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Protester Prevailed, but the 'Chill' Lingers
Published on Friday, October 6, 2006 by the Rocky Mountain News (Colorado)
Protester Prevailed, but the 'Chill' Lingers
by Bill Johnson
 

Here is a story that should cheer Steve Howards, the Denver-area man who's filing a federal lawsuit after his arrest last summer for criticizing Vice President Dick Cheney over the administration's handling of Iraq.

It should cheer the rest of us, too. Then, again . . .

As you may have read, Steve Howards was walking his 7-year-old boy to a piano camp at Beaver Creek on June 16 when he saw a crowd. Turned out, the vice president was shaking hands and posing for pictures.

Steve Howards walked past, not three feet away from Dick Cheney. Unable to hold his tongue, he said, "I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible." He and his boy then walked on, he said.

Ten minutes later, a Secret Service agent stopped Steve Howards and arrested him for "assaulting" Dick Cheney. He was hauled off to Eagle County Jail.

He was released later that day, however, and charges were eventually dropped.

Wow.

John Blair began laughing when I telephoned and started to tell him the story of Steve Howards.

Only last June, John Blair settled a lawsuit he brought against the Evansville, Ind., police, who'd arrested him in February 2002 for holding a protest sign outside of a political fundraiser headlined by Dick Cheney.

"Oh, I won big-time," said John Blair, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer in 1978. He refused to reveal the amount of the settlement, which remains confidential.

A self-professed rebel and gadfly, John Blair, 60, is a man who devotes most of his time now to environmental issues. He'd like to shut down the proliferating coal-fired power plants in and around Evansville, for example.

A group of college kids and other activists had called to ask if he'd join them in a protest that night in 2002. He said sure and drew up a sign reading "Dick Cheney, 19th-Century Energy Man."

He got there before the others, so he stood across the street and waited, more than 100 yards from the entrance to the fundraiser.

What he didn't know was that the Secret Service had set up a "protest zone," which was a block away. Evansville police officers immediately intercepted him.

He complied with their directive to move. As he walked away, he stopped to ask another question, something like, "Where?" He was immediately arrested.

"I'd thought we were having a conversation," John Blair said. "Obviously, we were not."

He did a night in jail for "disorderly conduct." As with Steve Howards' case, saner minds prevailed and the charge was dismissed.

He sued.

U.S. District Judge Larry J. McKinney bought none of the arguments proffered by the city, which then complained that it was only following a request by the Secret Service. The Secret Service disavowed knowing anything about it.

"They completely left the city hanging - wouldn't take a deposition. Nothing," John Blair recalled.

It is so nice, he said, having that money in the bank. But it has come at a cost.

"I refuse now to go to any protest. My motivation is gone. I get asked all the time. I refuse," he said. "I simply don't want to get arrested again."

Still, he's happy with the position he took. "The reason I settled when I did was that this decision will stand and stand forever," he said. "It is now a part of American law, an excellent representation of the rule of free speech and justice."

In Evansville, John Blair is now viewed, he said, as something of a folk hero, a man who stood up to the system, took it on and won.

"With my arrest and court victory, it has raised my level of respect here a great deal. People are even hearing and respecting my environmental position.

"A lot of people think what I did was an act of courage," John Blair said. "Exercising your rights should never be viewed as an act of courage.

"What happened to me was a very chilling thing. I consider myself a good citizen, but with everything I do now, I always have this thought that they will come and arrest me again.

"If getting arrested and taking on the government was a 'courageous' thing, why do I now feel this chill every time I step out of the house?"

Perhaps he ought to feel that way.

We Americans torture now. The president of the United States, with Congress' recent blessing, can deny anyone habeas corpus. Anyone and any group can be spied on without judicial oversight. And clearly, the people we elect to represent us can order the men and women we pay to protect us to take us to jail when we say or write on poster board things they do not like.

"I am a serious activist with a serious agenda," John Blair said. "But, no, I don't want to go to jail again."

Listen to that, really hear it.

Bill Johnson has gained most of his journalistic experience on the West Coast as a staff writer, reporter, editor and columnist. He has also been a faculty member of the University of Arizona's Editing Program for Minority Journalists within the Institute for Journalism Education. Johnson won the National Headliner Award's First Place for Columns in 1995 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary in 1993.

2006 © The E.W. Scripps Co.

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