FindArticles > Progressive, The > Nov, 2004 > Article > Print friendly

Muzzled on the campaign trail

Matthew Rothschild

When some anti-war activists from Lanster, Pennsylvania, heard that President Bush and his motorcade would be coming through nearby Smoketown on the afternoon of July 9, they decided to plan an unusual protest. Rather than carrying the usual signs, they opted for street theater of a novel kind. They decided to replicate the human pyramid at Abu Ghraib: the stacking of naked Iraqi prisoners.

"We thought it would be an effective way to show our revulsion about the war," says Tristan Egolf. "We took a specific photo of the Abu Ghraib scandal, and we planned to arrange ourselves exactly as in the photo."

Egolf and seven others waited for the Bush motorcade by the side of Old Philadelphia Pike. Bush supporters far outnumbered them, he says.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Egolf's group heard cheers. Thinking that the motorcade was approaching, they stripped down to their underwear and got in position.

A woman with the group pretended to be a U.S. soldier mocking the faux prisoners.

The reaction from the Bush supporters was immediate, says Egolf.

"They called us scumbags and faggots," he says. "One guy came up to us and said, 'I don't care how many people we have to kill as long as my gasoline prices are lower.'"

After a couple of minutes, "the police came in and started pulling us apart," Egolf says. They handcuffed six of the seven men, without reading them their rights or charging them with anything, according to Egolf and three of the others.

"They took us down a bank and out of view of the crowd and put us down in a ditch," Egolf says. They stayed there until the Bush motorcade was well out of town, and then the police took them down to the East Lampeter Township station.

There, they were given tickets for disorderly conduct and released after about three hours.

Ben Keely was one of those arrested. "I was roughed up a little bit," he says, explaining that the handcuffs were too tight on him. "My left hand was numb for about three days afterwards."

Keely views street theater as an important way to get a message out. "Holding signs doesn't always get the point across," he says. "We want to make people aware of what's going on in the world around us."

Egolf agrees: "It was an obscene spectacle we did in the name of common decency." But, he is quick to add, "it wasn't an act of public indecency; there was no anatomy displayed."

The police evidently were looking to pin an obscenity or indecent exposure charge on the protesters.

"I heard one of the state cops going up and down the line asking pro-Bush people if they had photos that would show the protesters' genitalia, because it 'would be easier to charge them,'" recalls Van Gosse, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College and a member of the Lancaster Peace and Justice Coalition.

The protesters believe their civil liberties were trampled on. "It's a pretty clear-cut Bill of Rights violation," Egolf says.

The Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU agrees.

"Street theater is a constitutionally protected form of expression," says Vic Walczak, litigation director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which is assisting the protesters. "As long as they're not blocking traffic, they have every right to engage in this venerable and creative form of protest."

Lieutenant Jim Ely of the East Lampeter Township Police Department says, "I'm sorry, we're not going to comment."

All six of the protesters pleaded not guilty on July 19.

Once their criminal case is disposed of, they say they are planning on suing the police.

The arrest of the Pennsylvania Abu Ghraib protesters is just one example of a startling number of repressive actions during this campaign season. From requiring affidavits of people attending Bush rallies to penning protesters in "free speech zones" to arresting almost 2,000 people at the Republican National Convention, the muzzling is distinctly un-American. In this article, I focus on a few cases of people who were actually arrested simply for engaging in obviously protected free speech activities.

"The fact that government agents are now making judgment calls based on a person's political viewpoint or the presence of a T-shirt or campaign button that is critical of the President is completely antithetical to an open society," says Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. The ACLU has sued the Secret Service over its policy of penning people into free speech zones and discriminating against protesters based on the content of their speech. "The Secret Service has a responsibility to protect the President from harm," Romero says, "but it should not try to protect him from criticism."

The Kerry campaign has not been blameless. At the Democratic Convention in Boston, the organizers would not allow unapproved signs on the floor, and when people tried to hoist their smuggled signs, they were surrounded by Kerry supporters. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, was hauled off the convention floor for unveiling a banner that said, "End the Occupation of Iraq."

But by far, most of the stories I've come across have had to do with the Republicans. "All of the arrests that I know of are in connection with Bush and Cheney events," says Chris Hansen, a staff attorney with the ACLU, though he acknowledges that the Kerry campaign has excluded critics from some events. The infringements during this campaign "are more common than ever," he says.

