police Chief John Timoney's resignation.

Even major US daily newspapers from the New York Times to the Miami Herald penned editorials condemning the suspension of Constitutional rights in Miami during the Free Trade Area of the Americas Summit and the simultaneous creation of a police state.

While city officials and Timoney claim that police "showed a tremendous amount of restraint", video footage and eyewitness experience tell a very different story. A story that, not surprisingly, resembles the events that took place during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia while Timoney was serving as Police Commissioner.

Police brutality, civil rights abuses, large-scale pre-emptive arrests and absurdly high bails marked a turning point in police response to the movement for global justice in the U.S. Instead of arresting people for what they did, Philadelphia police under Timoney's command arrested people for what they might have done. Nearly all of the 400+ protest arrestees in Philadelphia have had their charges dropped and or reduced, except Providence, RI resident Camilo Viveiros who appears to be Timoney's last hope for justifying the actions of his department during the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Viveiros is one of three people still facing trial, but he is the only one with felony charges. His co-defendants Darby Landy and Eric Steinberg had their charges reduced and cases separated. Viveiros' charges were also reduced by a judge in October 2000, but pressure from Timoney led to an appeal by the City D.A. to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which reinstated several of the charges in December 2001. A subsequent appeal by Viveiros' lawyer, Bob Levant was denied by the Supreme Court.

With five misdemeanors and six felonies, including assault with intent to murder, Viveiros is facing between 15 and 40 years in prison. People who know him, and lots of people do, find the charges to be ludicrous. Supporters of Viveiros believe his case could set a "dangerous precedent" for people who employ civil disobedience as a method for social change. If convicted, many fear he will be used as an example to discourage others from expressing dissent.

A tenant organizer in Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts for the past eight years, Viveiros is known for his soft-spokeness and intense dedication to improving the lives of people in need. His work for the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD has brought him in contact with hundreds of people including state and local politicians. Friends of Camilo has solicited letters of support on Viveiros' behalf from hundreds of people including Congressmen Barney Frank and James McGovern as well as the entire Boston City Council.

Besides attesting to his commitment to social justice, many of the letters highlight Viveiros' non-violent organizing tactics and dedication to democratic principles. Providence City Councilman Miguel Luna, who worked with him on a project to improve neighborhood safety remarked, "I was most impressed with his ability to teach members of the community how to avoid confrontation with the police in a peaceful and composed manner."

In contrast, after recent events in Miami, Timoney has been referred to as a "bully with a badge" and derided for his "paramilitary response" and had his tactics for maintaining social order, compared to those of Saddam Hussein.

A photojournalist from the Miami Herald, embedded with Timoney and his force on the major day of action witnessed two disturbing acts of police misconduct by the Chief himself. "...Timoney, for no good reason, grabbed a kid and stood by as two other officers dumped the kid's backpack onto the sidewalk to see if he had any rocks inside the bag. He didn't." Later that day, the same photojournalist watched as Timoney rode his bike up to a protester being arrested and said, "You're bad. Fuck you."
Viveiros is not surprised by the reports of police brutality coming out of Miami. His account of the day he was arrested sounds eerily familiar to those of protesters from Miami.

Recalling the events of August 1, 2000, Viveiros said he left a rally in opposition to the death penalty in front of Philadelphia City Hall as part of a group of "celebratory and upbeat" demonstrators. However, a few blocks later, he recalls that the tone of the march shifted to apprehension as organizers with walkie-talkies began receiving messages that police were headed toward marchers. At that point, Viveiros says he started walking down another side street.

"Maybe a block and a half down I was grabbed from behind by a police officer and I was pulled back to 17th St. where I was pushed on the sidewalk face down and was hit and kicked repeatedly. My head was banging on the sidewalk and I could hear people yelling for a medic before I was knocked unconscious."

After being assaulted by police, Viveiros was then charged with some of the very actions that were done to him. Supporters of Viveiros point out the prevalent police cover up tactic of charging those who are attacked by the police with aggravated assault.

