International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 15 No. 3-4 (July-December 1988)

The Strange Case of Mark Curtis

Workers League Political Committee Statement, August 5, 1988.

For the last five months, the Socialist Workers Party has been engaged in a nationwide campaign, soliciting support for an SWP leader charged with raping a 15-year-old black high school student in Des Moines, Iowa.

Appeals have been sent out to trade unions, civil rights and civil liberties groups and socialist and working class political organizations, asking for statements of support and cash contributions for the defense of Mark Curtis. The appeal claims that Curtis is the victim of a politically motivated frame-up, directed against his activities on behalf of immigrant workers in the Des Moines area.

Union officials and others giving support to the campaign have been asked to sign statements of protest to Des Moines Police Chief William Boulder, demanding the dropping of charges against Curtis and the prosecution of the policemen who beat him up after his arrest.

The Workers League has no independent evidence on the Mark Curtis case, and is not in a position to determine whether he is innocent or guilty of the charge of rape. However, having followed the reports on the Curtis case in the SWP’s weekly newspaper, the Militant, the Workers League has decided that it will not support this defense campaign. Many disturbing questions are raised by the SWP’s own presentation of the Curtis case, which is by no means persuasive or credible.

The SWP claims that Mark Curtis is the victim of a frame-up involving the Des Moines police and possibly federal authorities as well. There is no doubt that the cops in Des Moines, as in every other city in America, are capable of the most monstrous frame-ups. But such frame-ups always contain factual inconsistencies, internal contradictions or outright falsifications. The victims of such frame-ups invariably expose these weak points as part of the struggle to win support for their defense.

The most remarkable aspect of the SWP’s defense campaign for Mark Curtis is that it makes no attempt to critically analyze, let alone refute, the prosecution case. It has failed to make any serious and detailed accounting of the facts of the case available to the working class and socialist public.

Instead, the Socialist Workers Party has launched a massive national and international defense campaign, with more than $35,000 raised already, and hundreds of statements of protest by trade unionists and political activists, without providing more than one or two paragraphs detailing the case. Mark Curtis Defense Committee literature consists largely of accounts of Curtis’s previous political activities, a photograph of his battered face, taken after the police beating, and a brief and unilluminating reference to the charges against him.

The SWP has raised a large sum of money with the claim that it was needed to investigate the frame-up. It is reasonable to ask, after five months and $35,000, what have been the results of this investigation? No explanation has been given by the Militant.

In his own public appearances, Mark Curtis has never elaborated on the supposed frame-up character of the rape charges, concentrating instead on the beating which he received from the police. In his only appearance as a speaker before a mass workers’ audience, at the June 18 rally in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania to support the International Paper strikers, he did not mention the rape charge and did not even identify himself as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, merely as a victim of police brutality.

Far from providing detailed exposures of the supposed frame-up, the Militant has shown a noticeable reluctance to make the most elementary facts of the case known to its readers. The capitalist press in Des Moines, Iowa has provided information about the case more readily than the Militant or the literature from the Mark Curtis Defense Committee.

On March 5, the day after Curtis was arrested, the Des Moines Register reported that the alleged victim was a 15-year-old high school youth, the Militant described her as a “young black woman,” and did not report her age until 10 weeks later. Curtis defense literature does not mention the girl’s age.

The Register also reported on March 5 the claim by police that a phone call to the 911 emergency number by the girl’s 11-year-old brother led the police to the house where they arrested Mark Curtis. The Militant did not report this claim until four months later, and has made no attempt to refute it.

The prosecution version, apparently backed by eyewitness testimony from both the alleged victim, Demetria Morris, and her 11-year-old brother, is that Curtis broke into the Morris home while their parents were out and assaulted the girl.

The SWP has never denied this version, sought to reveal contradictions within it, or challenged any aspect of it as false. Instead, they have simply presented a diametrically opposed account, based on no testimony but that of Curtis himself, which raises far more questions than it answers.

