Over 400 people were arrested while protesting at the 2000 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Philadelphia, PA. This website provides information on their legal situation and the issues they are protesting.


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Bully Puppet

08/15/02 - by Gwen Shaffer - City Paper

The puppetmakers hoped their civil suits would yield big settlements and police reform. Thanks to a massive attack by the city's high-powered lawyers, they're getting neither.

At a few minutes past 3 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2000, public defender Bradley Bridge hopped out of a cab in front of a warehouse at 4100 Haverford Ave. Two sheriffs' buses were parked in front of the building, which was surrounded by scores of cops. A handful of police officers paced the roof, while another group formed a barricade on the street to block access to the warehouse.

Bridge was there at the request of Stefan Presser, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU. Activists are holed up inside, Presser had told Bridge. Can you go over and advise them of their legal rights?

The first hour after Bridge arrived, police officers denied him contact with activists inside the warehouse. Around 4:30 p.m., then-Deputy Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and then-Commissioner John Timoney's legal adviser John Gallagher pulled Bridge aside. Philadelphia police had obtained a search warrant, they revealed. Johnson asked Bridge to go inside and negotiate a surrender. Before sending him in, Johnson warned Bridge to be careful because "all the violent activities" taking place in the city at the time -- the week of the Republican National Convention (RNC) -- were being directed from the warehouse. He also warned that the activists inside were manufacturing poisonous acid, Bridge recalls.

Bridge eventually emerged to declare the activists would surrender, on three conditions: that he be allowed to accompany law enforcement officials when they searched the warehouse; that everyone would be released if nothing illegal was found; and that two activists be permitted access to the media camped out across the street. Johnson agreed to the terms.

Seventy-five people filed out of the warehouse, which had been the construction and staging site for various puppets and floats to be used in demonstrations. They were detained in sweltering sheriffs' buses for five hours, then finally taken to the Roundhouse and charged with a slew of misdemeanors -- including conspiracy to obstruct the law and resisting arrest. The puppetmakers were held in jail until after the Republicans had dropped the last of their balloons from the First Union Center rafters and skipped town.

In November 2000, the District Attorney dropped charges against 32 people arrested inside the warehouse. Ten other protesters accepted the DA's offer for 6 months' probation followed by a clean record. In December 2000, Municipal Court Judge James DeLeon presided over a preliminary hearing for the remaining 33 defendants. After listening to testimony for three and a half days, DeLeon concluded the DA lacked solid evidence against the remaining defendants and tossed out all the charges.

Between May and August of 2001, over a third of the self-described "puppetistas" sued the city over alleged violations of their civil rights. They assumed their cases would be strong enough to net not only substantial cash payments but significant reform in the police department.

Now it looks like they'll be getting neither.

The reason, they say, is the unusually aggressive tactics of the law firm that's represented the city in these cases. Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin has gone so far as to argue that lawyers like David Rudovsky, perhaps the most respected civil rights attorney in Philadelphia, were at the "heart" of the convention-related demonstrations, intending "to engage in civil disobedience, get themselves arrested, and continue disrupting the system from inside the city's jails."

"I think they were trying to prove this was a massive conspiracy planned by activists before coming to Philadelphia," says Bridge, who was deposed by Hangley Aronchick lawyers. "Their questions reflected this paranoid theory. ... [The city's] lawyers seem to believe that everyone who came to Philadelphia came with the intent of engaging in illegal activity. I thought their intent was lawful protest."

Michael Graves maintains he didn't know any of the protesters who took up residence in his West Philadelphia warehouse, a former trolley barn, in June 2000. He simply rented out the building to pocket an extra $500. Nevertheless, he was denied access to a lawyer during the 54 hours he spent in jail.

In the civil suit Michael Graves v. the City of Philadelphia, the warehouse owner charges that he was wrongfully arrested, detained and prosecuted. He also claims city officials seized and destroyed nearly $10,000 worth of his personal property in violation of his constitutional rights. David Rudovsky and his partner Paul Messing are handling the case.