Hansen notes how different the climate is in this election compared to halcyon days. "There is a very long tradition of candidates speaking to the populace," he says. He recalls Presidential candidates such as Harry Truman taking whistle-stop tours. "Everyone in town would come hear them speak. Now candidates speak to their already committed supporters to give a TV picture of rapturous support."

As to the arrests that have occurred, Hansen has a grave suspicion. "There have always been abuses by law enforcement," he says. "But there is a very big question: Is this individual rogue cops and local law enforcement that are ignoring the First Amendment, or is this policy being forced by the White House and the Secret Service? The variety of examples and the nationwide scope suggest that there is more going on here than individual law enforcement officers."

Here are some of those examples. It was July 4, of all dates, in Charleston, West Virginia, and President Bush was speaking at the state capitol. Nicole and Jeff Rank were there to protest a visit by President Bush.

The Ranks, who are from Corpus Christi, Texas, gathered outside the capitol. People near them "wore pro-Bush T-shirts and Bush-Cheney campaign buttons, some of which were sold on the capitol grounds," according to the Charleston Gazette.

Not the Ranks. They were wearing T-shirts with Bush's name spelled out in a circle with a line through it. The police evidently did not rake kindly to that.

"Law enforcement officers told the couple to take the shirts off, cover them, or get out," AP reported. "When they refused and sat down, they were arrested."

The Charleston police alleged that they were in "a no-trespassing zone and refused to leave," the Gazette said.

The two were led away in handcuffs, jailed for a couple of hours, and charged with trespassing. Nicole Rank was temporarily suspended from her job as deputy environmental liaison officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We never imagined we would end up in jail because of a homemade T-shirt," says Nicole Rank.

A judge dismissed the charges on July 15, and on July 19, the Charleston City Council are crow. "The city does hereby apologize to Nicole and Jeff Rank," it said in a resolution, AP reported. The resolution also stated: "If Nicole and Jeff Rank did nothing other than peaceably exercise their right of free speech and expression as guaranteed by our constitutions, they should not have been arrested or charged with a crime." City officials said that the local police were acting at the request of the Secret Service, according to the ACLU.

On September 14, the ACLU, on behalf of the Ranks, filed suit against the Secret Service and Greg Jenkins, deputy assistant to the President and director of White House advance work.

This is a simple case," says Hansen. "Two Americans went to see their President and to express their disagreement with his policies respectfully and peacefully. They were arrested at the direction of federal officials. That is precisely what the First Amendment was adopted to prevent."

Like the Ranks, Daniel Finsel of Lehighton, Pennsylvania, went to protest a visit by President Bush in nearby Kutztown on July 9. Finsel was carrying a huge sign, three feet by four feet, that said, "U.S. Aggression Breeds Terrorism."

Finsel says he obeyed the instructions of the Pennsylvania State Troopers, who told all the activists, including Bush supporters, to go into a zoned-off area.

"One guy had a 'I Love Halliburton' T-shirt on, and he said, 'You're unpatriotic. You don't deserve to be in this country,'" Finsel recalls.

Such a reaction was not unexpected, he says. But he wasn't prepared for a trooper who told him that he couldn't stand still with his sign, even in the protest zone.

"I see this cop," says Finsel, "and he says, 'You can't stand there. You need to keep walking.' So I started walking in a six-foot circle within the protest zone. And I looked back, and he said, 'Not in circles.' And I said, 'What, you want me to walk in squares?'"

At that, says Finsel, the officer radioed for help.

"The cop puts me in cuffs and grabs my sign, and two other cops grab my arms and take me across the street," he says. "My sign is getting crumpled up by the sergeant. They take me to the cop car, and one says, 'You don't deserve to watch Bush come up the street.' "

The troopers took Finsel down to the station and locked him in a cell for three hours. "I wasn't read my rights the whole time, and not one cop told me what I was doing wrong," he says.

"He didn't stay in his designated area," says Trooper Ray Albert, public information officer for the Pennsylvania State Police. "He was arrested for not obeying the rules."

After Finsel was taken out of the cell, he was given a citation for disorderly conduct.

"On the citation where it says victim's name, they put 'society,'" Finsel says. "I was in utter shock. I thought we could walk around with signs in this country."

