Tuesday, December 4, 2001
Terror and Quarantine
On the Streets of San Francisco
by Clinton Fein
|San Francisco, California - A simmering anger among activists, media organizations and city officials erupted last week amidst accusations of bomb threats, terrorism and stalking in a series of events that rocked the City of San Francisco.
On November 28, 2001, two well-known local AIDS activists were arrested following a hearing on temporary restraining orders stemming from a series of allegedly harassing phone calls made to The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Health Department. Michael Petrelis and ACT UP/San Francisco member David Pasquarelli are being held having launched a national e-mail campaign to speak out against federal quarantine of people with AIDS that included the home phone numbers of public health officials, as well as home numbers for reporters and editors of news organizations that have published reports on AIDS and more recently, a surge in syphilis among gay men in San Francisco.
A government official said the listings resulted in a spate of harassing; obscene and threatening phone calls -- and even death threats. Petrelis and Pasquarelli, who shouted "Stop AIDS Quarantine" as police placed them under arrest are charged with numerous felonies and are being held for $5000,000 bail each
"We are talking about terrorism here," District Attorney Terence Hallinan said, as reported in the San Francisco Examiner. "These people have terrorized health department officials ... all kinds of organizations devoted to fighting AIDS have been intimidated for years."
"When people are threatened at home in the middle of the night, their families are threatened, that extends far beyond a reasonable response" Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein told The Los Angeles Times.
An Associated Press story released the day of the arrests originally quoted the San Francisco police department as attributing the arrest to suspicion of conspiracy, stalking, terrorist threats and annoying electronic communications. However, according to the police department the actual charges as reflected in the arrest warrants are: stalking, terrorist threats, conspiracy, misdemeanor harassment, and in Pasquarelli's case violating a restraining order.
ACT UP/San Francisco's controversial and widely publicized position that HIV does not cause AIDS, in addition to their hard core tactics which have included the dumping of kitty litter on their enemies, has long marginalized the group from AIDS prevention groups in San Francisco and other national ACT UP chapters. Their tactics have been widely condemned by almost every gay identified group and publication including ACT UP founder Larry Kramer. ACT UP/San Francisco became somewhat of an international phenomenon after South African President Thambo Mbeki raised the same question regarding the relationship between HIV ands AIDS just prior to an international conference on AIDS held in Durban, South Africa.
While ACT UP San Francisco crossed the legal line, there are some grave issues to consider. In light of the events of September 11, 2001 is it fair or even remotely accurate to call this terrorism?
The campaign began in earnest on around the beginning of November when the activists sent out an email containing the phone number of Cynthia Laird, the Editor of the Bay Area Reporter, a small local and somewhat polemic weekly which reports on San Francisco's gay community, accusing the paper of allowing its pages to be used as "a vehicle for government demonization of gay sex." More importantly, the activists were angered that the information published by a number of news organizations including The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle was void of any concrete, independently verified statistics that could be used to discern whether positive syphilis results per tests administered are going up, down, or are stable, since there was no information related to the number of tests administered.
The first email urged recipients to "repeatedly telephone Laird at home -- preferably as late as possible to disturb her beauty sleep -- and warn her to quit using her newspaper as an anti-gay instrument of repression by government forces."
A second email providing the contact information and address of Eileen Shields, the public information officer for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, suggested recipients initiate a dialogue with her. "Give a call or stop by and pay her a visit! Maybe she'll make you some tea. Demand to know how she can claim that no one is keeping track of the number of syphilis tests administered to gay men while simultaneously broadcasting to the media that we're spreaders of the disease."
The activists demanded from the San Francisco Health Department an accounting of the numbers of tests administered in order to extrapolate data that would support the findings that were being released -- and being reported in the media - as evidencing a surge in the number of syphilis cases.
An attempt last year to enroll America Online to reveal the identity of users of one it's gay sex chat rooms by Dr. Jeffrey Klausner of the San Francisco Department of Public Health official and Center for Disease Control's Epidemic Intelligence Service in collaboration with Planet Out, a web site that caters to a gay audience, drew staunch reaction from privacy advocates and civil libertarians. Klausner renewed attempts to get America Online involved in broadcasting the syphilis scare in their chat rooms last month as well - again, the activists charge - without data to support their findings. Although the online service refused, they agreed to post warnings about the syphilis surge in the chat rooms.
