On the Mark Curtis Case – by Barry Sheppard

By Barry Sheppard

I did not mention the Mark Curtis case in my book because it took place after my involvement in the SWP. I resigned from the SWP a few months after Mark Curtis was arrested on March 4, 1988 and well before he was brought to trial.

I have reviewed the case since Patrick Scott mentioned it in his review of my second volume.

As far as I have been able to discover, the following are the facts:

Mark Curtis was a member of the Des Moines, Iowa, branch of the SWP at the time of his arrest. He was employed as a meatpacker at the Swift plant in the city, part of the SWP’s fraction in that industry.

The big meatpacking outfits had been waging an offensive against the wages and conditions of packinghouse workers for some time, including at Swift’s plant in Des Moines. Part of this attack was to sow divisions among the workers along nationality and race lines. Employed at the plant were a number of Latino workers, including some without documents.

Curtis, who is white, spoke Spanish, and was an outspoken advocate of unity in the workplace and union, including support for those without papers.

On March 1, 1988, the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the plant and arrested 17 Latinos for not having papers, including workers who had applied for amnesty under a program initiated by the Reagan administration. The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund protested the arrests. Activists in the community, especially Spanish speakers, called for a protest meeting March 1 at the Mexican-American Community Center. Some Swift workers walked off the job to attend, and more came after work, including Curtis, who spoke at the meeting in Spanish.

After the meeting, Curtis and other Swift workers went to a bar, Los Compadres, to celebrate the success of the meeting and talk over what to do next. At 8:30 p.m. Curtis left the bar and drove home. From home he called a friend to ask her to let two friends who were coming over to Curtis’ place to into her house for a few minutes while he went out at 8:45 to buy refreshments for the SWP public forum scheduled for the next night.

Curtis claimed that as he was driving on this errand, a young African-American woman hailed him, saying someone was chasing her. She asked Curtis to drive her home. He says he then escorted her to her porch. (I’ll return to Curtis’ story below.)

The police said they received a call at 8:51 from the woman’s 11-year-old brother that his sister was being attacked on their porch. Within 30 seconds, according to the police, two officers arrived at the house and arrested Curtis, preventing a rape in the nick of time.

After being taken to the police station, Curtis was able to call an SWP member to say he has been arrested, but he didn’t know the charge. A police officer then said, according to this SWP member who could hear him in the background, that the charge was sexual assault.

The police said that Curtis then assaulted them, and in self-defense they subdued him, and took him to a hospital to treat his wounds. The police made no claim that they were hurt, nor were they treated for any wounds.

Curtis claimed that the police put him in a choke hold, yelling that he was a “Mexican-lover just like you love those coloreds,” and beat his face with their batons. When they were finished, they took him to the hospital, where they cuffed him hand and foot to a table while he was being stitched, telling the staff that Curtis was a rapist who had AIDS.

The SWP branch moved quickly to find out what happened to Curtis, and swiftly raised the $30,000 bail that had been set the morning of March 5. He was released at 2:00 p.m. The SWPers immediately saw that Curtis was badly hurt and dazed, with a bandage over one eye. They took him to another hospital. Doctors there found his wounds around his eye, which was swollen shut, were still bleeding from a botched stitching job the police had arranged at the first hospital. The doctors at the second hospital also found that Curtis’ cheekbone had been shattered by the police blows. The SWP branch members recorded his wounds on photographs.

The SWP launched a defense effort charging that Curtis had been framed. Racial tensions in Des Moines were high. The police had a long reputation for racism. Many whites were angered that Swift had hired so many Latinos and other immigrants, bringing them into what many whites thought was “their” community. The defense effort found wide support among Swift workers, and in the Black and Latino communities. Over the next period the campaign won wide support nationally from civil liberties, Black and Latino rights groups, and even won support internationally.

