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In Our Court

Activists find a novel way to deal with wrongs by one of their own.

In the last days of August, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group -- the radical collective behind local anti-war and anti-military recruiting protests -- discovered that its entire $1,140 bank account was gone. The account was in the name of POG member Brian DiPippa, and the ATM card and PIN number had been stolen from his Bloomfield house, which is often open for the group's work.

DiPippa shows bank statements detailing four ATM withdrawals on successive days in mid-August. The group was planning to use its money for everything from legal defense costs to the purchase of T-shirts and Web site hosting.

Then came an explanation -- left inside a street-corner newspaper box a few days later. A former POG member had notified them: She had information. So they asked her to elaborate.

This letter, began the typed, unsigned narrative, is my personal account of ... the theft of the money from the POG account.

I was out for a walk one night ... A car that had been going the same direction on the street ... made a rather careless sharp swerve toward the curb. ... Coming to a complete stop, the window rolled down

There were two people inside the car, from what I could see, and the one on the passenger side asked "Is your name _____?" to which I responded "Yes" ...

"You should get in the car" said the man ...

After a moment of hesitation two firm grips had come on the back of me ... the back seat looked familiar; it resembled the back of a police car, with its hard plastic molded seats, no seatbelts, and no locks or handle from the inside ...

"You were involved with the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, is that correct?"

"Yes, but I haven't been involved with POG for over a year now ..."

"You've been given an assignment" ...

The note, four pages long, said the writer was then handed the ATM card for POG's account at Citizen's Bank, along with the PIN number.

"You are to take this card and make withdrawals from the checking account ... until it is as empty as you can get it," the note's author claimed being told. "Following each withdrawal, the money will be enclosed inside a non-descript envelope along with the transaction slip and deposited at a drop off site ..."

"Why, do you need me to do this -- you all are feds, aren't you?"...

The following night I had left the house at around 11 p.m. to go for a walk, and on this walk I would stop at an ATM to make the first withdrawal. Once at the machine, I had placed a bandana on the shiny area where I had thought the camera was installed in the machine ...

When reaching home my phone rang, and I answered. "Don't do that," a voice [said] ... So I knew I was under surveillance.

Please take this as a warning that your group is under a considerable amount of surveillance, the note concluded, and may be in the process of being infiltrated, if not already.

To those outside radical politics, such an explanation might have sounded otherworldly.

"The state has done crazier things, so it's not that unbelievable," says POG member Brian DiPippa. He and other POG members were well aware of the COINTELPRO efforts by the federal government to stymie left-wing groups in the sixties. And they've seen for themselves the massive police presence -- including undercover officers -- that has greeted some of POG's anti-war protests.

"You always treat that stuff as if it was true," says another member of the group, Alex Bradley. "The state has an interest in seeing how radical groups respond to aggression. If it's all legit, they want to know, who does POG call? What is our response?"

Very quickly, however, the group concluded that the story was an elaborate lie. Members of another radical collective, the Big Idea bookstore in Garfield, had been trying for months to figure out what to do about thefts of books and money totaling about $800. Evidence in both instances began to point to the same person -- a former member of both groups, Khalia Latte. She was born Anthony Foster and is going through a sex change.

Members of the groups also knew of women who'd claimed that Latte assaulted them. The groups collected narratives from these women, describing attempts at forced sexual contacts.

The best way to prove their suspicions about the thefts, of course, would be to have the bank review ATM surveillance tapes. But members decided not to do so, "because then I would have had to press charges," DiPippa says.

For a social-justice group focused on the misuse of state power, these thefts represented perhaps the ultimate test: deciding justice for one of their own, outside the state's own system.

After meeting many times, POG and Big Idea released a statement of their own: The site was posted on POG's Web site on Oct. 10, and has been distributed to other radical groups. It discusses the thefts at length, and includes two accounts from women who'd claimed that Latte had tried to take advantage of them while they were drunk.

Safety is our highest concern, the statement says, and we encourage people in Pittsburgh and other cities to forward this account as widely as possible. Our intent is to increase awareness so that as many people as possible can make informed decisions upon interacting with Khalia.

But the groups have no plans to bring this matter to law enforcement -- certainly not to the police officers who patrol their protests.

