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Case dismissed in apartheid protest

By Harold A. Stern

A Boston Municipal Court judge dismissed on Monday a case against 12 people for trespassing during a protest against the sale of the krugerrand, a South African gold coin, at a local currency exchange.

Police had arrested 42 demonstrators for trespassing at the Boston branch of Deak-Perera Inc., one of the largest coin dealerships in the nation, last December. Twelve of them asked for a jury trial.

Three MIT faculty members were among the defendants: Willard R. Johnson, professor of political science at MIT and president of TransAfrica, a lobbying group for Africa and the Caribbean; Melvin H. King, adjunct professor of Urban Studies and former mayoral candidate in Boston; and Marilyn Richardson, assistant professor in the Writing Program.

Over 1900 people have been arrested nationally in demonstrations against South Africa's apartheid system, Johnson said.

The trial

The demonstrators requested a jury trial for some of their members "in order to get it into the public record the context and motivations" behind the protest, Johnson said.

The defendants had offered a compromise to District Attorney John Gibbons. They would not demand a jury trial for all of the people arrested. They would consolidate their case into one trial if they were given a jury trial, Johnson continued.

He admitted there was a risk involved for the twelve who agreed to have their cases put on trial. The maximum applicable penalty was 30 days in jail. "But we felt confident we could convince a jury of peers that we are public servants," Johnson said.

Reasons for dismissal

Evidently, Johnson claimed, the defendants were "convincing enough in their general outline of approach," because the judge "felt the outcome was predictable."

The judge dismissed the case after Gibbons advised that "the issues being raised by the defendants are serious, but this is not the forum," according to The New York Times.

Gibbons felt they would tie "up the Boston Municipal Court for a four or five day trial over a charge of trespassing ... going to the trouble and expense of a jury trial is not worth the commonwealth's time or money."

Richardson attributed the District Attorney's reluctance to see the case come to trial to the demonstrators' superior resources.

"What we can speculate is that we had 12 defendants, four lawyers, and six expert witnesses," she said, "while the District Attorney had to present the prosecution's arguments himself. The imbalance in preparation and expertise was substantial."

Richardson said Gibbons was in a no-win situation. If he had won the case, "the commonwealth would have appeared to be successful in defending a pro-South African position."

Reasons for protests

Richardson said the protests resulted from "a year of particularly vicious repression in South Africa."

The demonstrators are "fundamentally trying to provoke some change in South Africa," Johnson said. Among their demands were the immediate release of imprisoned black political and labor leaders, and a constitution which gives blacks representation.

The protestors accused the United States of being too accomodating of the South Africans. Johnson said South Africa can now "see a friend in Washington," because the Reagan Administration lifted trade restrictions with that country.

"The krugerrand is the most important export item of the South Africans," he said. Its sale puts billions of dollars in their treasury. Demonstrations have been held at several locations where the coin is sold. Four places have ceased to deal in them, according to Johnson.

"We also want to raise the American public's consciousness of the racist government. Our demonstration and attempt to have a jury trial contributes greatly," Richardson said.

Continuation of demonstrations

After the defendants were released, they continued their vigil outside Deak-Perera, Johnson said.

The protesters requested a meeting with the top management of the company "to give them a rational explanation" why they should stop selling the krugerrand, he continued.

Johnson asked Christopher D'Elia, manager of the store, to convey their demands to the owners in New York. They requested "an immediate temporary suspension of the handling of krugerrands, until a meeting is arranged with management."

D'Elia replied that while he did not believe that "the protest was an appropriate method of communication," the demonstrators were welcome to enter the store, according to Johnson.

Johnson then called Lesley Deak, president of the holding company which owns Deak-Perera. "His secretary said he will not take our call until the demonstration is called off."

"This was not something that you could expect us to comply with. I told him that we confined [the protest] to Boston. If that was not sufficient, we have demonstrations planned in other sites," he said.

The protests have been continuing at Deak-Perera on a regular basis, about two or three times a week.