When President Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up “free speech zones” or “protest zones,” where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.
When Bush went to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.”
The local police, at the Secret Service’s behest, set up a “designated free-speech zone” on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush’s speech.
The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical signs, but folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the president’s path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated his sign.
Neel later commented, “As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free-speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.”
At Neel’s trial, police Detective John Ianachione testified that the Secret Service told local police to confine “people that were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views” in a so-called free- speech area.
Paul Wolf, one of the top officials in the Allegheny County Police Department, told Salon that the Secret Service “come in and do a site survey, and say, ‘Here’s a place where the people can be, and we’d like to have any protesters put in a place that is able to be secured.’ ”
Pennsylvania District Judge Shirley Rowe Trkula threw out the disorderly conduct charge against Neel, declaring, “I believe this is America. Whatever happened to ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’?”
Similar suppressions have occurred during Bush visits to Florida. A recent St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, “At a Bush rally at Legends Field in 2001, three demonstrators — two of whom were grandmothers — were arrested for holding up small handwritten protest signs outside the designated zone. And last year, seven protesters were arrested when Bush came to a rally at the USF Sun Dome. They had refused to be cordoned off into a protest zone hundreds of yards from the entrance to the Dome.”
One of the arrested protesters was a 62-year-old man holding up a sign, “War is good business. Invest your sons.” The seven were charged with trespassing, “obstructing without violence and disorderly conduct.”
Police have repressed protesters during several Bush visits to the St. Louis area as well. When Bush visited on Jan. 22, 150 people carrying signs were shunted far away from the main action and effectively quarantined.
Denise Lieberman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri commented, “No one could see them from the street. In addition, the media were not allowed to talk to them. The police would not allow any media inside the protest area and wouldn’t allow any of the protesters out of the protest zone to talk to the media.”
When Bush stopped by a Boeing plant to talk to workers, Christine Mains and her 5-year-old daughter disobeyed orders to move to a small protest area far from the action. Police arrested Mains and took her and her crying daughter away in separate squad cars.
The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey, who was arrested for holding a “No War for Oil” sign at a Bush visit to Columbia, S.C. Local police, acting under Secret Service orders, established a “free-speech zone” half a mile from where Bush would speak. Bursey was standing amid hundreds of people carrying signs praising the president. Police told Bursey to remove himself to the “free-speech zone.”
Bursey refused and was arrested. Bursey said that he asked the police officer if “it was the content of my sign, and he said, ‘Yes, sir, it’s the content of your sign that’s the problem.’ ” Bursey stated that he had already moved 200 yards from where Bush was supposed to speak. Bursey later complained, “The problem was, the restricted area kept moving. It was wherever I happened to be standing.”
Bursey was charged with trespassing. Five months later, the charge was dropped because South Carolina law prohibits arresting people for trespassing on public property. But the Justice Department — in the person of U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr. — quickly jumped in, charging Bursey with violating a rarely enforced federal law regarding “entering a restricted area around the president of the United States.”
If convicted, Bursey faces a six-month trip up the river and a $5,000 fine. Federal Magistrate Bristow Marchant denied Bursey’s request for a jury trial because his violation is categorized as a petty offense. Some observers believe that the feds are seeking to set a precedent in a conservative state such as South Carolina that could then be used against protesters nationwide.
Bursey’s trial took place on Nov. 12 and 13. His lawyers sought the Secret Service documents they believed would lay out the official policies on restricting critical speech at presidential visits. The Bush administration sought to block all access to the documents, but Marchant ruled that the lawyers could have limited access.
Bursey sought to subpoena Attorney General John Ashcroft and presidential adviser Karl Rove to testify. Bursey lawyer Lewis Pitts declared, “We intend to find out from Mr. Ashcroft why and how the decision to prosecute Mr. Bursey was reached.” The magistrate refused, however, to enforce the subpoenas. Secret Service agent Holly Abel testified at the trial that Bursey was told to move to the “free-speech zone” but refused to cooperate.