"We have a critique of the 'criminal justice system,'" says POG member Marie Skoczylas. "If I don't believe in how the current criminal justice system works, it's my job to model a replacement."

Asked whether she stole from both groups, 22-year-old Khalia Latte says, simply,"I did."

Sitting on the grass of a city park, she adds, "I'm glad for the opportunity to talk about it, and maybe give a little insight into how things got where they are, which is a mystery to me, too."

She struggles visibly to decide between different causes that affected her simultaneously, she says: Unemployment, the need for a medical procedure, a "compulsion" to steal, and a feeling that she has "three personas," one of which "is scorn -- it's kind of like the caged-animal response. If you poke a dog with a stick, that is what happens. None of them are complete. It's kind of like outsourcing to different emotional states. I can do something to a certain group of people and come back to next day and not feel that kind of guilt, because I feel distance.

"But I claim full responsibility," she adds repeatedly.

"Even outsider identity has an in-crowd," she says -- and she felt herself stuck outside the main radical community, in pain and ignored. "How could you not see that I'm drowning inside myself? I'm reaching out to you and you're just letting me go."

As for the claims that she assaulted females, Khalia says, "I have been informed there has been three incidents of sexual assault," says Latte, who has been active in queer politics, including organizing the local Dyke March. "I'm a strong believer in the ethics of survivors. They said I did it, I did it. If people ask me whether I felt that I did it, that's completely irrelevant. I don't think the people that I know, anyone, would fault wrongly. I remember a few instances in which maybe I grabbed people. If people say I touched them inappropriately, I did. Honestly. I think I only remember a fraction of the messed up things that I have done. I do have convictions ... the very pro-feminist things I said ... but I do things that contradict the things I'm saying.

"For the majority of my life I've never been able to ask for help," she adds. The thefts were a cry for help. "I was just hoping that they would see it." She is still seeking professional help, she says.

"Everyone thinks you steal because you're a bad person," she concludes. "It's not that simple. ... "At the end of very day, I have to sit and think, have I stolen anything today? It's almost like an AA program."

Her inability to come forth completely may have done the most damage to her relations with the group. POG members feel that Khalia's attempt to introduce the element of state involvement was in fact more of a problem than the actual theft, the group's statement notes.

"I knew that they wouldn't believe it," Khalia says about her initial story. "Part of me wanted them not to believe it. Part of me wanted to get caught. That's always been my nature. In getting into trouble ... I've never been able to come out and tell the truth."

In the end, it didn't matter -- POG members say there were enough clues about the ruse's author that she was identified.

"It's definitely easier to tell the truth," she says now. "I definitely understand them wanting me to stay away. I've been respecting that."

Latte has a job at a local grocery store, and has paid POG $206 so far, she and DiPippa both say; the bookstore is next.

She doesn't expect to return to membership in either collective. "It'll be a matter of whether people let me into that circle or near it, and it will be a very long time. What's inside my control is changing my ways and getting to a point where people are willing to give me a second chance, or a third or fourth -- whatever chance I'm on now. I don't believe you can ask someone for forgiveness. I believe you have to show them you're about something different. I believe I can demonstrate that I'm on a different path."

Some crime victims might roll their eyes at such explanations. But for their part, POG members reserve their scorn for the idea that jail does any good.

They prefer an approach known as "restorative justice," in which both sides -- victims and perpetrators -- meet to work out restitution. As the Oct. 10 statement puts it:

Those of us who gathered together to discuss this situation have come up with a number of steps that Khalia could take to be more accountable for her behaviors. We encourage her to undertake some or all of the following actions.

Those actions include seeking counseling, apologizing about the money, "[p]ublicly tak[ing] responsibility for her actions" -- explaining what she did with the money and paying it back. The groups are also asking her to stay away from the Big Idea and from POG events.

The thefts were "a major blow" to the operations of Big Idea, adds the statement; store representative Pam Wilson did not want to say more about the incident.

But while the criminal-justice system can mandate attendance at therapy, it can't really change the offender's behavior or mind, says Marie Skoczylas, "because the decision is up to the offender."

"A lot of people harbor real strong feelings and might never be friends with her again," says DiPippa about Latte. "But that's not the point of restorative justice."

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