So did Frank Van Den Bosch. When he heard that George Bush was coming through Platteville, Wisconsin, on May 7, he knew he wanted to be there to protest.

Van Den Bosch lives only thirty miles to the north, and he and his wife had helped set up a group call Students for Peace and Justice when she was at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, he says.

Van Den Bosch considered what to write on his poster. "I couldn't think of any one particular issue I wanted to address, and I was so completely saddened and angered by what was happening that the most concise statement I could come up with was 'FUGW.'"

When Van Den Bosch arrived at the protest, he joined a group of about twenty others. But soon his sign drew attention.

"An officer came over and said, 'You can't display your sign,'" Van Den Bosch recalls. "She said she had checked with the Secret Service, and they didn't like the sign.

"And I said, 'Well, that's their problem.'"

But Van Den Bosch did agree to modify the sign. Under the F, he wrote in smaller letters "ree" to spell "Free," and under the U, he wrote "s" to spell "Us."

"But they weren't satisfied with that," he says. "A sergeant came over and tried to take the sign away from me, but I rolled it up and stood in the back a bit."

When Van Den Bosch saw the Bush-Cheney buses coming, wanted to display his sign again.

"I unrolled my sign and stood there," says Van Den Bosch, "and then they came over and grabbed the sign and said, 'We told you you couldn't show that sign.' They walked me over in front of a frat house where a bunch of guys had been harassing us, and they handcuffed me there to the cheering of the guys. Then they put me in an unmarked car and drove me into town, fingerprinted me and photographed me, and gave me a ticket for disorderly conduct."

Lieutenant Tom Schmid of the Platteville Police Department gives a slightly different account of what happened.

"We had a person complain about the sign, and we went down and asked the gentleman not to show the sign because there were kids in the area and it didn't seem appropriate," Schmid says. "Later on, he showed the sign again, and we went down and arrested him and charged him with disorderly conduct."

Why does holding such a sign constitute disorderly conduct?

"It seemed to annoy and disturb others," says Schmid, "and when you have conduct that tends to annoy or disturb others, that's disorderly conduct."

Sergeant Michelle Hechel, who spoke with Van Den Bosch at the protest, denies that she mentioned the Secret Service or that the Secret Service had anything to do with the incident.

"He had a sign," she says. "It was offensive. And we asked him to not show it."

As to whether he has the right to display an offensive sign, Hechel says, "Once it starts offending other people, which it did in that area, he was asked to not display that. It was not appropriate. We said he could use a different sign, but he chose not to."

Van Den Bosch says his arrest shows "the fangs and teeth of the state. The chilling part is they knew they were violating my civil rights. Any eighth grade civics class will teach you that you have the right to express yourself."

The case against Van Den Bosch was dismissed on May 27.

Van Den Bosch filed a civil complaint against the city, which settled with him in August. "The city came with an offer of $6,500, plus my attorney fees, and my lawyer recommended that I take it," he says. "The total came to $12,086.45. It's about as much justice as we can get, but it's not really justice."

RELATED ARTICLE: You're fired!

Some people are facing a different kind of punishment for exercising their free speech rights this campaign season. They are being fired. Here are two examples.

Glenn Hiller is a graphic designer, and he, too, wanted to convey a message to President Bush. The President was scheduled to speak on August 17 at Hedgesville High School, which is near Hiller's home in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

He says he asked his boss at Octavo Designs in Frederick, Maryland, whether he could take part of that afternoon off to go hear Bush and to try to ask him a question or two.

Hiller says his boss, Sue Hough, let him off early so he could go.

"I got a ticket through a woman we do work with in the advertising community," he says. "She and my boss both had full knowledge of my political position, and they had knowledge that I was going to ask a question when I was them." They knew, he says, that "I'm not a fan of Bush."

"I got there just in time to hear him speak," Hiller recalls. "And while I was listening to the speech, I didn't know if I was going to have the nerve to speak up. But then he rolled the war on terror into the war on Iraq, as though one had anything to do with the other. That aggravated me. And then he was defending his reasons for going to war, saying Saddam Hussein may not have had weapons of mass destruction but he did have the capability to make them. At that point, I shouted out, 'That's not the same thing!'"

