BY REBECCA GETTLEMAN
DES MOINES, Iowa - "The new challenges facing Mark Curtis are going to be in Chicago," John Studer, national coordinator of the Mark Curtis Defense Committee, told the weekly meeting of the group at the Forest Avenue Library in the Des Moines Black community January 9. "Therefore, the defense committee has to be in Chicago."
Curtis, a union militant and member of the Socialist Workers Party, has been imprisoned in Iowa for the last seven years on frame-up charges of rape and burglary. Curtis was arrested, beaten by the police and framed up while he helped organize a successful union campaign to defend 17 coworkers from Mexico and El Salvador who had been seized in a federal immigration raid at the Swift packing plant in Des Moines where they worked. The cops who brutalized him while in custody called Curtis a "Mexican lover, just like you love those coloreds." These two police officers were found guilty of battery by a U.S. district court judge in 1992 and ordered to pay $11,000 in damages.
After an eight-year-long fight, the Iowa State Board of Parole granted Curtis parole on November 21. He remains behind bars awaiting approval from state officials in Illinois, where he has requested to be released. Curtis's wife works in Chicago and he plans to live, work, and be active in politics there.
"We expect that Mark will walk out the front gate of the Iowa State Penitentiary sometime in February," Studer told the meeting. "He will be met by a delegation of unionists and other supporters of his fight for justice and speak to the press. We already know that both the Des Moines Register and a number of the area TV stations are planning to cover his release. Mark will explain that he is going to Chicago to resume his political activity outside prison walls and to pledge his support to those who remain behind bars fighting for justice - from Leonard Peltier to Mumia Abu-Jamal.
"Then he will get in a car and travel to Chicago," Studer said.
"This will mark the most significant turning point in the defense campaign since Mark was arrested and beaten in March 1988. We will no longer be fighting to win Mark's release from prison. We have succeeded and he will no longer be incarcerated," Studer continued.
"Instead, Mark will face new challenges. He will have to deal with whatever restrictions are imposed on him by Iowa and Illinois parole authorities. Along with thousands of others, Mark will also face additional challenges from a series of `sexual predator' laws recently adopted in Illinois. These laws, have been enacted under a bipartisan propaganda barrage concerning the alleged `special' character of sex offenses, which justify the suspension of basic constitutional rights for those who are released from prison after serving time for convictions on these charges. This legislation is a blow to political rights and can potentially be used by those who supported the frame-up to target Mark and harass him.
"Also hanging over Mark's head is the $80,000 financial judgment won by the family of the woman he was framed on charges of attacking as part of the efforts of supporters of the police to break Mark and his supporters," Studer said.
"We must expect that forces like the anti-labor group called Workers League will press to use the `sexual predator' laws and the financial judgment to launch new attacks on Mark, to attempt to block his participation in politics, and to deal blows to the political rights of all those who are propelled into action today to defend themselves from the attacks by the government and the employers."
Studer reported that Curtis has secured two lawyers in Chicago: Jed Stone, a criminal defense attorney, who will work to hasten his parole and limit the extent of the restrictions the authorities may seek to impose; and Matt Piers, a noted civil liberties lawyer, who has agreed to serve as Mark's general counsel, prepared to respond rapidly to any new legal attacks that may arise.
"Facing Mark and his supporters are not renewed debates about what happened in 1988," Studer noted, "but potential new attacks in 1996. We have won his freedom. Now we must organize to defend his rights outside prison walls."
Moving base of defense to Chicago
"To do this effectively requires that the defense committee, which has worked hard for more than seven years to win Mark's release, pack up its files and equipment and move to Chicago," Studer said. "This is where Mark will be. This is where new attacks on him and his rights will come. This is where he has retained new lawyers to help meet these challenges. This is where the political and fundraising center for his supporters must be based."
Moving base of defense to Chicago
Studer proposed that Curtis supporters gather at the Pathfinder Bookstore in Des Moines, where the defense committee has shared office space, to help prepare the move.
"We need to go through all our files," he said. "Some of them can be prepared for permanent storage as historical files - for the information of students of working class history and as a resource for others seeking examples to study to prepare to meet new government attacks. Others can be put into shape to be readily accessible and sensibly organized in order to meet new attacks as they arise.
"We need to put all the financial records of the defense fight into a balanced statement summarizing what we have raised and spent over the last seven years," Studer said. "Taking these steps will put Curtis supporters in Chicago in the best situation to carry forward the political and fundraising work of the committee from its new base in Illinois."
Studer also announced that he would be moving to Chicago to help make the transition go smoothly.
Over the weekend of January 13-14, volunteers spent many hours poring through the files and preparing them for the move. Studer and Hazel Zimmerman, secretary-treasurer of the committee, headed up a team to sort through the political files of the committee. Barbara Bowman, a local volunteer, coordinated a team organizing the financial files.
Julia Terrell, former treasurer of the defense committee, and Curtis's next door neighbor at the time of his frame-up, came in and donated a painting made by her son-in-law of the apartment where Mark Curtis lived in 1988.
Defense committee files organized
Supporters organized a file of photographs recording many key turning points in the fight. These included photos of the demonstration in support of the "Swift 17" a week after Curtis's arrest; the founding meeting of the defense committee; the unionist speaking to the court on the day of his sentencing; his meeting in prison with Andile Yawa, a representative of the African National Congress Youth League of South Africa; of attacks on the bookstore and defense committee headquarters; of delegations to the parole board to urge his release and to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations to present his case; and of the meeting held the night of his being granted parole.
Defense committee files organized
Committee support group mailings, literature, correspondence, minutes of meetings, and summaries of campaigns to gather letters to the parole board were put together for each of the seven years of the committee's existence.
Materials issued by supporters of the cop frame-up to attack him and disrupt his defense effort, along with answers from the defense committee, were filed.
Files were prepared covering numerous other campaigns over the life of the defense fight - from defending Curtis's right to receive material in Spanish in prison to countering the decision of prison authorities to deny him a copy of the pamphlet Why Is Mark Curtis Still in Prison? issued in 1995 by Pathfinder Press.
Files from each of Curtis's legal fights - from his trial and appeals, to his federal civil rights lawsuit victory against the cops who beat him the night of his arrest, to the harassment damages suit against him - were organized in chronological order for easy reference. Financial files for each year were pored over and ledger sheets balanced against bank records. Over the next two weeks, volunteers plan to compile a concise one-page financial summary of the entire seven years of fundraising for public release.
As Illinois authorities are winding up their review of Curtis's request to be paroled there, the defense committee is well on its way to being prepared to move its base to Chicago, in fighting trim for the next phase of the defense effort.
To help with the move, and to prepare for what comes next, the committee has been conducting a fund campaign to raise $25,000. So far $19,785 has been collected and an additional $3,129 pledged toward this drive.
To contribute, write to the Mark Curtis Defense Committee, Box 1048, Des Moines, Iowa 50311.
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