The workers’ movement in the United States has a long and tragic experience with state frame-ups. These generally consist of attempts to take some incident or crime, usually committed by persons unknown or by provocateurs, and pin it on trade union or political activists. The connections between the victims of the frame-up and the crime with which they are charged are entirely concocted, strung together with obviously perjured testimony, manufactured evidence, and political witch-hunting.

This was the method pursued in the frame-up of Big Bill Haywood for the murder of the ex-governor of Idaho in 1906, in the frame-up of Mooney and Billings for the Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco in 1916, and in the frame-up and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti for an armored car robbery in 1920.

Similarly, the Rosenbergs were framed and executed in 1953 at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunt, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and John Artis were framed in 1966 on perjured testimony, Communist Party leader Angela Davis was acquitted after a murder-conspiracy frame-up in 1972, and Gary Tyler remains imprisoned in Louisiana for a crime he did not commit, based on testimony which has been recanted and evidence which has “disappeared.”

Most recently, five Kentucky miners have been framed up for the killing of a scab, convictions obtained through the use of paid and perjured witnesses, and despite solid alibis for several of the men.

In the case of Mark Curtis, if one accepts the SWP version of the case, the method of the frame-up is much different. It consists of the artificial construction of a crime out of the innocent and unwitting activities of one of their members, in which Curtis, manipulated like the patsy in a sting, was lured to a predetermined location where he was to be arrested for a crime which he did not commit and which probably never occurred.

By his own account, Curtis left his home on the night of March 4 to pick up groceries at a nearby store. While stopped in his car at a red light, he says he was approached by a “young black woman” whom he allowed to enter his car. According to Curtis, she claimed she was fleeing an attacker and then asked him to drive her home. He agreed. After they arrived at the house, Curtis says, she asked him to wait on the porch, then disappeared into the house. Within moments, police arrived and arrested him for rape.

Curtis and the Socialist Workers Party claim that all these events were part of a setup by the police. That is, they claim that Curtis, acting as a well-intentioned socialist Good Samaritan, was tricked into going onto Demetria Morris’s porch. The home of the Morris family was therefore used as a police trap, and the girl must certainly have been deliberately planted by the police to steer Curtis there and create the appearance of a crime.

Again, if one accepts the SWP version of the case, it required a fiendishly complex operation to maneuver Curtis from his home to the Morris residence.

But the claim that this was all orchestrated by the police strains credulity, given the fact that it was Curtis himself who made all the decisions which got him to the Morris residence where he was arrested. In order to support its theory of the case, the SWP should answer a number of relevant questions:

  • How did the police know that Curtis was going to abruptly leave his house in the middle of the night to buy food?
  • How did they know he would drive by himself?
  • How did they know which store he would go to, and what route he would take?
  • How did they know that he would be stopped at a particular red light, where he could be accosted by the girl?
  • How did they know that he would agree to let the girl into his car?
  • How did they know he would agree to drive her home?
  • How did they know that when he arrived at her home, he would get out of his car, go to the porch and then wait placidly to be arrested?

It is, to say the least, extremely difficult to conceive of a frame-up organized in this way, on the basis of police conjectures about a series of actions which Curtis might take, each of which must turn out right for the frame-up to go ahead, like a gigantic Rube Goldberg device.

Moreover, the frame-up conspiracy must have required that the police recruit an entire black working class family, including the 15-year-old high school girl, Demetria Morris, and her 11-year-old brother, and rely on them to play the most critical roles in the conspiracy.

While the story given by Curtis has many implausible or contradictory features, the presentation of the defense campaign in the pages of the Militant raises equally damaging questions.

On July 15, the Militant reported the statement by Curtis that his defense campaign was not attacking Demetria Morris and her family. This statement is completely inexplicable. If Curtis is being framed up for rape, then Demetria Morris, the girl he is charged with assaulting, must be part of the frame-up. Indeed, the frame-up would be impossible without her full and dedicated participation.

From a legal standpoint, the testimony of Demetria Morris and her younger brother must be the most important weapon in the prosecution’s arsenal. How then is it possible to defend Curtis without seeking to discredit the chief witnesses against him? The SWP has made no attempt to resolve this glaring contradiction in their defense campaign for Curtis.

