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Freedom Riders on film

By ROBYN E. BLUMNER, Times Perspective Columnist
Published April 3, 2005

Here are some of the things that keep me up at night:

* We have a Congress that sees fit to intercede in a family tragedy to burnish its Christian Right credentials.

* We have an Army and intelligence service engaged in brutal practices against detainees in contravention of law and basic human decency.

* We have a president who is spending our national treasure like it's Monopoly money - putting us in hock for generations - to fund an unnecessary war and a profligate regime of tax cuts.

But just when you think there is nothing to do but watch with sad eyes as this nation sinks from greatness, you meet two guys like Adam Elend and Jeff Marks. Elend and Marks - founders of Tampa-based EM Productions - are young, energetic documentary filmmakers who represent the reality-based community's best hope for the future.

They have just completed their first full-length documentary, Fighting for Life in the Death-Belt, a paean to legendary death penalty lawyer Stephen Bright, whose Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights is ground zero in the race against the executioner's clock.

The documentary follows Bright and his colleagues as they try to stave off lethal injection for two defendants: Carzell Moore, who takes a state offer of life without parole - a victory for the center; and Wallace Fugate, a man who killed his ex-wife during a domestic dispute.

While Fugate admits to shooting his ex-wife, he said the gun went off accidentally. There was, according to Bright, available evidence that the gun model used had a propensity for accidental firing, but that was never brought out by his court-appointed lawyers. We watch as Fugate's fate is sealed by a system uninterested in the slipshod lawyering he received at trial. Despite the Herculean, round-the-clock efforts of Bright and his team, Fugate is put to death.

The film, which is making the festival circuit, including a showing at the Florida Film Festival in Orlando on April 10, starkly illustrates the arbitrariness of the ultimate penalty and the tension-filled, hurly-burly world of attorneys who do postconviction capital appeals.

But Elend and Marks would just be another set of talented filmmakers if it wasn't for their special zeal for challenging wrongs and standing up for America's founding values.

Like modern-day Freedom Riders, they are even willing to put their liberty on the line in the name of challenging abuses of power.

Elend and Marks were arrested in 2002 outside a "Jeb Bush for Governor" rally in the University of South Florida Sun Dome at which President Bush was also in attendance. They had come to protest the distant cages - known euphemistically as "First Amendment zones" - into which dissenters are corraled at every presidential visit.

The video they made of the arrest is pure political theater. Here is the awesome power of the state amassed to rid the USF campus of a dire threat: messages critical of the president. If you didn't know better, you'd think the scene was something out of Castro's Cuba.

As Elend taped, Marks, along with fellow protester Joe Redner, held signs reading "War is good for business . . . invest your sons!!!" and "Why do you let these crooks fool you?" They were holding the signs - sans poles - across a frontage road from the arena entrance where a long line of people had a clear view. (The men are seen rather stoically absorbing insults lobbed from the crowd.)

That's when police approached. (To the cheers of the waiting Bush supporters, who obviously relished the idea of someone getting arrested for disagreeing with them.)

Knowing this confrontation was inevitable, the men had brought copies of relevant U.S. Supreme Court decisions to prove they had a right to dissent against the government in close proximity to their targeted audience. But no one in uniform was interested. Instead, the men were directed to the First Amendment zone hundreds of yards away - so far that it wasn't visible. They were arrested after they refused to comply.

As the scene unfolds, the video captures Bush supporters streaming into the arena, some carrying signs reading "Jeb!". No one in authority has any problem with those.

The charges of trespassing against Elend and Marks were eventually dismissed by a judge. The point, after all, wasn't to put them in jail; it was to shut them up while the president was around. Mission accomplished.

The young men are now suing. I hope they win a damage award large enough to fund what should be their next film project: Fighting for Free Speech in the Bush-Belt. Just another story of justice subverted.

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