Watching Melissa Etheridge on TV at the Live Earth concert persuaded Jonas Phillips and his wife, Kindra, to go out and do something about the Bush Administration's abuses.
So they made a cardboard sign with "Impeach Bush Cheney" on it.
And they held that sign on the sidewalk of the Haywood Road Bridge over I-240 in Asheville, North Carolina, on several different occasions this summer.
Like Kevin Egler of Kent, Ohio, who was arrested for illegal advertising with his "Impeach" sign (see http://progressive.org/mag_wx081307), they got in trouble for theirs.
One day at the beginning of August, Kindra was standing on the bridge sidewalk at about 4:00 p.m., Jonas says, when she was approached by an officer.
"She asked him whether she was doing something wrong, and he said no, but that he'd gotten a complaint from one person who called in four times," Jonas says.
Jonas held the sign up three or four times in the mornings, around 7:30, for about 20 minutes, since the bridge is near where he works, he says.
On August 15, he'd been there for about ten or fifteen minutes when a police car pulled up and parked behind him.
Officer Russell Crisp asked for his ID.
"I obliged," Phillips says.
"He asked how long I planned on being there. I said about 5 minutes, since I had to be at work at about 8:00. I asked him if I was doing something wrong. He said he was waiting for a sergeant to arrive."
Within a couple of minutes, Sergeant Randy Riddle did arrive.
"These were the first words out of his mouth: 'Put down the sign. Put your hands behind your back. You're under arrest.'
"I asked him why was I being arrested.
"He said, 'I'm sick of this shit, you're going to get your 15 minutes of fame, now, buddy.' "
When Phillips asked again, he says Sergeant Riddle responded: "You're obstructing the sidewalk."
Phillips says he pleaded with the other policeman.
"Officer Crisp, you just saw a man walk by me with no problem."
But to no avail.
Phillips said he then glanced at Sergeant Riddle's nametag, and again the officer was belligerent.
"He's pushing his nameplate at me, saying, 'That's Sergeant Riddle, buddy, get it right.' "
Sergeant Riddle put Phillips into Officer Crisp's squad car, and Crisp drove Phillips downtown and booked him
"No one ever read me my rights," Phillips says. "And when I was booked, I was questioned several times about any affiliations I had with any groups, including Veterans for Peace."
Phillips responded: "I told them I wasn't part of any group. It's me and my wife, just the two of us."
Sergeant Riddle refused multiple requests, both by phone and e-mail, for comment.
Police Chief William Hogan responded to my e-mail by writing: "We want citizens to be able to protest and exercise their freedom of speech," said Chief Hogan. "What is important for everyone to understand is that in exercising this right you cannot endanger the public or infringe upon the rights of others. . . . The Asheville Police Department is a professional, well trained, and accredited agency that is committed to protecting individuals' Constitutional rights. Our Department has assisted with untold rallies and protests to protect citizens' opportunity for free speech while maintaining the safety of all individuals present. . . . In this case, the actions of Mr. Phillips were impeding the flow of traffic and endangering motorists by holding a sign over Interstate 240 during rush hour traffic, which could have caused a serious traffic crash. It is unfortunate that this event and the motives of the officers have been misconstrued to represent an act by the Asheville Police Department to deprive someone of their Constitutional rights."
A press release from the police department said that Phillips had crossed "three lanes of traffic on the bridge, thereby impeding the flow of traffic."
Phillips says he did cross the street, but there was no traffic to impede. He says the speed limit on the street is 20 mph, with lights on both sides of the bridge.
The press release from the police department added that "the department had received multiple complaints over a two-week period last month about individuals holding up signs at that same spot."
And, in what Phillips considers an ominous threat, the press release stated that the police were considering more serious charges: "He may also be charged for violating an N.C. Department of Transportation law that prohibits hanging signs on an overpass, which poses dangers for motorists passing below. The officers can attest that as Mr. Phillips held his sign over the edge of the bridge, drivers on the interstate were slowing down and honking their horns, which also created a traffic hazard."
The statement quoted Chief Hogan saying, "It was not the content of the sign, but the risks posed to drivers that precipitated our actions."
"That's a bunch of nonsense," says Phillips. "It's total harassment to me. If the content of the sign wasn't an issue, why was I questioned repeatedly about which political groups I was a part of?"
Phillips has a September 24 court date.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.
© 2007 The Progressive