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From the Darkside

The Case of Kevin Archer

In 1986 Anti-Apartheid demonstrations spread across the nation’s college and university campuses. Shantytown protests sprang up at Dartmouth, Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins (JHU), Penn State, University of Maryland, and as far away as the University of Utah. The objectives of the student protesters was to highlight the living conditions of blacks in South Africa and to persuade their educational institutions toward disinvestment—essentially stop investing in companies that traded with or had operations in South Africa. This 1980s activism had roots in the 1960s and 1970s Anti-Aparthied Movement originally known as the British Boycott Movement.

Verso: “Johns Hopkins Campus May 24. What's left of shanty afternoon after the fire Hopkins campus.” Untitled, May 1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 7, Folder 34A. MdHS.

Verso: “Johns Hopkins Campus May 24. What’s left of shanty afternoon after the fire Hopkins campus.” Untitled, May 1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 7, Folder 34A. MdHS.

Recently while working with the Joseph Kohl Photograph Collection (processing and preparing for a retrospective exhibit), I was reminded of the Shantytown protests in Baltimore when I came across six curious prints in which I recognized both JHU’s Homewood campus and the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore. How were these things connected I wondered. That’s when I did some digging and remembered the story of Kevin Archer.

Anti-Apartheid activist and firebomb victim Kevin Archer. PP284 Untitled. Kevin Archer. Joseph Kohl, c.1986. Box 7, Folder 34, Print 2. MdHS.

Anti-Apartheid activist and firebomb victim Kevin Archer. PP284 Untitled. Kevin Archer. Joseph Kohl, c.1986. Box 7, Folder 34, Print 2. MdHS.

Archer was a grad student at Hopkins, participating in a shantytown protest on the Homewood campus the night of May 24, 1986 when three students from the Delta Upsilon fraternity threw gasoline on his his shanty (tent) and set it on fire. The fraternity members were Russell Abrams, a then twenty-year-old junior from New York, Michael Moffa, a then nineteen-year-old junior also from New York, and Richard Hoheb, twenty-two-year-old senior from New Jersey. If Russell Abrams’ name sounds familiar, he is now an accomplished financier and business leader.

"Russell Abrams with newspaper going into courthouse Thurs. morning Also in photo his mom + brother.” Untitled. Russel Abrams, c.1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 15, Folder 26. MdHS.

“Russell Abrams with newspaper going into courthouse Thurs. morning Also in photo his mom + brother.” Untitled. Russel Abrams, c.1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 15, Folder 26. MdHS.

Were it not for the Joseph Kohl photographs this story might have been forgotten behind Abrams’ more recent accomplishments such as founder of the financial consulting firm Titan Capital Group and as founder of Russellcar, the environmentally friendly taxi cab startup of Buenos Aires.

Untitled. Richard Hoheb, c.1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 15, Folder 15. MdHS.

Untitled. Richard Hoheb, c.1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 15, Folder 15. MdHS.

Abrams, Hoheb, and Moffa were indicted, according to the Washington Post, “on charges of arson, assault with intent to murder and conspiracy to commit arson” of a makeshift shanty that was occupied by Archer and fellow grad students, Patrick Bond and Jane Gray. Had Archer and friends been asleep at the time of the attack, things may have ended tragically.

In the aftermath of the blaze, Archer, Bond, and Gray came out of the tent—Archer with his back on fire—and saw several people running away. Abrams, the only one to be caught by witnesses during the dispute, reportedly said, “Oh my God, I didn’t know there were people in there.” Moffa and Hoheb were able to get away that night.

“Michael Moffa (right) outside courthouse at noon.” Untitled. Michael Moffa, c.1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 15, Folder 16. MdHS.

“Michael Moffa (right) outside courthouse at noon.” Untitled. Michael Moffa, c.1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 15, Folder 16. MdHS.

After the incident, according to the Post, Abrams was the only one to stay put. He was still residing at the Delta Upsilon frat house on North Charles Street when he was arrested and subsequently released on $50,000 bond. Hoheb and Moffa left town, but returned to surrender shortly thereafter. The Baltimore Sun reported on September 9, 1986 that Abrams and Moffa had been expelled from Johns Hopkins and that Hoheb, who was scheduled to graduate, was not allowed his degree.

