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© 2004 The Beast

The Allentown Terrorist

             By Lee Langenfeld


The story goes like this: On May 11th  of this year, Steven Kurtz, 46, a University of Buffalo associate art professor, wakes up to find his wife of 25 years dead. He calls 911. Local paramedics arrive at Steve's Allentown home and notice what they consider unusual equipment (samples of bacteria, beakers, petri dishes, and DNA-extracting equipment) Freaked out, the Buffalo Police put 2 and 2 together: Dead wife and micro-biotic fun-farm. They take Kurtz away and call the FBI. He is detained for 22 hours.

Within a few hours of Mr. Kurtz call for help, the FBI's hazardous response unit is there wearing bio-suits. The Joint Terrorism Task Force shows up, and so does the Erie County Health Department. Steve's home, and the surrounding block, is roped off. He's now a widower and the focus of a bio-terrorism investigation. They seize artwork, personal paperwork, computers and personal belongings, not to mention his late wife. One eyewitness said the FBI combed through his house for over 36 hours.

Timing is everything, and this is not the time to call 9-11 for a dead body pick-up with an unlicensed bioengineering lab in your basement. Dead bodies and residential bio-labs don't work well together in the best of times, really. Law enforcement is spooked and on the hunt for wacky shit like this. Mr. Kurtz admitted "researching bio-terrorism," and at first glance his set-up would probably look a little sketchy to most.

In classic round ‘em up fashion on May 30th, eight colleagues of Mr. Kurtz were subpoenaed to appear before a Federal Grand Jury hearing, which was held on June 15th here in Buffalo. So far the witch hunt scooped Adele Henderson, Chair of the Art Department at UB; Andrew Johnson, Professor of Art at UB; Paul Vanouse, Professor of Art at UB; Beatriz da Costa, Professor of Art at UCI; Steven Barnes, FSU; Dorian Burr, Beverly Schlee and Claire Pentecost.

The dragnet was focused on members of The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a group of activist artists who claim that for the past few years their principal goal has been to help the public understand biotechnology. The CAE aims to demystify what is safe and point out what is dangerous about today's bio-tech industry. They say they’re trying to achieve this goal through hands-on art exhibits.

The FBI is banking on frying their granola asses with section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, recently updated by the Patriot Act to prohibit the possession of "any biological agent, toxin or delivery system without the justification of prophylactic, protective, bona fide research or other peaceful purpose." Convicted, they may be fined under this title and  imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.

June 14th, around 8:30pm, severe thunderstorm warnings proved prophetic and it rained like hell. With hopes of learning more about this situation, my friend (who insists on remaining anonymous) and I head down to Sound Lab, a nice yet modest brick style basement hide-out under the Dunn building, for a fund raiser. The cause: raise cash for the legal defense of Steven Kurtz and members of the Critical Art Ensemble.

 The fundraiser had a $6 suggested donation, and was organized by the Revolutionary Girls. It started out slow; not much happening at all. After the entertainment—a balding middle-aged guy workin' a groove-box, and a couple of dueling poets saying “fuck the man, I’m gay” for an hour and fifteen goddamn minutes. More beer was the answer if I was gonna get anywhere with this bunch of jacked up blab-bola. So I continued drinking, and the poets kept on yappin. They hit some  controversial topics on the head, But I'm not one for having shit barked in my face for over an hour straight unless you’re George Carlin, or Chris Rock, or even better Alyssa Milano.

They did have a few local art exibits on display. After the lecture and few more drinks, some interesting work gained the attention of my friend, so he jotted down some info. Soon after, a founding member of the CAE approached us, asking why we were so interested that we felt the need to take notes. I tell her that we have been following this incident and... “Are you with the FBI, are you police?” she asks, then stupidly follows that up with “there are a lot of  immigrants here." Now why the hell would we care if someone has their green card? There was something absolutely nuts with these artists. Many of them were rattled to the core and totally petrified of "The Man." In the long run this event probably only produced a couple of hundred bucks at most. It was small lever in hyping up the morning protest at best.

The protest was typical bullshit. 9:00am on a Tuesday morning in front of City Hall. 75 bums with a belief walk around in a bent circle over and over while holding up crude signs for local media. The pigs get an extended brunch-break, sit on their fat asses, drink coffee and dream of lunch. For a group of artists in hot water you'd think they would’ve been just a little creative, but "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, this investigation’s got to go," was all they had. There were no stunts at all. And 9:00am! What kind of idiots expects liberals and artists to show up anywhere at 9am? If this thing had started at two or so, the turnout would have at least tripled.

Mr. Kurtz' lawyer did address the media, but he only had a bunch of shit to say. What he really thinks is: “I don't give a fuck about Kurtz and I'm truly fortunate that this took place. Now, I can fulfill my plans to buy a new boat and bang expensive women all summer long.”

Steve Kurtz was advised by his lawer not to talk to anyone about this subject. He continues on with his life, scared and lonely, and worth more as an artist than ever before.

So is it a free speech issue or a Haz Mat issue? I don’t know. It seems pretty stupid that law enforcement would go batshit over a guy who obviously is just an art nerd, but, on the other hand, he did have E. Coli and Bacillus in his basement. These are controlled substances, and Kurtz definitely wasn’t a licensed handler. As one lawyer I know put it at the protest, “if he was making sculptures out of cocaine, none of these people would be here now.” And the Feds would be having a lot more fun “collecting” the evidence.

Consider the alternative: paramedics or cops find a basement lab on College Street with biohazard bags and weird equipment, shrug their shoulders, and leave. Is that a preferable option? Of course, this thing should never have gone this far, once it became apparent that Kurtz’ intentions were purely geeky. It serves no purpose that he or his comrades should serve any time, and I doubt that will happen—but to paint the initial search as a Gestapo-like violation is silly. If, on the other hand, Kurtz does get the book thrown at him for this, it will not only be a miscarriage of justice—it will just be silly, and it will make us all look like silly, scared, unsophisticated boobs. I don’t want to have to write any articles about “The Allentown Nine.”

 

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