Veteran arrested at 1991 'Freedom Festival' gains partial court victory
Joe Courter
November/December 1995

On July 4, 1991 Governor Lawton Chiles hosted the "Florida Freedom Festival" in Tallahassee, a rally and parade to honor all military veterans, shortly after the Gulf War. The event was held at Tallahassee's Vietnam Memorial near the Capital building and featured speeches by Chiles, Lt. Governor Buddy MacKay, Senator Bob Graham and Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw.

The event attracted veterans from all over the state, including a contingent from Gainesville's Veterans for Peace. The experience of this group was anything but a festival of freedom. The Gainesville Vets arrived at the rally site wearing their Vets for Peace t-shirts and carrying a banner: "Be All You Can Be--Work for Peace" Prior to the ceremony Marine veteran Jerry Williamson and others observed a group of people watching them intently, following them around and pointing at them, and taking photos of them. In Williamson's view, they looked unfriendly, even hostile, so he took several pictures of these folks, basically for the vets protection should there be trouble with these people, who turned out to be plainclothes Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents.

After the hour-long ceremony and before the parade, Williamson, Scott Camil, and Pierce Butler went back to the parking lot to get the other banners out of a vehicle. As they reached the parking lot, Williamson was singled out by the plainclothes agents and separated from Camil and Butler, who were themselves threatened with arrest. Williamson was arrested, questioned and physically assaulted by one agent while the others kept observers at bay. The agents kept demanding Williamson's film. Eventually one agent handcuffed him, put him in a police van and took him away. He was driven to secluded area several blocks away and his film was confiscated (he was compensated with a $5 bill). He was never charged with any crime.

After he was released, Williamson sued the FDLE agents who arrested him for their actions. The following statement is Jerry Williamson's reaction to the recent court decision in his favor:

"When I was attacked and falsely arrested by Lt. F. H. Mills of the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco at the Fla. Freedom Festival, July 4th, 1991, the circumstances were unusual because the attack occurred in daylight, at a public ceremony and was witnessed and recorded by numerous reporters and photographers. Since that time, several other events have occurred which may lend some understanding about the way the "system" works to protect and cover up the misdeeds of law enforcement officers who are accused of wrongdoing.

"Recently the Federal District Court of Appeals ruled in regard to my civil lawsuit against Lt. F. H. Mills that he had no probable cause to arrest me. The court's ruling and the details of the events which influenced their decision stand in stark contrast to the numerous instances of false and misleading information provided to the media by several state officials, starting with the false statement given to Robert Burns of WCTV, Channel 6, Tallahassee. In an effort to try to justify the attack against me, Mike Hawkins of the ATF stated on camera that I followed the agents around, "purposely taking their pictures," that the undercover were not part of the crowd, and that the agents continually tried to avoid me.

"The internal investigation done by Capt. Brody Rowe of the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco concluded that Lt. Mills' attack on me was justified because of the absurd falsehood that I had "pushed" Lt. Mills. Richard Scully, Director of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, said that the story was "backed up by several agents." I specifically told the investigator that I had carefully avoided any physical contact with Lt. Mills, yet none of the numerous non-police witnesses were interviewed. These witnesses include an aide to Governor Lawton Chiles who observed Lt. Mill's attack on me and reported it to the Governor. The governor's immediate knowledge of the attack was apparent when he told the F.D.L.E. agent in charge of security, John Sullivan "...that shouldn't play around here." The official investigation made no mention of Lt. Mills' unjustified use of force during his violent attack on me.

Janet Ferris, who was Secretary of the Department of Business Regulation at the time, described Mills' actions as "good police work." John Currie, spokesman for the Department, said that "one of the agents who was photographed was a woman from Tampa [Elaine Pavan] who had received death threats." The appellate court ruling stated in truth that my photographs were "not of Pavan." The court's decision that Lt. Mills had no probable cause to arrest me refutes any pretense that Lt. Mills' actions were good police work.

"The immediate disassociation of the F.D.L.E. from Lt. Mills' actions was probably the most effective cover-up of all. During the Freedom Festival, Lt. Mills was supervised by Special Agent John Sullivan of the F.D.L.E. Sullivan himself slapped me on the head as I was being led away handcuffed. This attack was recorded on videotape as were the actions of other F.D.L.E agents who threatened and interfered with photographers and private citizens similarly but less than did Lt. Mills.

"The internal investigation's conclusion was so far from the truth that I filed a sworn complaint with the State Attorney in Tallahassee. Shortly after submitting my complaint to William Meggs, I received a reply from C.W. Goodwin, chief assistant State Attorney, "declining to file any criminal charges" against Lt. Mills because they did "not see any criminal intent on the part of Lt. Mills." I presume that they could not see because they did not look. After I made my complaint, neither I nor any of the witnesses were contacted or interviewed by the State Attorney's office.

"Perhaps the most perplexing incident occurred sometime after I filed the civil lawsuit. My lawyer submitted a Notice of Discovery, along with several other documents, to the court. Sometime later, the Notice of Discovery vanished from the court record and two sentences elsewhere in the record referring to it were covered with "white-out." I find this alteration and obliteration of the court documents to be especially disturbing."

Photo caption:
Jerry Williamson (left) carries the Veterans for Peace banner in a demonstration in Washington, D.C., November 12, 1994, to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

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