On the other side, the police and district attorney’s and mayor’s offices went on a counter-campaign, contacting those who signed petitions or sent letters on Curtis’ behalf across the country to harass them. In addition, the Workers League, the U.S. affiliate of Gerry Healy’s group in Britain, joined in the authorities’ campaign. They made this case as an add-on to Healy’s charge that the SWP was responsible for Trotsky’s assassination, and that the SWP leadership, including me, were all agents of the FBI and the Soviet KGB.

With the backing of the Workers League, the father of the alleged victim attacked the SWP Des Moines bookstore and headquarters, while the police looked the other way.

Soon after Curtis was released, mass actions centered on the Latino community grew, demanding justice for those arrested in the INS raid, which won a partial victory. Curtis spoke at these events.

Given the high profile in the city of the struggle of the Swift workers and the INS raids, the city authorities and police knew of Curtis’ political activities. Curtis’ charge that the police called him a “Mexican-lover just as you love those coloreds” has the ring of truth, and that’s how the overwhelming majority of Latinos and Blacks in Des Moines saw it, too.

Some weeks after his arrest, Curtis was formally arraigned. The charges of sexual assault were reduced to third degree sexual assault. This charge carried a relatively light sentence, so a new charge was added, that of burglary, which carried a sentence of 25 years. The threshold of proof for the burglary charge was Curtis’ presence on the property. That was the sole evidence for this charge, as no stolen items were found in Curtis’ possession.

The trial was a farce. The judge refused a defense request to see the personnel files of one of the arresting officers, and barred the defense from any mentioning at the trial of his long record of lying and brutality.

The judge prevented Curtis, who testified at his trial, from mentioning the beating he received, and that the cops called him a “Mexican-lover, just as you love those coloreds,” which proved the police knew at the time of his arrest about his political activities. The photos of his beating were quashed.

The judge also prohibited any mention of the father’s attack on the SWP headquarters.

He excluded any testimony on the FBI’s surveillance of Curtis’ activities with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), or of the SWP or YSA.

When the jury asked to have portions of the testimony of the lying police offer reread to them during their deliberations, the judge refused.

The judge also refused to instruct the jury, as the defense requested, on the importance of Curtis’ presence at the Los Compadres bar up to just a few minutes before the alleged rape attempt, a fact attested to by many who were there.

The judge had dismissed the only Latino on the jury on the grounds that he was familiar with the United Mexican-American Community Center and Los Compadres.

After the trial, which convicted Curtis, and he was sentenced to 25 years on the burglary charge, one of the jurors said in an affidavit that she was convinced of Curtis’ innocence, but the judge hadn’t informed her that if she had stuck to her conviction the judge would have had to declare a mistrial.

The timeline, as established by the facts and testimony, made the police case extremely dubious. Curtis was in Los Compadres until 8:30. He made a phone call from his home before going out at about 8:45. The call to the police was at 8:51, and the police got there in 30 seconds, supposedly just in time to prevent a rape. That does not ring true.

Curtis maintained his innocence while he was in prison, up to when he was released on parole after eight years. During his time in prison he was repeatedly offered early release if he would take a program for sex offenders, which he was willing to do, except a precondition for entering the program was to admit his guilt, which he refused to do. (Even the prison authorities knew the burglary charge was bogus.)

All these facts lead me to the conclusion that I do not believe the police version, and that Curtis was framed. I can only speculate, but I think it likely that the police, who spied on the Los Compadres gathering, followed him from the meeting, then home, and then to the young woman’s house. That’s most likely why they were only 30 seconds away, not just there by chance.

Many years later, Caroline Lund and I met a young woman, Tami Peterson, who had been expelled from the SWP. Her story is contained in a comment on the comments section of this blog. She relates that after Curtis got out of prison, she knew him in the SWP. At one point, Curtis was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, and lied about it to his SWP branch. He was expelled for lying to the branch. (I suggest reading her full account. Tami herself was expelled for discussing the case with a member of the national committee, who had not heard about it! This WAS a case of a cover up by Jack Barnes.)