Graves' is one of several civil suits connected to the puppet warehouse now in settlement negotiations. Twenty-four of the 26 suits were consolidated under Traci Franks v. City of Philadelphia, and the activists are being represented by Lawrence Krasner, Paul Hetznecker and Andrew Erba. The plaintiffs charge city officials of depriving them of their rights to freedom of speech and expression, as well as due process of law. Plaintiffs also allege they were falsely arrested and detained, maliciously prosecuted, and that their property was illegally confiscated.

Tamara Sisson v. City of Philadelphia is also being settled out of court. Sisson contends she was arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to her complaint, Sisson traveled to Philadelphia with a group called Everybody's Kitchen to distribute food to activists. She dashed into the warehouse to use the bathroom when cops surrounded the building, the lawsuit claims. Rudovsky and Messing are also representing Sisson.

And last month, Adam Eidinger -- who was arrested in a van driving away from the puppet warehouse -- filed a civil suit alleging that police took his clothes and other personal items from the warehouse.

[In addition to the puppet warehouse cases, two alleged "ringleaders" of the protests filed federal lawsuits against the city. John Sellers, director of the Oakland-based Ruckus Society, was imprisoned for six days on $1 million bail before 14 misdemeanor charges were dropped. Activist Terrence McGuckin was held on $500,000 bail, and ultimately convicted of disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway. The ACLU is also representing several volunteer medics arrested during the convention. Because of gag orders, it is unclear whether these cases are settled or still in litigation. Ten criminal cases are also pending in the courts - see sidebar.]

More than monetary damages, RNC activists hoped to win "injunctive relief" -- forcing reform of the criminal justice system by calling for curbs on police surveillance and infiltration, and demanding that arraignments take place within 48 hours. Plaintiffs initially anticipated that the city would cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle the claims.

But the ultimate resolution is looking quite different.

A transcript from a June 18 hearing in the Traci Franks case spells out the details of the agreement for the consolidated suit.

According to the transcript, plaintiffs agreed to accept a "global settlement" of $72,000, which will be divvied up between two nonprofit groups: the Spiral Q Puppet Theater and Books Through Bars. The figure was derived by awarding $3,000 to each of the 24 plaintiffs.

In July, the Traci Franks file was sealed, and a gag order forbids any of the parties involved from discussing details. But whatever the final dollar amount ends up being, the settlement agreement won't drain city coffers of a dime because it's all covered by insurance.

The host committee for the RNC, a group of high-profile Philadelphians led by attorney and Comcast exec David L. Cohen, paid $100,000 for an insurance policy six months prior to the convention. The supplemental policy specifically covers up to $3 million for "personal injury" arising from claims of false arrest and wrongful detention or imprisonment; malicious prosecution; assault and battery; discrimination; violation of property and civil rights; and wrongful eviction or wrongful entry. The insurer, Lexington Insurance Co. in Boston, hired Hangley Aronchick to handle the civil suits.

Lexington's investment in high-powered legal services was a good one, it seems. During the June 18 hearing, Hangley Aronchick attorney David Wolfsohn implied that the insurance carrier will be able to claim a tax deduction for contributing the $72,000 "global settlement" to charity.

So why aren't the puppetistas demanding their cases go to trial?

Many activists say they agreed to settle because they are wary of turning over more e-mails and meeting minutes to the city's attorneys, fearing that plans for future legal protests would be compromised if the documents wound up in government hands. They also decided to throw in the towel when it became clear the city would not agree to reforming police procedures -- in this post-September 11th world, law enforcement agencies are expanding their scope, not narrowing it. "People embarked on this to get a certain injunctive relief," says Kris Hermes, spokesperson for the R2K Legal Collective, a group of lawyers and other volunteers who offered legal assistance to the 420 activists arrested during the RNC. "But because that wasn't happening, there was less incentive to carry on."

Plus, plaintiffs are doubtful a jury would be sympathetic to political dissenters, given the current political climate.

"There is a general deep desire by Americans to see police officers as the bulwark protecting them, and they don't want to confront anything indicating officers have the power to abuse us," says ACLU's Presser.

