"There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop!"
Mario Savio, 1962.
Tony wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He had tried to solve the problem peacefully, through all the appropriate routes, but the administrative agency simply would not help. After the third time trying to meet the boss in person, and on the third time being refused and turned away, he refused to go. He expressed his frustration with the system and with the administration and with each administrator, so they called the cops. He expressed his frustration with the police and how they were 'handling' him and how the entire situation was completely absurd. His voice, his protest, fell on deaf ears. He was arrested and charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.
But let’s back this story up about two years.
Tony lived peacefully in North Georgia. He was on disability and working his way through school, but otherwise kept to himself and spent a lot of time doing research in the library. One day he received a notice in the mail about his medicaid use in South Georgia. Someone, using his name and identity, had been receiving addiction counseling and care in a South Georgia rehab facility, and Tony was going to be on the hook for it.
Tony called medicaid to report the fraud. They directed him to the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS), the administration that manages Tony's medicaid benefits. He called DFCS to report the fraud. They tell him to fill out some forms and send them in; he does. Months pass and he gets another notice about his medicaid benefits being used in a different area of Georgia for addiction and related services - but still no word from DFCS about solving this fraud problem. He calls them again and they tell him to fill out the same forms and send them in; he does. Nothing happens for months. He calls them and they make him do the same thing. This time though, someone from DFCS gives Tony his contact information - a main point of contact to personally handle Tony's fraud case.
For months, Tony and his contact exchanged periodic e-mails. These were mostly Tony checking in every few weeks to see if there was any progress - there was none. Over the course of the next few months, Tony was sent up and down the administrative ladder. He was bounced between many departments and spoke to a number of various supervisors with fancy government titles, but nobody actually helped him. Finally he was sent back to his original 'personal' point of contact and told to come into his office to handle this fraud.
Tony doesn't own a car - it's part of his disability. He walks and takes public transit everywhere he goes. His trip to the DFCS office to meet with his personal point of contact took him over 3 hours, one way. When he got to the DFCS office, they turned him away at the door - he "didn't have the appropriate papers" even though he had everything that they told him to bring. After a few weeks and more calls, e-mails, and letters, Tony was told to come back to the DFCS office to meet with his point of contact. He traveled three hours out to the DFCS office and was promptly turned away at the door - his point of contact hadn't properly scheduled the meeting. Another month later, after more calls, e-mails, and letters, Tony was told to come back to the DFCS office AGAIN. He traveled three hours there, waited in line, and then was told again that they didn't schedule him right.
That broke his patience. After months of calls, e-mails, letters, 15 hours of travel to and from the DFCS office, and their continued refusal to help him report and fix a fraud, he couldn't take it anymore. He lost it in the DFCS waiting room, the police came, and he was arrested.
He bonded out and hired attorney Chris Cahill to represent him. The procedure in the misdemeanor case took about a year. Mr. Cahill negotiated the case to where he would receive no punishment - no fines, no jail, no probation - if he pleaded guilty and admitted that he was out of place. Tony rejected that deal, "f*** them, take it to trial!" knowing that a loss at trial would very likely result in some jail time, fines, and probation.
Jury selection proved interesting. Through dozens of questions across a panel of prospective jurors, attorneys try to pick a fair jury. Really it's juror DEselection, because the lawyers don't get to pick who they can keep, but rather they get to remove jurors that they think won't like their case. Attorney Cahill asked if anyone had actually seen a DFCS office - these offices are absolute chaos because they are the dustbin for all the difficult government functions, mixing the worst stereotypes of the DMV and government employees with families in complete crisis and folks with serious disabilities and health issues. Three jurors stated that they'd been to the DFCS office, and the state removed all three of them because they didn't want anyone on the jury who had actually experienced the frustration of the DFCS office. Another question Mr. Cahill asked was, "Who has participated in any protests or demonstrations?" About half the jury pool raised their hands. There were some who participated in the women's march and BLM recently, and then very last prospective juror - a lady with a kind face and knee-length salt-and-pepper hair - told us that she had participated in the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. "Yeah I was there. I got pepper-sprayed and everything! It was a good time." With the attorney for the state having already used all of her strikes, Mr. Cahill planned his strikes to keep this salty original hippy.