The feds have offered some bizarre rationales for hog-tying protesters. Secret Service agent Brian Marr explained to National Public Radio, “These individuals may be so involved with trying to shout their support or nonsupport that inadvertently they may walk out into the motorcade route and be injured. And that is really the reason why we set these places up, so we can make sure that they have the right of free speech, but, two, we want to be sure that they are able to go home at the end of the evening and not be injured in any way.” Except for having their constitutional rights shredded.
The ACLU, along with several other organizations, is suing the Secret Service for what it charges is a pattern and practice of suppressing protesters at Bush events in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere. The ACLU’s Witold Walczak said of the protesters, “The individuals we are talking about didn’t pose a security threat; they posed a political threat.”
The Secret Service is duty-bound to protect the president. But it is ludicrous to presume that would-be terrorists are lunkheaded enough to carry anti-Bush signs when carrying pro-Bush signs would give them much closer access. And even a policy of removing all people carrying signs — as has happened in some demonstrations — is pointless because potential attackers would simply avoid carrying signs. Assuming that terrorists are as unimaginative and predictable as the average federal bureaucrat is not a recipe for presidential longevity.
The Bush administration’s anti-protester bias proved embarrassing for two American allies with long traditions of raucous free speech, resulting in some of the most repressive restrictions in memory in free countries.
When Bush visited Australia in October, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mark Riley observed, “The basic right of freedom of speech will adopt a new interpretation during the Canberra visits this week by George Bush and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. Protesters will be free to speak as much as they like just as long as they can’t be heard.”
Demonstrators were shunted to an area away from the Federal Parliament building and prohibited from using any public address system in the area.
For Bush’s recent visit to London, the White House demanded that British police ban all protest marches, close down the center of the city and impose a “virtual three-day shutdown of central London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by anti-war protesters,” according to Britain’s Evening Standard. But instead of a “free-speech zone,” the Bush administration demanded an “exclusion zone” to protect Bush from protesters’ messages.
Such unprecedented restrictions did not inhibit Bush from portraying himself as a champion of freedom during his visit. In a speech at Whitehall on Nov. 19, Bush hyped the “forward strategy of freedom” and declared, “We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings.”
Attempts to suppress protesters become more disturbing in light of the Homeland Security Department’s recommendation that local police departments view critics of the war on terrorism as potential terrorists. In a May terrorist advisory, the Homeland Security Department warned local law enforcement agencies to keep an eye on anyone who “expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government.” If police vigorously followed this advice, millions of Americans could be added to the official lists of suspected terrorists.
Protesters have claimed that police have assaulted them during demonstrations in New York, Washington and elsewhere.
One of the most violent government responses to an antiwar protest occurred when local police and the federally funded California Anti-Terrorism Task Force fired rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders at the Port of Oakland, injuring a number of people.
When the police attack sparked a geyser of media criticism, Mike van Winkle, the spokesman for the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center told the Oakland Tribune, “You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that’s being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest. You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act.”
Van Winkle justified classifying protesters as terrorists: “I’ve heard terrorism described as anything that is violent or has an economic impact, and shutting down a port certainly would have some economic impact. Terrorism isn’t just bombs going off and killing people.”
Such aggressive tactics become more ominous in the light of the Bush administration’s advocacy, in its Patriot II draft legislation, of nullifying all judicial consent decrees restricting state and local police from spying on those groups who may oppose government policies.
On May 30, 2002, Ashcroft effectively abolished restrictions on FBI surveillance of Americans’ everyday lives first imposed in 1976. One FBI internal newsletter encouraged FBI agents to conduct more interviews with antiwar activists “for plenty of reasons, chief of which it will enhance the paranoia endemic in such circles and will further service to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
The FBI took a shotgun approach toward protesters partly because of the FBI’s “belief that dissident speech and association should be prevented because they were incipient steps toward the possible ultimate commission of act which might be criminal,” according to a Senate report.
On Nov. 23 news broke that the FBI is actively conducting surveillance of antiwar demonstrators, supposedly to “blunt potential violence by extremist elements,” according to a Reuters interview with a federal law enforcement official.
Given the FBI’s expansive definition of “potential violence” in the past, this is a net that could catch almost any group or individual who falls into official disfavor.
James Bovard is the author of “Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil.” This article is adapted from one that appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of the American Conservative.