The biggest obstacle: The activists' attorneys want out as quickly as possible. They accepted the cases of the puppetistas on contingency fees. Short on manpower and financial resources, they simply can't keep pace with a major law firm eager to bill hundreds of dollars an hour.

Activists deposed and subpoenaed by the firm say Hangley Aronchick's lawyers are defending the city with vigor. The activists' address books, personal tax records and entire computer hard drives have been subpoenaed. Sources say Hangley Aronchick's lawyers hired investigators to question ex-wives and flew across the country to interrogate witnesses -- all financed by the insurance policy.

And there was the motion to depose plaintiff's counsel.

In a Dec. 17, 2001, motion, attorneys with Hangley Aronchick requested permission from a federal judge to depose Rudovsky and several of his colleagues. According to the motion, these civil rights lawyers had been "deeply enmeshed" in protesters' plans to break the law and clog city jails during the RNC.

Rudovsky has argued two civil liberties cases before the U.S. Supreme Court; written several books on the rights of prisoners and police misconduct; won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986 for work in criminal justice; and is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He wasted no time in filing a response to the motion, comparing the conspiracy charges to "baseless McCarthy-type allegations."

"In an attempt to deflect attention from the merits of the case by attacking plaintiff's counsel, the city embraces a tactic that has sordid historical roots," Rudovsky writes in his response. "For example, in the 1950s, high government officials contended that lawyers who represented persons with communist affiliations were as dangerous as their clients."

Judge Norma Shapiro was swayed by Rudovsky's argument, and denied Hangley Aronchick's request.

Presser was among the attorneys Hangley Aronchick had hoped to depose, even though Presser does not represent any of the puppet warehouse plaintiffs directly. He characterizes the request as "enormously unusual," noting only one similar situation during his 20 years of practicing law. A decision by the Eighth Circuit Court in Shelton v. American Motors Corp. condemns the tactic of taking the deposition of opposing counsel, saying it "not only disrupts the adversarial system and lowers the standards of the profession, but it also adds to the already burdensome time and costs of litigation."

But the motion is just one example of how these "straightforward" civil suits have been anything but straightforward, Presser adds.

"It has turned into a knock-down, drag-out, take-no-prisoners battle," he says. "It's unfortunate."

But money has made it possible, Presser speculates. "I think these cases would have been solved much sooner if they weren't covered by an insurance policy."

Each time Hangley Aronchick files a motion or hosts a deposition, the firm bills the city's insurance company for at least $250 an hour, according to legal sources. Witnesses subpoenaed and deposed report that the firm had six or more attorneys and paralegals working on the case at any given time. The R2K Legal Collective estimates the firm has run up an $1.5 million in legal fees. (Rachel Rivlin, general counsel for Lexington Insurance Co., says payments are confidential, so the precise amount is unknown.) By contrast, some of the plaintiffs' attorneys work for themselves and don't even employ full-time secretaries to answer the phones.

Angus Love, an attorney and director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, was subpoenaed and deposed by Hangley Aronchick because he worked as a "legal observer" during the RNC. He echoes Presser's theory that the insurance policy changed the entire dynamic of the civil suits.

"The city usually does a half-assed job of litigating these cases because the typical bureaucrat doesn't have the time or energy," Love says. "Now we have a private law firm that is used to a higher level of attack. Wolfsohn is going after political protesters as if they were right-wing terrorists."

Plaintiffs' attorneys declined to comment on the record for this story. Repeated calls made to both Hangley Aronchick and the City Solicitor's office went unreturned. Christine Ottow, spokesperson for Mayor Street, says the city does not comment on pending litigation. At the time of the warehouse raid, however, Street was vocal on the subject of the protester arrests and his expectation that lawsuits would follow.

As hundreds of criminal charges were being processed on Aug. 2, 2000, Street told reporters that protesters had been on a "mission" the day before.

"What we experienced yesterday was a certain sort of guerrilla warfare, a certain kind of terrorism that was calculated to completely disrupt and bring this city to a standstill," Street said.

