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On the Road Again and Again and Again

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Thea Eiker is one of those out-of-towners who fell in love with Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit last year.

"I loved the people here -- they were so open and hospitable," says Eiker, 21, a native of Missouri.  

In fact, Eiker can't keep herself away. Literally.

In the past two months, she's returned here twice, once by hitchhiking halfway across the country -- all to resolve a misdemeanor charge involving a dispute over her real name. 

Thea Eiker at a friend's home in Polish Hill before leaving town Jan. 26. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Thea Eiker at a friend's home in Polish Hill before leaving town Jan. 26.

Born Synthia Dyer, Eiker appears to have been the very first person arrested because of the summit. For days after her arrest, reporters and activists alike tried to figure out what happened to her. She seemed to have disappeared entirely, but she keeps coming back -- a cautionary tale about what can happen to activists who come long distances to a tightly guarded event. But Eiker is trying to see the upside. 

"I'm glad to keep coming back here," she says, "even though the reason sucks."

 

Eiker was a member of the Seeds of Peace Collective, a peace-and-justice group that operates a mobile kitchen used to feed other activists. 

"I really like feeding people," says Eiker, who fell in with the group in 2008, during the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.

When the Seeds arrived in Pittsburgh, the first order of business was finding a place to park with electricity and water hook-ups. Eiker and other members began canvassing the city by bike, searching for a suitable location, while the bus itself remained in Polish Hill, parked in front of the home of a supporter. 

From the outset, Eiker says, "The police kept driving by the bus and checking us out." That began a cat-and-mouse game that lasted days, with police first impounding the bus and then harrying it from one location to another. The group complained of harassment, and its allegations are part of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit filed last year. City officials, the suit contends, "deliberately adopted a strategy to harass, intimidate, discourage and ultimately prevent [activists] from exercising their First Amendment rights."

Eiker missed all of that. By the time the bus started moving, she was already in jail. 

According to a police affidavit, two city officers were called out Sept. 18 on a "complaint of a bus blocking traffic." Bryan Sellers, Eiker's arresting officer, said several onlookers arrived while police investigated the bus. "Some were claiming to be the owner while others claimed to have possessions on the bus," the affidavit says. Police "began to get the names of the people on scene in case the bus would be reported stolen." But Sellers' statement says that when he asked Eiker for her ID, she "said she did have a license but didn't want to show it to me." When she provided her name and Sellers found no record of her in police computers, "she said [the] name she gave me was ... not her real name." 

Sellers arrested her, charging her with providing false identification to law-enforcement authorities, a third-degree misdemeanor.

Eiker tells the story a bit differently. Sellers, she says, "didn't ask me for my ID -- he asked my name" -- and the name she goes by "just rolled off." Her chosen name "is kind of hippie-dippie," she admits. Thea means "goddess," and Eiker -- the name of her grandmother -- is Norwegian for "oak tree." Eiker says that when she realized police were running names through the computer, she quickly provided her real name. 

Eiker's claims echo some allegations in the ACLU suit: On Sept. 18, the lawsuit says, police "ordered everyone to produce identification cards. Pennsylvania does not have a statute requiring people to produce identification upon demand." 

The complaint doesn't mention Eiker "because she just disappeared" after the arrest, says Vic Walczak, the ACLU's state legal director. "We've never been approached about including her." But he says the ACLU could still do so -- provided she's not found guilty, which would undermine any civil case.

State courts have upheld false-ID convictions in similar situations. In 2004, the state's Superior Court upheld the conviction of a Philadelphia man who was pulled over by police for vehicle-registration issues and identified himself by his Muslim name. "[A]n individual who is questioned by a law-enforcement authority as to his or her identity, must provide ... his or her official, legal name," the court held, "regardless of religious names or nicknames by which some may know him or her." 

But Walczak says police can ask for ID in the first place only if they have a reasonable suspicion a person has been engaging in criminal activity. And "from what I understand of that afternoon, [Eiker] should not have been asked to produce ID." 

 

After being arrested, Eiker says she shouted her sister's phone number to other Seeds members, in hopes they would call home. But police apparently misspelled the name Eiker gave originally: The criminal complaint and other court records consistently spell her name "Athea Eiaker." 

Because of the name change, even Eiker's relatives had a hard time tracking her down once she was incarcerated. Eiker's sister, Sophia Dyer, has numerous names for her younger sibling: "I call her 'Synth,' 'Synthia,' 'Tinny,' 'Tinny Mae' and 'Tinkster,'" she says by phone from Columbia, Mo. "But I'm not used to this 'Athea' situation." There was little Sophia could do in any case: Bail was originally set at $5,000, though Eiker was eventually released on her own recognizance five days later.

"I didn't like it," Eiker says of her five-day jail stint. "I'm saying the whole time, 'Please spell my name correctly so people can find me.' But they wouldn't listen to me and no one could find me in the system."

On the other hand, Eiker found her fellow inmates as friendly as Pittsburghers on the outside. "I got to know all these women who called me things like 'nature girl,'" she adds.

On the surface, Eiker would seem a flight risk: She has no permanent address, and when not working as an itinerant farm laborer, she travels from city to city playing in a "politically aware gypsy punk-grass" band and doing activist work. But the court's faith was well placed. Eiker first returned to Pittsburgh in early December, when she waived a chance to plead guilty in exchange for community service and a year's probation. She then came back for a Jan. 25 formal arraignment, where "all I did was sit in an office for an hour, and they gave me some papers" formerly charging her, she recalls. She scraped together airfare for her first visit, but in mid-January, "I hitchhiked four days from Kansas City to get here."  

And she'll be back at least twice more -- first for a Feb. 19 pretrial conference when a trial will be scheduled, and then for the trial itself.

"I feel kind of persecuted," says Eiker, who will be represented by the public defender's office. "They seem to make it last as long as they can." 

But Eiker's experience is not unique: The G-20 attracted demonstrators and activists from all over the country, some of whom have been back for repeated court appearances, mostly on charges little more severe than those Eiker faces. More than a half-dozen of them have been represented by local attorney Jon Pushinsky. "I have a number of clients from out of town -- including Wisconsin and Florida -- who've come here multiple times," he says. And while the process itself may seem like a form of punishment, "it's not directed at her any more than any other criminal defendant." 

Eiker hasn't made things easy for herself. While in Pittsburgh, Eiker has stayed with a friend in Polish Hill, but says she doesn't want to impose by staying for a process that could last six months or more. "If I don't have a way to sustain myself, I don't stay." Nor does she want to hit up her parents. "If I wanted, they could probably help out with money," she says. "But I don't feel right about it." 

It's not that Eiker's family situation is difficult, stresses Sophia Dyer: "Our parents would do anything to help her, but she's chosen an unconventional way of living. She'll make me drop her off on the freeway on-ramp -- which goes against all my sisterly instincts. But she has these principles, and she's just such a people person. She doesn't want to live in fear, and I'm proud of her commitment to the choices she makes."

For her next visit to Pittsburgh, she'll travel from Washington, D.C. -- where she plans to stay until her legal situation here is resolved -- to appear before Common Pleas Judge Randal Todd.

"I feel like if I keep coming back, I can win," Eiker says. Still, "I didn't know this was going to drag on this long." And if someone wanted to set up a Paypal account to buy her a bus ticket, she says, "That would be nice." 

Otherwise, Eiker will have to hitchhike back to Pittsburgh. As the notice of her upcoming court appearance flatly explains, "We are unable to provide transportation." 

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