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Operation Sibyl Drops Some Knowledge
Five people - including local Bay Area seminarian, Becky Johnson - were arrested on Thursday after dropping a "Bush/Truth" banner down the face of the Plaza Hotel. They are currently facing trumped-up charges which could put them in jail for up to 7 years.
"(It) was terrifying, but the way the country's going is terrifying, and I felt I had to make a statement." - Terra Lawson-Remer, Operation Sibyl
On Thursday, August 26, four friends from different walks of life took a deep breath and... jumped. Two of them literally. Months before, the team of compatriots, gripped by a sense of urgency and fear at the thought of another four years under the Bush administration, made the decision to unfurl a message that would strike at the hearts of millions of Americans - most importantly, those hanging on out on the fence, undecided about the role they will play this November.
Cesar Maxit, 28, David Murphy, 31, Terra Lawson-Remer, 26, and the Bay Area's very own Becky Johnson, 25, took a courageous leap of faith last Thursday morning, when they scaled almost seven stories down the side of the Plaza Hotel in New York to drop some knowledge on the world at large. The architect, law student, seminarian and teacher call themselves Operation Sibyl, after an ancient Greek work for a fortune teller - and prophesize they did. Looking for a clear, concise and powerful message that would highlight what the media has worked to help the general population forget, the crew raised enough funds to rent a room at the Plaza, from which they began their operation at 5am on the 26th. At 6:15am they began rappelling from the 11th floor down the face of one of New York's landmark establishments, "the crown jewel of Manhattan's fabled Fifth Avenue", according to the Plaza's website. After an excruciating three hours, during which local police were slow to respond, the group unfurled their banner at 9:30am, per their exacting calculations. With a bold arrow pointing backward labeled, "BUSH", and an opposite arrow pointing the way forward, labeled "TRUTH", the 2400 square foot banner presented a dramatic visual message that spoke volumes about the past four years and the potential for four more of the same.
While the length of time from the beginning of the operation to the end speaks to the group's efforts to make safety a top priority, as well as a conscious effort to avoid property damage, the NYPD and the City Prosecutor's Office don't appreciate Sibyl's thoughtfulness. Becky Johnson even went as far as recommending to a policeman intent on getting them off the roof right away that he leave the intervention to trained emergency staff, as opposed to risking his safety and theirs. He ignored her suggestion - and then proceeded to stick his leg through a rooftop skylight, cutting his leg. This bit of clumsiness has skyrocketed the four's charges from misdemeanor offenses to outright Class D felonies, which could garner them up to 7 years in prison, should they be convicted. The tipping point? An assault charge stemming from the officer's blunder. According to a March 10th NYPD document outlining legal guidelines for the convention, officers are instructed to consider charging protesters with second-degree assault if any are injured while trying to make arrests. And it has become evident that the "Plaza Four", as they have been dubbed, are to be held up as preventative examples for all those who choose to speak out this week in New York. Operation Sibyl's lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, a veteran attorney who once defended Abbie Hoffman, calls the charges "bogus". In an interview with the SF Bay Area IMC, Lefcourt affirmed that this was obviously a calculated tactic to dissuade citizens from protesting and exerting their First Amendment rights. He confirmed that at present, all four protesters are on equal footing, and there does not seem to be a move on the part of the prosecutor to single any one person out - especially as at least one member has a prior protest conviction. They are currently slated to appear before a Grand Jury on November 30, and Lefcourt says he is going to push for the 2 misdemeanors and 2 felonies to be dropped all together. "(We) are not trying for a downgrade - we want all the charges dropped all together."
This could prove difficult, given the fact that Mayor Bloomberg and New York District Attorney, Bob Morgenthau, have vowed to enforce the law to its full extent - even if that means laying the trumped-up charges on thick. That also meant arresting the fifth player in Thursday's action, local city employee and spokesman for City Councilman David Yasskey, Evan Thies. Having consulted professionals about the desired outcome of their action, it comes as no surprise that the group chose a public relations professional to act as their media coordinator. Unfortunately, that foresight was lost upon Mayor Bloomberg, who called the actions of the group "an outrage", and by Councilman Yassky himself, who felt the methods employed at the action were "wrong".
As for Operation Sibyl itself?
The group ultimately wanted to stress how far ordinary citizens would go to reach out to a wide audience about such an important social issue. After being separated and suffering through a grueling 25 hours in the bowels of the Manhattan Supreme Court - during which the two men were robbed and assaulted in their cell - Judge Gerald Harris arraigned and released the foursome on their own recognizance Friday to the cheers of supporters, despite the $2,000 bail that the prosecutors had requested. Thies, who participated only as a police liaison on the ground during the action, was charged with a misdemeanor of criminal facilitation and released earlier in the morning at 3 am. Of the action itself he said, "They're ordinary people. They were scared to death up there today. Yeah, they were planning on getting arrested, (but) they don't know what their future is going to bring. These are people with careers, people with something to lose."
The SF Bay Area IMC will continue to keep you updated on the story as it unfolds. In the meantime, even though Attorney Lefcourt has graciously donated his services pro-bono, Operation Sibyl has already amassed a pile of bills, which are only an indicator of the ones that will continue to come after Lefcourt's time. Contributions can be sent to:
c/o Gerald Lefcourt
148 East 78th Street
New York, NY 10021
Contributions are not tax deductible.