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Page 55
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The Pizza Man

By Peter Mahoney

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This is an old story. Back in 1973, I was on trial in Gainesville Florida along with seven other members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War for conspiracy to incite a riot at the Republican Convention in Miami Beach in 1972, the Gainesville Eight case.

Peter Mahoney at Dewey Canyon IV, May 12, 1982.

We were in the second week of what turned out to be a four-week trial, and I had just had a particularly bad day in court. The government's case against us consisted almost exclusively of the testimony of informers, and day after day, we were subjected to a stream of former friends, associates, and colleagues taking the stand for the prosecution, admitting that they had been paid government informers, and testifying against us.

We already knew about some of them, like Bill Lemmer, the former VVAW Arkansas Coordinator. Some were a surprise to us, like Emerson Poe, the Florida Deputy Regional Coordinator, who was a trusted member of our Defense Committee up until the day he testified (in one of the more bizarre facts about the case, Poe testified that the key piece of evidence the prosecution was using against us—a leaflet put out by the Florida chapter that stated, if necessary, VVAW would defend itself and other demonstrators from police violence—had actually been reproduced using the FBI's copy machine).

On this particular day, it was my turn to be surprised. A man I had considered to be among my best friends—Carl Becker—had just turned up on the witness stand as an FBI informer. Carl apparently enjoyed the undercover life—I heard after the trial he went to work for a retail store posing as a customer to catch shoplifters. In the preparation for the trial, we had gone over a number of potential prosecution witnesses, and many of my co-defendants were already convinced that Carl was an informer, but I steadfastly defended him. It cut me to the quick to find out how wrong I was.

Not only did Carl testify for the prosecution, he out and out lied in his testimony. You need to understand the situation of an informer. The government is paying them to become your friend, and to report on the bad things you are doing. If the informer continues to come back to his handler and reports that you are doing nothing wrong, then most likely, his paycheck is going to end. It is in the informer's financial interest to report that you are doing bad things. Most of the other informers in our trial stayed generally near the truth, bending it and stretching it as needed to whet the FBI's appetite, and, when testifying, to fit the prosecution narrative.

Carl just flat-out lied. We started calling him the Prosecution Garbage Man. There was so much garbage in the indictment against us for which the prosecution had not a shred of evidence. It was put there to try to make us look as dangerous and violent as possible. Carl apparently was willing to testify to anything and everything the prosecution had no other evidence for, meetings that never took place, conversations that never happened, actions that had never been undertaken. After that day in court, I was feeling like crap, not just because of the utter betrayal of my "best friend," but also because I was stupid enough to consider him my best friend to begin with.

We were on our way back to the Defense House for one of the many lawyer/defendant meetings that happened every day after court, to go over the current day's proceedings and plan for the next day. When you have seven lawyers and eight defendants, coming to consensus can be a long and arduous process.

In preparation for the expected evening's marathon, we stopped by a local pizza parlor to grab a couple of pies. The guy behind the counter looked like a classic redneck —t-shirt, crew cut, beer belly, and an American flag on the wall behind him. His manner was gruff and inhospitable as he took our order. Needless to say, I and my fellow defendants were rather well-known in those parts in those days, and our bearded, pony-tailed, anti-war-buttoned appearance contrasted rather starkly with our pizza parlor host. As we were waiting for the pies, the man continually scowled at us in what seemed to be a particularly disapproving way; I was honestly worried he might jump over the counter and assault us, or maybe just refuse to sell us pizza.

I was wrong.

When the pies came, the man scowled at us again, then gave us a big smile. He handed us the pies, shook each of our hands, and wished us all good luck. He also refused to take payment for the pies.

I needed that.

Peter P. Mahoney was one of the Gainesville Eight. He now lives in Vermont.

VVAW Gainesville 8 demonstration, August, 1973.

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