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Signs of Dissent

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.

Edward R. Murrow

As the nation eagerly watches to see what techniques are employed at the Republican National Convention to keep protestors out of sight if not out of mind, we are reminded that Mr. Bush’s fondness for smiley faces has been a hallmark of his administration. The only difference between then and now is that whereas until recently the suppression of frowning faces at presidential appearances was effected by removing them from where Mr. Bush might see them, today they are being encouraged to stay at home.

A protester, especially one with a sign, detracts from the president’s message that Bush is in the White House and all is right with the world. Examples abound of the great care taken to protect the president from signs of dissent.

On Labor day in 2002 Mr. Bush visited Pittsburgh. One of the people hoping to convey a message by sign to Mr. Bush was Bill Neel, a retired steel worker. He was carrying a sign that said: “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.” He hoped to be on the street down which Mr. Bush would travel. The police wouldn’t hear of it. They wanted Mr. Neel to retreat to an area one-third of a mile from the speech site where his sign would not upset anyone since everyone there would be carrying signs similar to his. He refused to join holders of like minded signs and was arrested for disorderly conduct.

At Mr. Neel’s trial a police detective testified that prior to the president’s appearance, the Secret Service told police to confine “people that were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views” in a free-speech area. Another officer testified 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.'”

The judge threw out the charges against Mr. Neel saying: “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’?”

When Mr. Bush was speaking at the University of South Florida Sundome in 2003, a man holding up a sign saying: “War is good business. Invest your sons” was arrested because he refused to be cordoned off in an area far from where the president spoke. He was charged with “obstructing without violence and disorderly conduct.” In a visit to St. Louis in January 2003 protesters were cordoned off in an area so secure that the police wouldn’t let the media in to interview the protesters and wouldn’t let the protesters out to talk to the media.

Although the foregoing suggest a Bush fondness for the presence of only fawning admirers, he is, it turns out, also worried about the welfare of the protestors.

In an interview on National Public Radio, a Secret Service agent explained: “These individuals may be so involved with trying to shout their support or non support 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.” The administration has now discovered an even better way to keep protesters safe.

For the last few weeks FBI officers have been spending their time visiting people they believe may want to protest at either the Democratic or Republican conventions. Sarah Bardwell lives in Denver and is an intern with an antiwar group. She and her house mates were visited by the FBI. The visitors wanted to know what her plans were for demonstrating. When she said she didn’t want to talk to them they told her that that was non-cooperation and they would have to use more intrusive measures to get the information they were seeking.

Three men in Missouri were tailed for days by federal investigators and then subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury to discuss their plans. One of their plans was to change their mind about going to either convention as protesters. They decided to stay home. That greatly reduces the chance that they’ll get hurt. The only thing that gets hurt if they stay home is their right to speak freely about what they believe. Mr. Bush would say that’s a fair trade off. If he’s reelected we’ll all learn to agree.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. His column appears weekly in the Daily Camera. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

 

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