The mayor added that he "fully expected" the city to be sued. "But we expect that we will defend the city. ... We will defend our police department" to the Supreme Court if necessary, he said.

Hangley Aronchick cast their net well beyond the alleged "guerrilla" plaintiffs and their lawyers, however.

Those subpoenaed ranged from well-known activists to plaintiffs' relatives and organizations with connections to the protesters.

Jody Dodd says she will be relieved to see the cases settled. In the past year Hangley Aronchick has served her with four subpoenas -- one because she is an organizer for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, another because she led training sessions for the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, and two because of her affiliation with R2K Legal.

"I'd like to see these cases go away," she says. "As an activist, this sucks up time and energy and I doubt if the political benefits are enough to make it worthwhile."

Dodd's subpoenas were sweeping. One dated Jan. 10, 2002, requests any documents mentioning 30 separately named individuals; all documents "relating to witnesses, potential witnesses, and/or potential plaintiffs for or relating to any lawsuits or potential lawsuits" against the City of Philadelphia or the police department; and all documents relating to training of activists prior to the Republican Convention, among 11 other specific requests for videos and documents.

The subpoena served to Roy Zipris, an attorney with the Defenders Association who trained legal observers prior to the RNC, is similar.

"I got subpoenaed for everything -- e-mail addresses, names of people trained, manuals," he says. "It was an incredibly broad fishing expedition, and little of what they requested was relevant to the puppet warehouse suits."

Hangley Aronchick also attempted to subpoena piles of documents from small nonprofit organizations like the Ruckus Society and Spiral Q Puppet Theater. Hangley Aronchick requested "[a]ll documents relating in any way to any communications with any individual(s), group(s), and/or entity(s) regarding organizing, planning, conducting, participating in, and/or supporting civil disobedience or organized protest at or during the 2000 Republican National Convention."

Characterizing these subpoenas as overly broad, Krasner filed a motion to quash them. He also asked the judge to fine Hangley Aronchick nearly $1,000 for serving them and "to deter future uncivil conduct by defense counsel during ... RNC litigation," Krasner wrote.

In a Sept. 5, 2001, letter to Tamara Sisson's attorney, Paul Messing, Wolfsohn asks if any relevant e-mail messages had been deleted from the hard drive of Sisson's computer.

"If they have, we will seek the appointment of a computer forensic expert to Śreconstruct' the Śdeleted' e-mail," Wolfsohn writes.

Wolfsohn deposed Dr. Charles Sisson, Tamara's father, on Nov. 21, 2001. Wolfsohn raised the issue of jail solidarity. He asked if it would be "of concern" to Dr. Sisson that his daughter's lawyers were trying to advance "a political agenda" through her lawsuit.

The ACLU's Presser, who accompanied Dr. Sisson to the deposition, objected on the grounds that there was nothing to substantiate these claims. Dr. Sisson answered only that he'd "be surprised."

Attorneys on both sides have also argued over whether the R2K Legal Collective is entitled to the same protections afforded attorneys. Volunteers insist they acted as "paralegals" so their contact with plaintiffs is privileged. Hangley Aronchick disputes that R2K Legal volunteers deserve protected status.

Public defender Bridge, who represented some of the civil plaintiffs when they faced criminal charges, thinks it's ironic that attorneys defending the city treated him like a criminal three months after he negotiated a surrender at the warehouse. "I was involved [on Aug. 1, 2000] at the behest of the police department to resolve this in a way that avoided injury."

Hangley Aronchick attempted to subpoena all of Bridge's documents referring to the RNC -- including letters from clients. Wolfsohn also deposed Bridge for four hours on Nov. 20, 2001. He grilled Bridge about why he logged onto the R2K Legal website, and whether he believes Philadelphia police were justified in surveilling groups suspected of planning to "shut down" the city during the RNC.

Bridge declined to answer about 50 questions on grounds of attorney-client privilege. Hangley Aronchick filed a motion attempting to compel his responses, but a judge denied it. Bridge characterizes Wolfsohn's tactics during the deposition as "stretched, aimless and uninformed."