The activists claim that a letter they received from Eileen Shields claimed that the Department of Public Health had "no documents showing the total number of syphilis tests performed in San Francisco residents by year because syphilis tests in San Francisco residents are performed by a variety of laboratories."
The activists turned up the heat and volume of their campaign after remarks made by Dr. Jeffrey Klausner were quoted in a magazine, The Washington Monthly, as suggesting the use of quarantine to control the spread of AIDS. Klausner later stated his comments were taken out of context. A feature in U.S. News and World Report outlining federal officials' desire to implement a policy governing quarantine and which included HIV and hepatitis as two serious health threats potentially requiring isolation was sent by the activists to Supervisor Tom Ammiano's office.
According to the activists, their campaign was designed to draw attention to the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, which they warn, "would give the federal government unprecedented power to quarantine people due to infectious disease."
The activists charge that even though the language in the Health Powers Act, being introduced in the California State Legislature by Keith Richman, (R) Granada Hills, might be modified to exclude HIV and AIDS, as a result of their efforts, the language for similar bills in other states puts too many HIV positive people at risk and could too easily be abused.
San Francisco Chronicle employees claim the men made dozens of obscene and threatening phone calls earlier this month to their homes and at work. Publications such as the Bay Area Reporter and Frontiers, another local gay rag, published accounts of threats made to children of health officials, although these were later retracted after one of the alleged victims wrote a letter refuting the charge, claiming he was misquoted.
A bomb threat made to The San Francisco Chronicle's offices resulting in an evacuation is being linked to the activists in court documents and media coverage, although the activists categorically deny having had anything to do with it.
Last August Petrelis sent out an email press release and invitation to a rally to protest against what he termed "the secrecy and duplicity of the University of California at San Francisco's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) and AIDS Research Institute (ARI)" which he argued had an obligation to hold monthly public meetings to explain its research and findings, disclose all contracts and protocols and release data pertaining to salaries and compensation packages of all employees making over $50,000, as well as a call to establish a community advisory board, "composed of at least 50 percent of community members who don't work for the AIDS industry."
Just how did Petrelis plan to make his point? "A bouquet of large sunflowers, symbolizing openness, access and sunshine, will be presented to UCSF. No arrests are planned," he stated in the same press release.
Given Petrelis' history and even ACT UP/San Francisco's to a lesser extent (who have been more reckless and less imaginative tactically) and given that numerous bomb threats resulting in evacuations in San Francisco and elsewhere following September 11 - and specifically threats targeted at media organizations -- the link to Petrelis, ACT UP/San Francisco and a bomb threat is tenuous at best, and appears to form the basis for the terrorism accusations and charges.
Bay Area Reporter published an editorial blasting Petrelis, Pasquarelli and ACT UP/ San Francisco last week detailing a list of things they consider unacceptable and called their tactics "violence masquerading as activism." The editorial alleged David Pasquarelli had called Dr. Jeff Klausner threatening to shut his mouth for good. They called ACT UP's distribution of a poster of Klausner with a swastika calling him a "Nazi pig" unacceptable. They called ACT UP's distribution of email containing "misinformation" unacceptable. They called the publishing of listed names and numbers of officials and reporters unacceptable.
"We're watching you," said one voicemail message to Jeff Sheehy, a press officer for the AIDS Research Institute at UC San Francisco. "Your name is on the list of enemies of the homosexual community. We're out here on the streets and we're going to make sure that you don't open your mouth again to demonize us."
There are laws in place that prohibit threatening communications over electronic devices, such as a telephone. If indeed David Pasquarelli did say what is alleged over the telephone, he risks the legal ramifications of threatening to close someone's mouth for good. More than unacceptable that is illegal.
On the other hand, if his opinion of a public official is that he's a 'Nazi pig', he has a First Amendment right to express as much. Most certainly it is acceptable for him to place an image of him on a poster next to a skeleton with a swastika. It's called free expression, and particularly applicable with regard to public officials who are elected or commissioned to serve their constituencies.
While few would argue the men went too far, ACT UP/San Francisco and Michael Petrelis are also part of the community and have every right to demand verification of statements that are being bandied about and the right to be privy to statistics and data that form the basis of policy making. It's called democracy.
Whilst calling people at home in the middle of the night is not going to inspire a fruitful dialogue, it also might be considered harassment for which, again, there are legal remedies available to the victims.
