Activists Face Jail Time

by Janice Christensen

On Wednesday, April 26, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Michael B. Brennan tossed out a plea bargain and sentenced four Democratic campaign workers to jail time for puncturing the tires on 20 vans on Election Day, 2004.

Lewis Caldwell, Lavelle Mohammad, Sowande A. Omokunde, and Michael Pratt had pleaded no contest in January to misdemeanor property damage in a plea agreement with prosecutors who recommended no jail time.

According to the original complaint, the vans had been rented by the Republican Party of Wisconsin to transport poll watchers to their poll locations on the morning of Election Day 2004. According to a November, 2004 interview, Rick Wiley, RPW political director, stated that the incident resulted in some poll watchers arriving at their posts “two hours late.” The vans were also used later in the day to transport voters to the polls if they requested it.

One of the defendents told the Currents that the rash action against the Republican Party transportation plan was the result of anger among the Democratic volunteers directed against the Republican organizing efforts.

According to a USA Today article (Nov. 2, 2004), “…a spokesman for America Coming Together, a Democratallied voter mobilization group, reported that hired Republican poll monitors in orange Tshirts were collecting voter addresses at polling places and entering them into handheld computers. The spokesman, Phil Walzak, said the shirts were emblazoned with ‘HAVA’ – an apparent reference to the Activists Face Jail Time new federal voting law [Help America Vote Act].”

The Democratic organizers saw the Republican campaign to challenge voters in central city neighborhoods as a device to instill fear and frustration among innercity and especially African American citizens at the polls. This was seen as an effort to lower turnout in these strong Democratic wards. It was not seen as a friendly effort to increase voter participation.

In his sentencing decision, Judge Brennan admonished the defendants for “interfering with voters’ civil rights,” although at the time of the event, there was no evidence that any voters were prevented from reaching the polls because of the tire slashing incident.

Each of the defendants was fined $1,000 in addition to $5,317 total already paid in restitution. Caldwell and Pratt were sentenced to six months, Mohammad to five months, and Omokunde four months.

The defendants were offered work release time as part of their sentencing. In addition, three of the four received four hours release time on Sunday for religious observances. Lavelle Mohammad was not offered the additional Sunday time. No reason was given for this discrepancy.

At print time the defendents were not available for comment on the latest development in the case. There has not yet been an official announcement whether they will appeal the sentencing.

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2006