Not everybody closely tied to the collective was subpoenaed or deposed, but this was certainly not due to lack of effort on the part of Hangley Aronchick.

Marina Sitrin, a New York City attorney who worked closely with R2K Legal, says a man knocked on her door "for days on end" starting just before Christmas 2001. According to neighbors, he would show up around 7 a.m. and pound the door until 11 a.m. "It bordered on harassment," Sitrin says.

Since she never answered the door, Sitrin cannot be 100 percent certain that the visitor intended to serve her with a subpoena. However, a number of people say they were questioned about Sitrin's whereabouts during their depositions.

R2K Legal's Kris Hermes moved to California soon after the civil suits were filed, and Hangley Aronchick desperately sought to track him down. Nearly every subpoena issued by the firm asks for Hermes' whereabouts, and the question came up during many depositions.

Plaintiffs in the consolidated suit against the city are forbidden by the gag order to discuss terms of the settlement. But a few of them still have plenty to say about the legal process they've been through.

Matthew Hart is the director of the Spiral Q Puppet Theater. By the time the puppet warehouse was raided, Hart was intimately familiar with surprise L&I inspections. Just weeks earlier, on July 21, inspectors barged into his studio at 1307 Sansom St. and evicted the activists inside.

In connection with the civil suit, Hangley Aronchick ordered Hart to turn over "all my e-mails, date books, phone records and schedules," he says, noting that Judge Shapiro ultimately ordered the firm to narrow its request. Still, lawyers obtained every e-mail Hart sent during a 10-week period -- some of which he reread during his deposition last September.

"They had one exchange between me and my mom, when we were talking about rice pudding," he laughs. Hart characterizes the hours of questioning as "bizarre" and "perfunctory."

"Attorneys for the city inferred this massive conspiracy that I don't even think the people involved had the capacity to pull off," Hart says. "I think their biggest intention was to move as slowly as possible and bill more hours. From our end, it's difficult to understand the firm's motivation, except that the case is a golden goose."

Hart is glad to see the litigation winding down. But in contrast to activists alarmed at the thought of documents being relinquished to the feds, he actually hopes for that outcome. "What we were doing was so clear -- setting up studios for local activists to build puppets for street theater," Hart says. "The documents are redeeming."

Traci Franks Schlesinger, the lead plaintiff in the consolidated suit, is working on her Ph.D. in sociology at Princeton University. After being arrested at the puppet warehouse, Schlesinger was kept in jail for 12 days. She acknowledges refusing to identify herself to police during most of that time.

"We figured that if the city had to go through more trouble, perhaps officials wouldn't make mass arrests in the future," she says.

Schlesinger characterizes her deposition as "the most upsetting part" of the litigation because it reminded her of "the McCarthy era." Hangley Aronchick had already gotten hold of e-mails exchanged over the Direct Action Network listserv, and Schlesinger's name popped up a number of times. During her three-hour deposition, an attorney asked if DAN was an "anarchist" organization.

"It seemed as though he hoped to prove I was an anarchist, and then it would be legitimate for police to arrest me," Schlesinger says.

She also believes her civil suit would have been settled quickly if taxpayers were picking up the tab for the litigation. "The city is always going to want to justify our arrests, but officials are able to pursue this strategy because of the insurance policy."

The massive West Philly warehouse is quiet now except for the rhythmic thumping of a basketball in an adjacent alley, where neighborhood boys shoot hoops. Graves' dog Ginger rolls around on the cement in a vain attempt to stay cool. Just like the week of the RNC exactly two years ago, the air is scorching.

Today, the warehouse is filled with an eclectic mix of tools, trash and trucks. One must squeeze through a labyrinth of items -- rolls of sheet metal, antique bikes, a rusty steam radiator, a milk crate filled with wood slats -- in order to explore the place. Empty cans of Pedigree dog food litter the floor.