Lost amidst the tension and drama is the classic and oft-overlooked distinction between conduct and content, and attempts to reign in the behavior of the activists that are being proposed and enacted are being done so at the considerable expense of fundamental First Amendment tenets and principles.
Traditional telephone-harassment laws have been upheld only because they are limited to conduct and not protected speech. For instance, a ringing telephone is able to intrude into an individual's private space, and, without communicating a word, can potentially threaten or harass, if occurring repeatedly or in the middle of the night.
However the simple publishing of listed names and numbers that are publicly available is perfectly legal. Just the same way sites like www.stopdoctorlaura.com and other publications deserve and enjoy the right to publish information that is publicly available, such as listings of electro-conversion clinics or former-homosexual organizations that claim to be able to "cure" homosexuality.
Repugnant as it may be, the Ninth Circuit District Court upheld even the publication of the Nuremberg Files, a vile web site that listed the name and addresses of physicians performing abortions, striking out each name after a doctor was killed or died. The First Amendment doesn't give anyone the right to make threats of physical violence, and in the event that there is physical violence or the credible threat of physical violence, the safety of disease prevention workers can and should be secured by an appropriately crafted order. Not, however, by one that violates the First Amendment rights of ACT UP/San Francisco, Michael Petrelis or anyone else with an opinion on the matter.
The issue -- whether context can be used to determine if speech has crossed the line from being provocative to being threatening -- is a difficult and important one, and not one to be taken lightly, or tossed aside because of personal aversions to the speakers.
Sending email alerts is a right to be cherished in a democracy. Just as campaigns for Senators Boxer or Feinstein might send out email alerts advocating pro-choice leanings that some people in some communities might find offensive. The recipient of an email alert can make the decision for himself or herself whether or not to give credence to the message based on the credibility of the sender. It's called choice.
Let's separate violence from the equation. Violence is an inherently evil and primal response -- inappropriate and simply used as a mechanism by those who do not trust their minds enough to use reason and should be condemned unequivocally.
Among the accusations leveled by the Bay Area Reporter is that Michael Petrelis is providing misleading and incorrect information about disease prevention organizations to the right wing in Washington D.C., resulting in demands for audits and cutbacks in funding. If this allegation is true, the appropriate response is to counter the misinformation with accurate and truthful information. Unlike the media doing the same thing, elected officials making policy and budget decisions based upon misleading and inaccurate information need to be brought to task and exposed for their failure to verify the veracity of the information upon which they are formulating such policy. It's called voting.
Similarly, national media outlets that are responding to unscientific and fuzzy predictions, vilification and fear mongering that results from irresponsible and unsubstantiated communications from city officials should be equally unacceptable to anyone demanding truth and accuracy in the dissemination of information.
No rational person on the planet would disagree that people who are fighting AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases deserve to be able to work free from intimidation and violence. We also should strongly support ACT UP/San Francisco's and Michael Petrelis's right to communicate their grievances, beliefs and ideas with as much fervor.
Sometimes confrontation is an appropriate response. Confrontation need not be violent, and it does a disservice to robust, healthy and spirited dialogue to confuse the distinctions. It's how this country was founded.
Dr. Jeff Klausner is most likely committed to doing his job as best he can with the best of intentions. As a public health official who is communicating publicly, he ought know better than to loosely throw around words like 'quarantine' since the likelihood of the press framing it in its intended context is virtually nil. If he is commenting on statistics, it is not inappropriate for the citizens of San Francisco to request and be privy to such data. It should be policy.
ACT Up's famous refrain is Silence equals Death. If silence equals death, then silencing equals murder. Regardless of what people believe or opinions they hold, whether it questioning the relationship between AIDS and HIV as ACT UP/San Francisco and President Thabo Mbeki have or debating the merits or injury of outing 'barebackers' involved in AIDS prevention programs, be it ACT UP/ San Francisco or Salon's David Talbot, the one certainty is that data be accessible so that people can make up their minds based on the most comprehensive information and facts available.
The tactics used by ACT UP/San Francisco and Petrelis are obviously not the best way to go about shifting opinion and winning support. Indeed, inducing others to send threats is misguided and illegal. According to the San Francisco Examiner, Chronicle attorney Joshua Koltun said the threatening phone calls to reporters and editors "were designed to affect public policy and affect the reporting." Petrelis and ACT UP/ San Francisco argue front-page, above-the-fold, stories in the Chronicle alleging tripling of HIV rates without a shred of supporting data or evidence reflect poor, shoddy and fear-mongering journalism at it's worst. Both sides are correct.