In its July 29 issue, the Militant gave its first extensive account of the background of the case, nearly five months after Curtis was arrested. Like much of the material already published by the SWP, the article is devoted mainly to demonstrating the brutality of the Des Moines police, its history of racist abuse of prisoners, and the credibility of Curtis’s charge that he was severely beaten after his arrest. The evident police brutality against Curtis does nothing, however, to refute the charges of rape.

Moreover, the article is politically dishonest. Among the witnesses cited about various aspects of the case, two of them are coworkers of Curtis at the Swift meat packing plant, Marian Bustin and Ellen Whitt, and two of them “his neighbors” Stu Singer and Jackie Floyd. The Militant does not mention that all four are members of the Socialist Workers Party, something that obviously has a bearing on their credibility.

Then there is the question of the character of the alleged victim in this case. Demetria Morris is a 15-year-old black working class youth who, according to the Militant account, intends to testify against Curtis. Her younger brother, 11 years old, is said to have witnessed the attack and called the police.

The SWP has produced no evidence that the Morris family are police agents, and has not even made that claim. Indeed, the coverage in the Militant—the newspaper defending and promoting the Mark Curtis case!—gives the reader the impression that the Morrises are a working-class family outraged over the attack on Demetria Morris and the attempt by the SWP to transform Curtis into the victim in the case.

The father, Keith Morris, according to the Militant of July 15, issued a statement criticizing the campaign to defend Curtis, saying, “We want people to be rational and stop following him like blind, lost sheep. I am not going to stand still and let these people make an international attack on my children and my family.”

The Militant of July 22 reported that at a hearing on the question of a delay in the trial of Curtis, Keith Morris indicated that his five grown sons, step-brothers of Demetria, were so angry over the attack that Morris “constantly has to talk to them to let the judicial system work.”

After the judge’s order, sought by Curtis, postponing the trial until September, and forcing Demetria Morris to suffer the strain of testifying in a rape trial while attending high school, Morris apparently lost control of himself. The July 29 Militant reports that the father was so enraged that he went down to the Pathfinder bookstore in Des Moines and smashed the windows in an effort to get at Curtis, who was inside. The July 29 article includes a call by Curtis for the local authorities to arrest and prosecute Keith Morris, who could face felony charges.

(It is worth noting here the contrast between the vilification of the Morris family in the Militant and the SWP’s attitude to the nationally publicized case of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl in New York State who has charged she was raped by white attackers. There is far less evidence in the Brawley case than in the Morris case, at least so far, since the Brawley family is refusing to give testimony, at the urging of their black nationalist advisers. But the SWP has uncritically supported the Brawley’s advisers, who include an FBI informant, the Rev. Al Sharpton.)

Finally, there is the question of the character of the alleged victim of the frame-up, Mark Curtis, and his organization, the Socialist Workers Party. The Workers League is far from accepting the claim that Curtis’s record of 11 years political activity in the SWP is sufficient to prove his innocence. On the contrary, the nature of the SWP is an important aspect of the case which calls for the greatest caution in evaluating their claims of frame-up.

The SWP is an organization riddled with police agents and provocateurs. The federal government has admitted that it had 1,600 agents and informers in and around the SWP between 1960 and 1976. Many of these agents have had careers far longer and at higher levels of the party than that of Mark Curtis. It should go without saying that such elements—filled with hatred of socialism and the working class—are capable of any and every crime, in their “private” lives as well as in their official state capacities.

The most prominent self-confessed FBI man in the SWP, Edward Heisler, was a leading member for nearly two decades, and was selected to the highest positions in the party—the national committee, the political committee, the administrative secretariat—and served as head of the SWP’s trade union work. The SWP has since admitted that Heisler was involved in petty criminal activities during his tenure as a top party leader and FBI informer.

The social composition of the SWP is an additional reason for suspicion. Virtually the entire membership of the SWP is drawn from declassed elements of the middle class or lumpen-proletariat, the most unstable sections of the population.