But on Aug. 1, 2000, the warehouse was a flurry of activity. While Graves languished in jail, facing criminal charges that were subsequently dropped, police searched his property and seized nearly $10,000 worth of items. A sampling of the possessions for which Graves seeks to be reimbursed: a $1,600 video camera; a $125 cell phone; a $150 wheelbarrow; cases of polyurethane valued at $1,500; 50 cans of wood stain worth $1,200; a $100 stepladder; and six propane tanks worth $510.

Graves is dumbfounded as to why officials confiscated items that "obviously" belonged to his flooring business. While most cops and L&I inspectors "behaved very decently," Graves characterizes the pilfering as "atrocious."

He points to a metal briefcase so warped it can't be closed. "The bomb squad exploded it," Graves says with a "go-figure" shrug of his shoulders.

A property receipt from the Philadelphia Police Department describes other items seized from the warehouse during the RNC: several balloons containing an "unknown liquid substance" and a blue plastic canteen filled with "unknown liquid." A Philadelphia crime lab report dated Aug. 4, 2000, concludes that this mysterious fluid was ... water. (So much for the poisonous brew police warned Bridge about.)

Not only protesters have been caught up in this web.

Graves' wife, Susan Ciccantelli, is anything but a radical. In fact, she questions whether street demonstrations are an effective means of forcing political change. When Ciccantelli initially laid eyes on the protesters building puppets at 4100 Haverford, she saw them as a bunch of scraggly, naive kids who reeked of sweat mingled with patchouli.

When her husband rented out his warehouse to 10 puppetmakers, Ciccantelli says she had "no clue" the building would be transformed into a hotel/convention center for hundreds of protesters.

Ciccantelli initially signed on to her husband's suit against the city, but soon realized she lacked the resolve to go through with it. And after skimming the subpoena Hangley Aronchick served her on Aug. 24, 2001, Ciccantelli's reservations make sense. The firm requested "all documents" relating to her bank and investment accounts, as well as her most recent tax returns. Hangley Aronchick's lawyers also told Ciccantelli to turn over any documents evidencing her "alleged" common-law marriage to Graves.

After being interrogated by Wolfsohn for eight hours over two days last October, Ciccantelli says she was "traumatized" by some of the "personal and inappropriate" questions.

For most Philadelphians, the 2000 RNC is remembered as a week of minor annoyances -- long waits at restaurants and traffic jams. But for activists, civil rights lawyers and others directly affected by the 420 arrests, the convention is a historic milestone.

The National Lawyers Guild frets that members will hesitate to work with political activists in the future because the city is "going after" lawyers and legal observers who advised RNC demonstrators, says public defender Roy Zipris, a Guild officer.

"I'm a lawyer, not a member of any protest groups," he says. "Yet I was deposed for nearly four hours."

Other activists see a silver lining.

Jodi Netzer, who initially contacted Graves about renting his warehouse, says the local activist movement is stronger than it was two years ago. A "whole boatload" of activists moved to West Philly after the convention. Some came to deal with their arrests, others were attracted to the highly publicized anarchist community, and still others saw opportunities for "coalition building" in Philadelphia, Netzer says.

Yet personal and professional lives remain "derailed" as a result of arrests at the warehouse, says Spiral Q's Hart. "In spite of the amazing work we do, a reporter is calling me today about the lawsuit," Hart says. "All we do is still boiled down to this absurd moment when our civil rights were violated."

As for Graves, his plan to make 500 bucks during the RNC has cost him far more -- emotionally, mentally and financially. Settlement is close, and Graves expects to recoup the cost of property taken by police two years ago. But his arrest has taken a toll which money alone can't compensate.

Soon after Graves got out of jail, L&I inspectors visited his property. They slapped him with dozens of electrical code violations, which he just recently resolved after shelling out $50,000 for repairs. Dealing with legal issues took precedence over his hardwood floor business, and Graves' small company dissolved. Most significantly, Graves says the cumulative stress has permanently fractured his personal relationships, including his marriage.

"All this," he laments, "because a bunch of kids planned to sit in traffic."

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