Lawyers Dispute Validity of Protesters’ Arrest

By Matt Bean, Court TV
August 1, 2001
CLEVELAND ( Court TV) — The trial of five activists who say they were unfairly arrested for an opening day 1998 protest against the Cleveland Indian’s team logo, Chief Wahoo, began Wednesday with brief opening statements and a look at a video of the protest itself.

“You will get a chance to see what happened that day. This is a classic case of overzealous and overreaching police conduct,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Terry Gilbert. “We are here, ladies and gentlemen, to ask you to hold the parties responsible accountable for their actions.”

Defense lawyer Tom Kaiser, however, claimed the police were entirely justified in their actions. “These five people who used an accelerant to burn an effigy were arrested, not out of any animus for Chief Wahoo protesters, but because they had endangered others and had broken the law. None suffered any injury. None were put to any expense. None suffered any damages.”

“They were warned not to light the effigy,” Kaiser added. “I guess the cameras were rolling, they felt they had to light it, and they did.”

The April 7, 1998, demonstration that led to the trial was staged by the arrested protesters — Vernon Bellecourt (a member of the Great Lakes tribe the Chippewa), 70, Juan Reyna (Apache Tribe of the Southwest), Charlene Teters, 46, Zizwe Tchiguka, 43, and James Watson, 42 — and approximately 60 other activists next to the team’s downtown Cleveland ballpark.

To protest the logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, a symbol that has been attacked for years by rights groups as a racist caricature of American Indian stereotypes, they burned an effigy of Chief Wahoo, along with effigies of Cleveland Mayor Michael White and a racist symbol of African Americans called “Black Sambo.”

The lawsuit, which names the Cleveland Police Department, and its then-chief, Rocco Pollutro, seeks an injunction of future arrests and unspecified damages from the department for wrongful arrest, illegal imprisonment and violation of the protesters right to free speech.

The department did not return calls for comment, but officials claimed in a 1997 trial against two of the protesters, Bellecourt and Reyna, and another activist, that they were arrested because they endangered others outside the stadium.

The jury saw the protest for themselves Wednesday afternoon when Gilbert introduced his first piece of evidence, a video recording of the protest. The defense did not object to allowing the video into evidence and, though Kaiser declined to comment on the case, both sides seem confident that they can convince the jurors of their take on the events.

Jurors watched attentively as the first effigy, made of clothing stuffed with newspapers, was set ablaze by Bellecourt, Reyna and Tchiguka. They watched as it fell to the ground and then was finally hit with an extinguishing blast from a member of the Cleveland Fire Department. The soggy mass lay on the pavement as the police moved in to arrest the protesters. One woman juror furrowed her brow as Tchiguka was cuffed and led to a paddy wagon by arresting officers.

Later, that same juror shook her head when a female protester yelled out in the video, “You guys never would have survived if it wasn’t for Native Americans. If they were smart they would have shot you when you got over.” This remark brought laughter from the plaintiffs, but the jurors did not seem amused.

The eight-member jury is comprised of six men and two women, all white. During voir dire, Gilbert used two of his three preemptory challenges to excuse a white female juror whose brother is a member of the Cleveland police department, and an older white male who is retired. The second challenge brought in a white male who works as a firefighter in Cleveland.

Jockeying over the scope of the trial — the defense would benefit from a narrower window, while the plaintiffs needs to demonstrate a pattern of rights violations — began early, with Kaiser filing a motion to exclude mention of an earlier arrest for effigy burning that first brought Bellecourt and Reyna into the courtroom.

“It’s my view that if we start trying earlier protests … we open up a can of worms,” Kaiser argued.

But Gilbert argued that the two protests could not be separated. “This evidence is important for the state of mind of the defendants,” he said.

The movement to change the Cleveland Indians’ logo has met with considerable resistance locally. “Chief Wahoo looks happy to me,” said Bob Rosen, president of the Wahoo Club, the official Cleveland Indians booster club since 1962.

“We feel that it’s one of the greatest mascots around, as evidenced by the amount of merchandise that you see people wearing worldwide with Chief Wahoo on it,” he added.

The owner of the Cleveland Indians, Larry Dolan, declined to comment on both the logo controversy and the pending court case, but he has said in the past that he plans to keep Chief Wahoo as a logo for as long as he continues to control the team.

Cleveland Indians spokesperson Bob DiBiasio told Court TV, “We happen to believe that a vast majority of people have the perception of our logo as being one of baseball, that when they look at our logo they think of the great players that played here.”

“If there is no intent to demean, can something be demeaning?” DiBiasio asked.

Despite Chief Wahoo’s apparent resilience, anti-logo groups say that their efforts are paying off. And this trial has given them another platform for their cause.

Before court Wednesday, the protesters gathered in front of the Cleveland Justice Center. The group, which started with only nine members and grew to about 15, peacefully displayed banners, one of which bore stereotyped, Wahoo-like caricatures of an African American, Asian and a Hispanic figure and the label, “These honor who?”

Passersby, including a number of people dressed in Cleveland Indians jerseys, hats and T-shirts, stared politely as they made their way up the brick steps to the looming Justice Center, one of the tallest buildings in downtown Cleveland.

“We are not only defending our rights but in doing so we are defending the rights of all human people,” said Bellecourt, summarizing the group’s goals for the local media, which was well-represented. “It’s time to come out of the dugout with a new team name, a new logo and a winning spirit.”

Behind the protesters in a windowed section of the Justice Center, a room full of blue-suited Cleveland police officers gathered to watch.

Judge Daniel Corrigan, on whose bench sits a stuffed leprechaun figure, indicated that he intends for the trial to conclude on Friday. Corrigan helped speed the trial along early in the day when he rejected Gilbert’s motion to screen jurors individually, saying individual voir dire “is a long and tedious process. I don’t think this case rises to that level of gravity.”

The plaintiff’s lawyer will begin calling witnesses Thursday morning when court resumes at 9:00 a.m. ET.