Plotting and executing the flying of planes into skyscrapers is terrorism. Sending deadly anthrax spores to media outlets and politicians is terrorism. Car bombs in malls or truck bombs outside federal buildings is terrorism. Any violent, deadly and or destructive act designed to make a political point or threaten our freedom, values and culture is terrorism.
Michael Petrelis has been actively seeking answers for years. Even if we disapprove of his tactics, we ought respect his tenacity in seeking out data and demanding accountability when it comes to the dissemination of information by a City Department. It is not unacceptable or inappropriate. It's commendable and provides a community service, for which he should be thanked, not vilified. Perhaps he and ACT/UP San Francisco went too far and made some mistakes and poor choices. Perhaps their tactics crossed the line between acceptable and unacceptable, between legal and illegal.
However, it would behoove us to consider what the activists were trying to accomplish. They were attempting to source and make accessible information that would really not be publicly available without their efforts. Demanding that data be accessible and officials accountable so that people can make up their minds based on the most comprehensive information and facts available. In some respects, they deserve credit from anyone who believes that empowerment and change comes through communications and access and for refusing to accept unsubstantiated conclusions or parrot journalism.
These activists may be a lot of things, but one thing is certain. They are not terrorists.
October 24, 2001
UPDATES & ANNECDOTES
Terror and Quarantine
Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, protecting the health, safety, and general welfare of citizens is at the forefront of government's responsibilities. Emergency health threats, including those caused by bioterrorism and disease epidemics, may require the exercise of extraordinary government functions. The Model State Emergency Health Powers Act grants specific public health powers to state governors and public health authorities to ensure a strong, effective, and timely response to public health emergencies, while fostering respect for individual civil liberties.
AIDS cases are reportable in 60% of the 121 countries, whereas HIV
infections in no more than 26%. Notifications are kept confidential by law in
20% of countries. Only 17% have developed HIV-specific legislation against
social discrimination, whereas 10% have passed legislation establishing
financial reimbursement to those who have acquired HIV infection after
injection of HIV-contaminated biologic material, support for occupational
risk, and/or social protection for patients. Only 42% of the 121 countries
report having legal instruments that require screening of donated blood.
Legislative measures that address, generally in a prescriptive but sometimes
also in a protective way, vulnerable groups, such as commercial sex workers,
men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and recipients of multiple
transfusions of blood or blood-derivatives, are reported in 27% of countries.
These people need to hear from you. Call them all over the weekend and demand they cease and desist in their targeting of gay men with federal funds. NOW is the time to take a stand with me against all the federally funded bullshit under the guise of HIV prevention that I have brought to your attention overs the years.
Please call these public officials and tell them, "I am a revolting fag from Frisco fed up with CDC and AIDS Inc warfare targeting gay men. All public health officials must condemn SF DPH STD chief Dr. Josef Mengele KKKlausner and his call for quarantining gay men with HIV. In fucking fag Frisco! NO MORE SHIT HEAPED ON THIS REVOLTING FAG BY THE CDC WITH TAXPAYER DOLLARS!
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, began the inquiry after being informed the San Francisco program was promoting two workshops targeting gay and bisexual men.
"This group's activities were brought to our attention by an activist in San Francisco," said subcommittee aide Roland Foster. "We looked into it, and the subcommittee was convinced his complaint was legitimate and there was evidence to support his claims."
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, director of Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention and Control Services in San Francisco, has suggested a number of measures, some coercive,which he thinks would slow the increase of new HIV infections among gay men. Among them: closing sex clubs and adult bookstores; enforcing no-sex ordinances in bars and clubs; enforcing no-drug policies in bars and clubs; and Internet-based outreach and education, particularly in chat rooms where many gay men meet new sexual partners.
Putting aside political realities when brainstorming on this subject, Klausner also raised the possibility of quarantining those who cannot control their infectivity - e.g., those barebackers who've infected 20 different people and still refuse to use condoms. Many of these measures would probably be infeasible in the current political climate. Still, this doesn't mean they shouldn't be discussed. After all, in an environment where there are no consequences for actions that threaten the public health, it may be necessary to create some.
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