This report to Caroline and me by Tami caused me to think back to Curtis’ original story, concerning why he was at the alleged victim’s house. It sounds fishy, and I don’t believe it. After he was confronted, years later after his prison sentence, with the proof that he had solicited a prostitute (actually an undercover cop) he said he lied about it because he was ashamed. I would speculate that his story about being hailed by a woman in distress in 1988 was also a lie because he was ashamed of whatever the real truth was. It might have been something like what happened years later, and perhaps he was concerned that it would become known to his wife.

In addition to the case developing largely after I left the SWP, my suspicions about Curtis’ original story led me to decide not to refer to it in my second volume, which is a political memoir centered around my own activity. I had no connection to the Curtis case, but I did refer to Tami’s expulsion in my second volume.

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3 Responses to On the Mark Curtis Case – by Barry Sheppard

  1. David Altman says:

    Barry, the main body of your post would lead one to the conclusion that you believe Curtis’s story about how he happened to be arrested on the young woman’s porch. Then, at the end you state that subsequent events (Curtis’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute) cause you to doubt him. So, which is it? Do you think Curtis was guilty or not? I for one always doubted Curtis, but I didn’t want to be on the same side as the cops and the despicable Workers League. But there’s a question of basic proletarian morality here; how likely is it that a 14-year-old girl and her 11-year-old brother would be in on a police frame-up of a socialist activist? The SWP’s line seems to be that as a socialist Curtis was incapable of committing such a crime. This is the the same reasoning that causes some people to say that a priest is incapable of molesting children.

  2. David Altman says:

    Also, you seem to recount the “facts” of the case as related by Curtis himself and the SWP. Have you bothered to investigate this story independently? Other people (not just the Workers League) have, and they draw different conclusions.

  3. Hello, the comments below are from my original comment on the SWP_USA Yahoo listserv on this issue. I would preface by commenting that regardless whether future history reveals some more directed police counter-intelligence program against the SWP in particular or even whether Mark Curtis was or was not guilty of a crime of rape, I believe Barry’s contribution is helpful in a broader context.

    Yes, I do understand Barry is saying both that Curtis “lied but was also framed” (a statement made on the yahoo list querying Barry about his statement). It is a cautionary tale that is not unlike others that show indeed that the state is watching “us”–not in some literal sense of always– but to take advantage of very human flaws that cross into illegality for the sake of repressing democratic rights and associating revolutionary activity with criminal activity.

    Other poignant examples are the numerous incidents where breaking laws on illegal drugs were used as a pretext to clamp down on activist leaders and mass movements. I am reminded of the sad case of La Raza Unida Party and its demise during the campaign of Ramsey Muñiz for Governor of Texas (1974) where the campaign was destroyed with his arrest on drug charges largely trumped up, but unfortunately true at a base level.

    There are others of course. And, the “import” of politics or groups do not have to have some national or coordinated significance; police squads (e.g., the New York Red Squad, Houston, Tx. police dept) have and will regularly look for ways to engage in repression on “local threats”. Hence, it is not surprising that Curtis might have been targeted given his relationship to the union fight in Des Moines, Latinos, and the SWP. It is also entirely likely he made himself more vulnerable for his “flaws”–not minimizing the level of misogyny inherent in his activity, but simply pointing out that our human failings–in this case, as men influenced by sexist society–can create an opening if the state wishes to use it.

    So, yes, it is possible to have been a sexist pig, a revolutionary–at least in the realm of one area of politics–engage in risky illegal behavior that “normal” (i.e., non-threatening to the state) people might not be targeted and be framed owing to the state’s nefarious designs all in one case. While such a victimization by the state should be opposed, it is also difficult to defend because of the underlying issues. And, in the end, it is entirely possible that Curtis’ “flaws” brought out some of the worst of the sectarian cultism inherent in the SWP’s bureaucratic functioning.

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