The trial proceeded immediately after jury selection. The state first put the officer on the stand - he stated that he didn't see anything but that he told Tony to leave, Tony didn't leave, so he arrested Tony. Next was the security officer who stated pretty much what the police officer stated. Finally there was the manager of that location, Tony's personal contact. This man stated that he knew about Tony's issue, but didn't know a lot about it. He stated that it was his job to address medicaid fraud complaints, like Tony's. He knew that Tony had a long-standing fraud issue, and he knew that it had not been resolved. He knew that the fraud issue was what Tony was trying to solve that day. Mr. Cahill then asked a fairly simple question: "Who owns DFCS?" The manager couldn't answer the question. "The people of the State of Georgia, I guess."
Once the State closed their case, Tony took the stand. He described the fraud issue and all his efforts to resolve it through the proper channels. He described how all of his efforts, following their instructions to the letter, were in all useless. He described how he was told to come the the DFCS office to resolve the issue, and how it took him three hours to travel each way to and from the DFCS office. He described how, despite his best efforts, he was continuously rejected by the very people who were supposed to help him. On the stand he testified that, even after everything that he did, and after everything he continued to try over the year in which the criminal case against him was pending, that the fraud had STILL not been addressed.
The state's attorney then tried to cross examine Tony using all their standard methods. Tony, however, is an exceedingly intelligent person who spent over two years studying DFCS procedures in order to deal with the fraud claim. Tony didn't just stand up to a thorough cross examination, he dominated it. By the end of the cross examination the attorney for the state was completely defeated.
Closing arguments were brief. The attorney for the state's theme revolved around keeping order in the government office and emphasizing that Tony wanted the DFCS office to work how he wanted them to work. Mr. Cahill's closing focused on the cost to Tony of DFCS's mismanaging Tony's complaint, rationalizing Tony's frustration, and stating firmly that all we want the DFCS office to do is their job duties. Mr. Cahill framed Tony's outburst as an act of protest and that he, as a citizen of the State of Georgia, was entitled to the basic governmental services that the government took upon itself to complete. "All we're asking is that they just DO THEIR JOB."
The jury deliberated for less than 30 minutes. They came back and announced NOT GUILTY on both misdemeanors. Tony was free to go.
This case had a number of interesting facets. First, there is the mind-boggling inefficiency of government administration. They set up a system, the system breaks or is abused, a person tries to follow the system to fix the problem, and the system breaks for him too. Second there's the way that the government deals with criticism - with the upstart's immediate arrest. Third we have the absolute refusal of the state prosecutors to admit when they are wrong. The negotiations were to a point of NO PUNISHMENT. The prosecutors were willing to let this guy go but they weren't willing to do that unless he said he was guilty of a crime, and if he continued to assert his innocence then he risks being put in jail by the judge after trial. They were saying, in a way, that they'd want to let a guilty man go free and let an innocent man risk jail. Fourth we have an interesting juror dynamic. On the one side, the state specifically excluded jurors who had actually seen how DFCS works - the most valuable people to have on a jury because they have first-hand experience with the exact government office being scrutinized. That means that the state's attorney wanted to pick a jury that was not knowledgeable on the subject matter. On the other side, Tony and Mr. Cahill had the 'pick of the litter' as to folks who participated in active protest, the folks who could best identify with the defendant and the defense theory of protest. The final really interesting aspect is Tony's testimony. He was able to tell his story in excellent detail and he was the most knowledgeable person about DFCS procedures (even compared to the DFCS manager who testified).
Together, Tony and Mr. Cahill fought the uphill battle against the system. They fought against a system that refuses to help and responds to criticism with persecution. They picked a good fight and got a fair jury. They presented their case and ultimately the jury made the right decision, finding the defendant not guilty on all counts.
Despite the win, Tony’s fraud claim has still not been resolved.