Free Speech Kept Off US Streets
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Free Speech Kept Off US Streets
Officials deny plot to herd dissenters into protest pens
But sign-carriers testify to being hustled out of sight
by David Lindorff
When retired Pittsburgh steelworker Bill Neel learned that President George W. Bush was coming to town last year, he decided he would be on hand to protest the president's economic policies.
Neel and his sister made a hand-lettered sign — The Bush family must surely love the poor! They have made so many of us! — and headed for a road where the motorcade would pass.
But he never got to display his sign for Bush to see.
As he stood among milling groups of Bush supporters, he was approached by a local police detective and told that he and his sister had to move to a "free-speech area" for protesters, on orders of the U.S. Secret Service.
"He pointed out a relatively remote baseball diamond that was enclosed in a chain-link fence," Neel recalls.
"I could see these people behind the fence, with their faces up against it, and their hands on the wire.
"It looked more like a concentration camp than a free-speech area to me, so I said, `I'm not going in there. I thought the whole country was a free-speech area.'"
After refusing several times to go to the area, he was handcuffed and arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct.
When his sister argued against the arrest, she was cuffed and hauled off as well. The two spent the president's visit in a firehouse that was serving as Secret Service headquarters for the event.
The Neels' experience is not unique.
On Sept. 23, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Philadelphia against the Secret Service, alleging that the agency, a unit of the new Homeland Security Department charged with protecting the president and other key officials, instituted a policy in the months even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of instructing local police to cordon off protesters from the president and Vice-President Dick Cheney.
The ACLU has identified 17 separate incidents in which protesters were segregated or removed during presidential or vice-presidential events.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this is just the tip of the iceberg," says Pittsburgh ACLU legal director Witold Walczak. "We don't have the resources to follow Bush and Cheney everywhere they go."
The suit comes at a time of mounting charges by civil libertarians on both left and right that the Bush administration and Attorney-General John Ashcroft's justice department are trampling on civil liberties.
In its complaint, the ACLU cites nine cases since March, 2001, in which protesters were quarantined. And it alleges that the Secret Service, with the assistance of state and local police, is systematically violating protesters' First Amendment rights via two methods.
"Under the first form," the suit says, " the protesters are moved further away from the location of the official and/or the event, allowing people who express views that support the government to remain closer.
"Under the second form, everyone expressing a view — either critical or supportive of the government — is moved further away, leaving people who merely observe, but publicly express no view, to remain closer."
In either case, the complaint adds, "protesters are typically segregated into what are commonly referred to as `protest zones.'"
Besides violating a fundamental right of free speech and assembly, the ACLU says, the strategy is damaging in two ways: "It insulates the government officials from seeing or hearing the protesters and vice-versa, and it gives to the media and the American public the appearance that there exists less dissent than there really is."
Certainly, as television cameras follow a presidential motorcade lined with cheering supporters, the image on the tube will be distorted if protesters have been spirited away around a corner somewhere fenced in for the duration.
Secret Service official deny discriminating against protesters.
"The Secret Service is message-neutral," said John Gill. "We make no distinction on the basis of the purposes or intent of any group or the content of signs."
Further, Gill insisted the establishment and oversight of local viewing areas "is the responsibility of state and local law enforcement."
In practice, it's apparently not that simple, though. Nor is the Secret Service's carefully worded denial of responsibility as definitive as it might appear.
The "establishment of viewing areas" is indeed a local responsibility, but local officials say the Secret Service has in some cases all but ordered them to pen in protesters.
And it appears the Secret Service is making recommendations about how that should be done.
Paul Wolf, an Allegheny County police assistant supervisor involved in planning the presidential visit to Pittsburgh, says the decision to pen Bush critics originated with the Secret Service.
"What the Secret Service does," Wolf explains, "is they 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 be put in a place that is able to be secured.'"
Wolf's statement was supported up by the sworn testimony of the detective who arrested Neel.
Det. John Ianachione testified in county court that the Secret Service had instructed local police to herd into the enclosed area "people that were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views.
"If they were exhibiting themselves as a protester, they were to go in that area."
Asked to respond to the accounts of Wolf and Ianachione about the Secret Service's role in handling of protesters, spokesman Gill said: "No comment."
Asked pointedly whether Wolf's account was incorrect, Gill again said: "No comment."
The White House declined to comment on what role its staff plays in deciding how protesters at presidential events should be handled, referring all calls to the Secret Service.
Asked specifically whether White House officials have been behind requests to have protesters segregated and removed from the vicinity of presidential events, White House spokesman Allen Abney said: "No comment."
A number of individual plaintiffs in the ACLU suit say they were told local police were acting "on orders from the Secret Service" when directing them to remote areas or arresting them for refusing to go to such sites.
That's the story Bill Ramsey got when he was arrested last Nov. 4 by police in St. Charles, Mo., while attempting to unfurl an anti-war banner amid a group of pro-Bush people during a presidential visit to a local airport.
"The police told us if we wanted to show the banner, we'd have to go to a parking lot four-tenths of a mile away and out of sight of the president's motorcade," says Ramsey.
"When we attempted to put it up anyway, they arrested us and said they'd been ordered to by the Secret Service."
But Ramsey says that when members of his organization, the Instead of War Coalition, seek to obtain permission to hold demonstrations during presidential visits, the Secret Service tells them such matters are the responsibility of local police.
"When we go to the local police, though, they say it's up to the Secret Service."
Efforts to obtain a comment from the St. Charles police department were unsuccessful.
Andrew Wimmer, also a member of the Instead of War Coalition, says he was offered a similar explanation last January in St. Louis when he attempted to hoist a sign — Instead of war, invest in people — on a street full of Bush supporters.
Wimmer says St. Louis police told him he'd have to go to a protest area two blocks from the presidential motorcade route because of his sign.
"Local police were pulling out people carrying protest signs and directing them to the protest area," the 48-year-old IT worker says.
"When they got to me, I said, `No, I'd just as soon stand with the people here.' But they said the Secret Service wanted protesters in the protest area."
In the end, Wimmer, like others who've refused to be caged during protests, was arrested.
Stefan Presser, head of the Philadelphia ACLU chapter, traces the tactic to the last Republican National Convention, which nominated Bush for the presidency in August, 2000.
"The GOP tried to reserve every possible space where a protest group might rally," Presser recalls.
"Part of the party's contract with the city of Philadelphia for the convention was that they were given an omnibus permit to use `all available space' for the two weeks of the convention.
"They basically privatized the city to block all legal protest."
Since then, Presser charges, the Bush administration has continued the strategy of using the Secret Service and co-operative local police departments to keep protesters at bay — and not incidentally, out of easy range of the media.
Presser and the ACLU don't question the Secret Service's responsibility to protect the president and other key government officials.
Even plaintiffs in the case agree that the president must be protected.
But, notes Neel in Pittsburgh, "putting protesters behind a fence isn't going to help.
"I mean, somebody who was going to attempt an assassination wouldn't be carrying a protest sign. He'd be carrying a sign saying: `I love George!'"
Presser agrees: "It seems these `security zones' for protesters have very little to do with the president's physical security and a whole lot to do with his political security."
"Just as the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were careful to blend in and stayed away from mosques," he says, "anyone who had ill will toward the president could just put on a pro-Bush T-shirt and, under this policy, he'd be allowed to move closer to the president by the Secret Service."
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