Free Speech Takes a Capitol Beating

by MIKE FERNER

Free speech took a beating with another round of arrests September 18 in the nation’s capital. It was administered by the police at a rally sponsored by the most unlikely-sounding group to be involved in such a thing: Veterans for Freedom.

U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham were among the featured speakers at the rally held in Upper Senate Park on Capitol Hill. About 150 people attended the rally to support the group’s pro-war position, as did about 30 people who were not in support. Before the rally concluded, Leah Bolger, David Barrows, Christine Rainwater, Anne Kitridge, and Anne Katz were arrested by Capitol Police.

Barrows said he had gone to the park because he heard Lieberman was going to speak. When the Senator was talking, Barrows spoke out, "I don’t want your ‘bomb and run genocide’ in Iran."

"As soon as I did, a plainclothes policeman came up to me and said, ‘You’re under arrest,’" the 60 year-old D.C. resident continued. But, Barrows said, instead of going with the officer immediately he moved another six feet closer to the stage, whereupon he was placed under arrest.

It wasn’t until he was taken to the Capitol Police station that Barrows discovered one of the charges against him was assault. "They told me I was being charged with assaulting a Gold Star mother at the rally. When I looked at their report, the accuser’s name and address had been blacked out but I recognized the photo of a well-groomed Asian-American woman I’d seen around Capitol Hill several times. Why in the world would I assault a Gold Star Mother? It makes no sense."

Barrows was given a "stay away" order (not allowed to step foot on and Capitol property which includes the Capitol Building, the five House and Senate office buildings, and assorted bits of property adjoining them) and has a trial date pending.

Bolger, a retired Navy Commander and member of Veterans For Peace, said she went to the park for the same reason Barrows did, "to hear Lieberman, McCain and Lindsey Graham." She was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly. After a night in the D.C. Metro Police lockup she pled not guilty at her arraignment. Trial is set for October 23 in D.C. Superior Court.

"It’s just bizzare," the Corvallis, Oregon resident said. "How can I be charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ when I was at an outdoor rally in a public park sponsored by someone else? I was in the Hart Senate Office Building when I heard Lieberman was supposed to speak, and I went to hear him."

She said she was sympathetically talking with a member of a group called "Families United" about the pain of losing a loved one, when a Capitol Hill police officer told her and Adam Kokesh, co-chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) to move to the other side of a sidewalk serving as a rough demarcation line between the Veterans for Freedom members and others, generally defined.

Bolger continued that, "At one point in his remarks, Senator Graham gestured to those of us separated from the main group and said, ‘These people just don’t get it. The reason your loved ones fought and died was for them to have the right to do what they’re doing right now.’ Bolger responded out loud to Lieberman that "You can’t win when you’re killing innocent people."

"Then the cop told me, ‘this is your second warning,’" Bolger added. "And then when I said to Lieberman, ‘This war is wrong. America is wrong.’ I was arrested. Somehow I doubt the same thing would have happened had I said ‘God Bless America’ really loudly."

Another person arrested, Annie Katz, from Kingston, New York, said reading the Constitution aloud in Upper Senate Park that day was enough to get her arrested.
Attorney Jack Berringer, who represented Barrows and Bolger, complained of what he called the court’s "preventive" use of stay away orders to limit the movements of protesters and potential protesters, but as aggravating as those are, he said, "they’re not the real story here. The real story is how these people (Bolger, Barrows, and others arrested in peace protests) are fighting to keep free speech alive."

Berringer referred to a web site that several people are constructing who have represented themselves "pro se" in similar cases. He and attorney Mark Goldstone are advising the group’s work which he hopes will become a legal resource for others.

MIKE FERNER is a former Navy corpsman and author of "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq", available on his website www.mikeferner.org

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