Many believe that even if Timoney was attacked by protesters on August 1, 2000 like he claims, Viveiros has wrongly been accused. The evening of Viveiros' arrest, Timoney made a statement saying he was attacked by one of the largest protesters on the street. At 5'9 and less than 140 lbs, Viveiros is hardly considered a large or imposing man.

Ironically, on the day of his arrest Viveiros was attending events against police brutality and the prison industrial complex. Now at the center of a case himself, Viveiros is reluctant to become a glorified symbol for the movement. Instead, with an organizer's perspective he hopes, "What worries me about focusing time and energy on repression is that their strategy is to distract us from our work and the community outside of the legal system. If we stop doing the organizing that builds larger and stronger movements than the hope to challenge injustice either in the courts or in our communities is weakened."

His case, while a distraction from local organizing efforts, has also been a success in terms of bringing diverse people together and raising awareness about police brutality issues amongst populations who would not normally see it up close.

As a tenant organizer, Viveiros works with seniors, disabled, single parents and low income families, many of whom now have a better understanding of how selectively first amendment rights are enforced in this country. On the downside, some of those same tenants are much more fearful of the repercussions for standing up for what they believe in.

When this happens Viveiros tries to remind them that what will ultimately prevent situations such as his is a stronger movement built from the ground up through organizing around community issues.

Global justice activists have long contended that police departments are protecting the rights of corporations and the wealthy to gut health and social services programs, repeal environmental regulations and labor protections, while simultaneously suppressing the rights of people to question the status quo.

Viveiros believes the actions of Timoney and his various police departments clearly lend credibility to this assertion. "The function of repression is to protect systems of oppression. For everyone that is exploited, someone is benefiting from their exploitation. For those who benefit their fear of being outnumbered necessitates even small resistance be taken seriously as a threat."

As the global justice movement nurses its wounds after Miami, several conclusions are being drawn. Among them is the idea that solidarity across tactical and political boundaries is necessary, that community outreach pays off and that pursuing legal action against Miami may be one act that can "stem the tide of repression."

The case of Viveiros and his co-defendants may be another. If the legal battles in Philadelphia are any indication, the FTAA legal battles could take years, which means a victory for Viveiros could help support cases in Miami.

"That's one reason why it's so important for people to support Viveiros and his co-defendants at their trial on April 7," said Lori Shemanski, a volunteer with Friends of Camilo - Boston. "Camilo has spent his life working for justice; we need to work together to make sure that he receives justice."

Until now, Timoney has only been able to refer to direct action activists in general terms. If Viveiros is convicted, supporters fear that he could become a poster-boy for Timoney's media scare campaigns.

"They don't need to arrest everyone," said long-time friend Chris Bull. "If only one innocent person is jailed for attending a peaceful protest, the victim is democracy; our rights - to speak out, to assemble, to protest - are meaningless if we are too terrified to use them."

How to Help...
See: about more ways you can help defend our ability to dissent and protest, and support Camilo Viveiros. Letters of support and donations are urgently needed to counter the attempts to villainize and incarcerate Viveiros.

From the 25 List of Things You Can Do to Support Camilo:
-Download the petition from and get signatures.
-Sign on-line petition yourself:
-Join many others in writing a letter of support. Get an organization you are in to write a letter also. Guidelines at Fax to (877) 240-9517.
-Publicize information about Camilo's case in publications like group newsletters, mailings, listserves or website.
-Download flyers and information packets from the website and distribute them.

With over three years since his arrest, Viveiros' legal fees have started to added up. In early 2003, FOC thought they were all caught up, but subsequent trial postponements have resulted in an additional legal time. "We know that we will not get justice in Philadelphia without a political and legal struggle. We also still need to raise over $30,000" said Lori Shemanski."
Make a donation to help with legal fees (checks or money order can be made out to "Friends of Camilo" and send to: Friends of Camilo, P.O. Box 23169, Providence, RI 02903.

Linda Setchell