Curtis’s personal background gives no reason for extending him political confidence either. He joined the YSA in 1977, but by his account, published in the Militant, did not become a socialist until a trip to Cuba in 1981. Why then, did he join the Young Socialist Alliance four years earlier?

In 1982, Curtis began working at the Hayes aircraft plant in Birmingham, Alabama, a key defense plant with rigid security requirements for employment. He is just one of scores of SWP members who have been able to get jobs in defense plants despite their well-publicized activities. Amazingly, Curtis was hired after being publicly identified as a YSA member in the Militant and just after returning from a trip to Cuba.

The SWP makes much of the fact that Curtis’s name appears in FBI files gathered on the Birmingham chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), as though this somehow proves he is a special target for government repression and frameup, although thousands of names appear in these files. But this fact again raises more questions than it answers. Curtis conducted public political activity as a purported opponent of US policy in Central America, activity which was carefully noted by the FBI, which certainly tipped off security at Hayes aircraft, the key defense plant where Curtis worked. Moreover, Hayes was well aware that Curtis was an SWP candidate for Congress in 1982 and 1984.

Curtis was fired by Hayes aircraft in 1985 on charges of falsifying his application when he first hired in. This means that the management at this key military plant in Birmingham, Alabama chose to tolerate Curtis’s public antiwar and socialist activities for more than three years, when they had the pretext for his discharge already in hand. Why?

As for the claim that Curtis’s leadership role in the SWP provides a political credential against the rape charge, the fact is that those who run the SWP regularly promote unstable and dubious people to positions of prominence and authority. For example, a longtime leader of the SWP, Peter Camejo, who was selected as the organization’s presidential candidate in 1976, is now out of the socialist movement and is making his fortune as a San Francisco stock broker and investment specialist. Significantly, Camejo’s 1976 presidential campaign chairman was the FBI informer, Ed Heisler.

Finally, it is necessary to point out that there is a mountain of evidence that supports the charge repeatedly made by the Workers League that the decades of massive FBI infiltration culminated in the penetration of the highest echelons of the SWP. It has already been established that virtually the entire leadership of the SWP for the last 25 years consists of the same group of middle class individuals who mysteriously entered the party after attending the same small conservative school, Carleton College of Northfield, Minnesota. [The factual evidence supporting the charge of government control of the SWP is reproduced in The Gelfand Case: A Legal History of the Exposure of US Government Agents in the Leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, available from Labor Publications.]

The Workers League will defend any socialist or militant in the workers’ movement facing a capitalist state frame-up, regardless of the deepest political differences. Despite the evidence of government infiltration of the SWP, we have defended SWP members in the past when they have been attacked by right-wing or fascist forces. But those who organize a solidarity campaign and declare they are being framed must be able to substantiate their claims. Otherwise such an effort amounts to taking the workers’ movement for a ride and must be denounced as a provocation.

The Militant itself admits that the SWP’s campaign on Curtis has angered feminists involved in counseling rape victims in Des Moines and has provoked considerable divisions among local radical activists, who have resented the SWP’s “take it on faith” approach, demanding support for Mark Curtis without providing any evidence that a politically-motivated frame-up has occurred.

If the Curtis defense campaign should prove to be a fraud, after hundreds of endorsements have been solicited and nearly $40,000 raised in contributions, it would have deep-going consequences for the working class and socialist movement. It would discredit the long tradition of defense campaigns in the workers’ movement, and the example of a fraudulent defense campaign would be used again and again to block the defense of genuine victims of state repression.

Moreover, there is a real danger that working class and socialist organizations who support the Curtis defense may be doing an injustice to a black working class family, provoking justifiable anger among Des Moines-area workers, and thus creating a split between the working class and the socialist movement.

The Workers League awaits the trial in September at which both Curtis and his accusers may be heard. In the interim, unless convincing evidence is produced, we will give no support to the SWP’s campaign to make the Curtis case a cause célèbre of the left. We call upon those trade unionists, civil rights and civil liberties groups which are approached by the SWP to demand a fuller accounting of all the facts surrounding this case before taking a position themselves.