The case, which took place in Baltimore City in September 1986, was prosecuted by then-State’s Attorney Kurt Schmoke and Assistant State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy. At issue was whether or not the three arsonists, who were reportedly drunk on “large amounts of beer and vodka,” knew there were people inside the shanty they doused with gasoline before setting it ablaze and running away at 2:45am. It’s difficult to believe they did not realize people were in the tent, as Archer at the time reported, “We were sitting up having a loud debate over a number of political issues.”

Judge Martin B. Greenfeld’s court proceedings became heated when a defense attorney accused Schmoke and Jessamy of “playing hardball” with the three white defendants. The implication was that because the prosecutors were African-American in a case involving anti-apartheid demonstrations, Abrams, Hoheb, and Moffa were being prosecuted harshly. Never mind that Archer suffered first and second degree burns and could have been more seriously injured.

The defense case fell apart when a Delta Upsilon from Loyola College, Thomas Owen, told the truth about what happened that night. Owen had spent time that May night with Abrams, Hoheb and Moffa. He testified that he and his frat brothers had debated either going to Atlantic City or burning down the anti-Apartheid shanty tents. On the stand Moffa admitted to throwing “a cupful of gasoline on the shanty,” while other witnesses testified that Abrams lit the match.

Judge Greenfeld went easy on the three acquitting them of assault with intent to murder and the more serious arson of a dwelling charge. They were found guilty of arson of a storehouse, which at the time reportedly carried a maximum sentence of twenty years. Additionally Greenfeld ordered the three to each pay $100 toward Archer’s medical bills and to perform 300 hours of community service. Each defendant was given ‘“probation before judgment,” under which the students’ convictions for arson of a storehouse and conspiracy can be expunged if they successfully complete a probationary period of three years.”

While it is still debated by some whether or not the divestment campaign of the 1980s worked, no other known incidents occurred at Johns Hopkins. The Archer v. Abrams predates computerized court records, but the case can still be found via Maryland’s Judiciary Case Search website. Records indicate that Abrams, Hoheb, and Moffa never acted to expunge their records, but it is unknown if any further legal action was taken by the defendants regarding the convictions.

(Joe Tropea)

Verso: “Johns Hopkins campus May 24. What's left of shanty afternoon after the fire two remaining shanty in background — Hopkins campus.” Untitled, May 1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 7, Folder 34B. MdHS.

Verso: “Johns Hopkins campus May 24. What’s left of shanty afternoon after the fire two remaining shanty in background — Hopkins campus.” Untitled, May 1986. Joseph Kohl. PP284 Box 7, Folder 34B. MdHS.

CTA-KOHL

___________________________________________________________________

Sources:

“Three Indicted in Hopkins Shanty Fire,” Chris Spolar. Washington Post, May 30, 1986. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1986/05/30/3-indicted-in-hopkins-shanty-fire/59011ac8-0eaf-4532-831f-f1bab0f9ab43/?utm_term=.ccfa1ced5ae5

“Three Students Indicted in Shanty Firebombing,” New York Times, May 31, 1986. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/05/31/us/around-the-nation-three-students-indicted-in-shanty-firebombing.html

“Court hears scenario for shanty fire: Fraternity member details May 23 plot,” Baltimore Sun, Sept. 9, 1986; p.1B.

“Judge finds 3 guilty in shanty fire: Fraternity members convicted of arson,” Baltimore Sun, Sept. 11, 1986; p.1E.

“Student Gets Probation for Arson at Hopkins,” Paul W. Valentine. Washington Post, Sept. 12, 1986. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1986/09/12/students-get-probation-for-arson-at-hopkins/1b147edf-2e06-4eba-8312-6d1f7781cdae/?utm_term=.d0d959f38cb7

“Racial Tensions Continue to Erupt on Campuses Despite Efforts to Promote Cultural Diversity,” Denise K. Magner. The Chronicle for Higher Education, June 6, 1990.

“Does Divestment Work?,” William MacAskill. The New Yorker, October 20, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/does-divestment-work

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