As Bush continued to talk about the war, Hiller piped up again: "I shouted out a question, 'Would you be willing to sacrifice your children for the liberation of Iraq?'"

And when Bush moved on to boast about the economy, Hiller interrupted one final time. "I asked, 'Explain how the outsourcing of American jobs is good for the American economy.'"

Hiller believes he reached the President's ear.

"I know he heard me," says Hiller, "because he quipped at one point, 'Isn't it great that we live in a free country where people are free to voice their opinions?' And it was roughly then that I was escorted out by two campaign officials who threatened to have me arrested."

Hiller paid an immediate price for his outspokenness.

"I showed up for work the next day, and my boss told me my actions were unacceptable and reflected bad on the company, and she said she had to let me go," he recalls.

"I said, 'What do you mean?'

"She said, basically, a client was offended. The Berkeley County School District was offended by my actions, and she couldn't have that."

(Hough and Octavo Design did not return calls from The Progressive.)

Manny Arvon is superintendent of the Berkeley County School District. He denies that the school district took offense.

"I didn't know the incident occurred until I read about it the next day," he says, of the firing. "It really bothers me that it was attached to the Berkeley schools that this man was losing his job. Plus, I don't agree with it. I was shocked."

Hiller is not fighting his dismissal. "I don't have any intention of suing or anything," he says.

What is he doing for work now?

He answers with one word: "Looking."

Lynne Gobbell has a new job.

She says she was fired from her old one on September 9 because her boss demanded that she take a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker off her car.

She says her boss, Phil Geddes of Enviromate, in Moulton, Alabama, told the plant manager to tell her, "I could either work for him or John Kerry."

Now she is working for John Kerry.

The Senator actually called her up himself late on the afternoon of September 14 and offered her a job, she says.

"He was telling me how proud of me he was for standing up to my boss, and how he had read what my boss had said," she says. "And Senator Kerry told me, 'Have him know from today that you're working for me. You're hired.'"

She accepted the offer.

Gobbell, forty-one, ran the bagging machine at Enviromate for about two years, she says.

The story of Gobbell's firing first appeared in the Decatur Daily on September 12.

It reported her account that Geddes had put a flier in employees' envelopes that lauded the Bush tax cut.

Here's what the flier said, according to the paper: "Just so you will know, because of the Bush tax [cut]:

* I was able to buy the new Hammer Mill.

* I was able to finance our receivables.

* I was able to get the new CAT skid steer.

* I was able to get the wire cutter.

* I was able to give you a job."

And it also said, "You got the benefit of the Bush tax cut. Everyone did."

Gobbell realized she was in trouble on the morning of September 9, she says. "The first time I found out something was wrong was right after first break when we were going back to "work," she tells The Progressive.

"The plant production manager told me, 'Phil says take that sticker off your car, or you're fired.'

"I told him, 'Phil can't tell me who to vote for.' "

The plant manager, Dennis Cantrell, told Gobbell to go tell him that herself, she says.

"So I go in there and I said, 'Phil, did you tell me to take that sticker off my car?'

"He said, 'I sure did.'

"I told him, 'You can't tell me who to vote for.'

"He said, 'I own this place.'

"And then I told him he still couldn't tell me who to vote for. And he told me to get out.

"And I asked him, 'Am I fired?'

"And he said, 'I'm thinking about it.'

"And I asked him again, and he hollered, 'Get out, and shut the door.'"

Gobbell says she asked the plant manager whether she should leave or go back to work. And he told her to go back to work, she recalls.

"I hadn't been there a minute when Cantrell came back and said, 'I reckon you're fired.' Phil told him to tell me that I could either work for him or John Kerry." How did she react?

"I took my gloves off and threw them in the garbage can and took my purse and left," she says. "I really couldn't believe it."

After the Decatur Daily story appeared, "my plant manager Cantrell called me at home and talked to me a little bit. He said they were trying to work things out," she says. "They were getting calls, and they were trying to settle it down, and they were wondering what it would take for me to just drop it, move it over."

Gobbell says she was supposed to go in on the morning of September 14 to talk with Geddes and his lawyer, but they weren't there.

Later that day, the phone rang again. This time, it was Senator Kerry. Gobbell has since been campaigning with the Senator.

Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive.

COPYRIGHT 2004 The Progressive, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group