Ready for a fight

Activist tests rights in speaking up for those who have none

By Joe Piasecki 03/06/2008

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Although a Pasadena Superior Court judge remained unconvinced Monday that the Bill of Rights should preclude the city from punishing Andrew Koenig for an act of civil disobedience on New Year's Day, the filmmaker and activist isn't worried.

In fact, Koenig seemed almost pleased to find out he will return to court on April 7 for arguments about whether his protest of a controversial Rose Parade float representing China was a threat to public safety and a violation of the law.

"I'm fine with it going to trial because it just brings more attention to the cause, which is freedom for people in Burma," said Koenig, who faces a maximum $100 fine, though he had been charged initially with a misdemeanor that carried up to six months in jail. "What I did to get arrested in the first place was to bring attention to the plight of the Burmese."

As the float was making its turn from Orange Grove Boulevard to Colorado Boulevard, Koenig stepped into the street and walked in front of it while holding up a sign reading "China: Free Burma." He walked only a few steps before he was hustled away by police, arrested and detained for nearly 10 hours.

Koenig's father - Walter Koenig, who played Lt. Pavel Chekov in the "Star Trek" television and movie franchise - attended Monday's hearing and later outside the courtroom offered nothing but praise for Andrew.

"I'm very proud of his action. My son has a very strong social conscience and believes that people who are deprived and people who are unfairly subjugated should have the same rights that all people should have," he said.

Koenig, a 39-year-old Venice resident best known for playing Richard "Boner" Stabone on TV's "Growing Pains," traveled to Burma in July with his father and the human rights group US Campaign for Burma, meeting with ex-political prisoners and families driven from their homes by government-sponsored violence.

China, a key trade partner with that nation according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, has blocked the United Nations from sanctioning the Burma's military government.

"We experienced firsthand the oppression and the injury and the devastation that the Burmese government has caused, and as a consequence we both came away feeling a great injustice was ongoing," said Walter Koenig, 71. "Andrew has not been able to shake those feelings, and when he saw the opportunity to express his objection to what was transpiring, he took advantage of it and I applaud him totally on that endeavor."

In the courtroom, however, Koenig's defense gained little ground. First, Judge Suzette Clover granted a motion by city prosecutors Connie Orozco and Frank Rhemrev to block defense attorney Bill Paparian's subpoena of Mayor Bill Bogaard as a witness for the hearing on whether Koenig's case should be dismissed on First Amendment grounds.

The subpoena called on Bogaard to produce documents related to the float and a recording of a meeting between city officials and anti-float activists. The city argued that Bogaard, who had sought advice from the City Attorney/City Prosecutor's Office, did not possess any documents or the tape and that his testimony would be irrelevant to the case.

Caltech Falun Gong Club President John Li, who led several protests against the China float and was present at that meeting, sat in the courtroom, prepared to testify that Bogaard had recorded the meeting. Paparian called the city's claims "dishonest." Bogaard, Orozco and Rhemrev could not be reached Tuesday.

Clover also agreed with city prosecutors that the facts should be heard before she could decide whether to dismiss the case against Koenig over free speech concerns, allowing Paparian to resume that argument at trial.

Paparian, a former mayor of Pasadena, had joined a coalition of activists in decrying the China float as glossing over that country's dismal human rights record and suppression of religious and political dissidents. He ran for Congress in 2006 as a Green Party candidate.

A Glendale resident and registered Republican, Clover is a former federal prosecutor who was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, according to a state press release.

Ironically, Paparian helped create the 1992 ordinance that makes it illegal to interfere with the Rose Parade.

According to city documents, the law was drafted to protect public safety and prevent tortilla-throwing and the spraying of Silly String. City records also show that the law was not intended to interfere with free speech, as long as those actions did not pose a public safety threat.

Activists had also targeted the float due to the Chinese government's occupation of Tibet, support of genocidal forces in Sudan and brutal treatment of Catholics and Falun Gong practitioners.

"China sits on the UN Security Council and they have refused to condemn Burma. China purchases gas from Burma and sells them weapons that the military uses on the Burmese people. So they are really quite complicit, and that was the whole point of protesting the China float," said Andrew Koenig.

There is no Bill of Rights in Burma, and its constitution has been suspended since 1988 by the ruling military junta. A year later, military authorities began promoting use of Myanmar as the country's name.

The former British colony is a source country for human trafficking to East and Southeast Asia for forced labor and sexual exploitation, according to the CIA World Fact Book, and is the world's second largest producer of illicit opium.

In September, the government violently suppressed protests by pro-democracy activists, Buddhist monks and others reacting to a spike in fuel prices. The UN and Amnesty International reported severe beatings and torture of detainees, which included opposition leaders and journalists.

"Their free speech rights have been totally censored. As a country with a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, we need to continue to support and enforce ours," said Walter Koenig, "and [use it to] recognize the rights of human beings all over the world."

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