to thank James Bovard for this very enlightening article.
When President Bush travels around the United States, the Secret
Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local
police to set up "free speech zones" or "protest zones," where
people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying
supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in
keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the
view of media covering the event.
When Bush went to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002,
65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet
him with a sign proclaiming, "The Bush family must surely love
the poor, they made so many of us."
The local police, at the Secret Service's behest, set up a
"designated free-speech zone" on a baseball field surrounded by
a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush's
The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical
signs, but folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the
president's path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and
was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated
Neel later commented, "As far as I'm concerned, the whole
country is a free-speech zone. If the Bush administration has
its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out
At Neel's trial, police Detective John Ianachione testified that
the Secret Service told local police to confine "people that
were there making a statement pretty much against the president
and his views" in a so-called free- speech area.
Paul Wolf, one of the top officials in the Allegheny County
Police Department, told Salon 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.' "
Pennsylvania District Judge Shirley Rowe Trkula threw out the
disorderly conduct charge against Neel, declaring, "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'?"
Similar suppressions have occurred during Bush visits to
Florida. A recent St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, "At a
Bush rally at Legends Field in 2001, three demonstrators -- two
of whom were grandmothers -- were arrested for holding up small
handwritten protest signs outside the designated zone. And last
year, seven protesters were arrested when Bush came to a rally
at the USF Sun Dome. They had refused to be cordoned off into a
protest zone hundreds of yards from the entrance to the Dome."
One of the arrested protesters was a 62-year-old man holding up
a sign, "War is good business. Invest your sons." The seven were
charged with trespassing, "obstructing without violence and
Police have repressed protesters during several Bush visits to
the St. Louis area as well. When Bush visited on Jan. 22, 150
people carrying signs were shunted far away from the main action
and effectively quarantined.
Denise Lieberman of the American Civil Liberties Union of
Eastern Missouri commented, "No one could see them from the
street. In addition, the media were not allowed to talk to them.
The police would not allow any media inside the protest area and
wouldn't allow any of the protesters out of the protest zone to
talk to the media."
When Bush stopped by a Boeing plant to talk to workers,
Christine Mains and her 5-year-old daughter disobeyed orders to
move to a small protest area far from the action. Police
arrested Mains and took her and her crying daughter away in
separate squad cars.
The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey, who was
arrested for holding a "No War for Oil" sign at a Bush visit to
Columbia, S.C. Local police, acting under Secret Service orders,
established a "free-speech zone" half a mile from where Bush
would speak. Bursey was standing amid hundreds of people
carrying signs praising the president. Police told Bursey to
remove himself to the "free-speech zone."
Bursey refused and was arrested. Bursey said that he asked the
police officer if "it was the content of my sign, and he said,
'Yes, sir, it's the content of your sign that's the problem.' "
Bursey stated that he had already moved 200 yards from where
Bush was supposed to speak. Bursey later complained, "The
problem was, the restricted area kept moving. It was wherever I
happened to be standing."
Bursey was charged with trespassing. Five months later, the
charge was dropped because South Carolina law prohibits
arresting people for trespassing on public property. But the
Justice Department -- in the person of U.S. Attorney Strom
Thurmond Jr. -- quickly jumped in, charging Bursey with
violating a rarely enforced federal law regarding "entering a
restricted area around the president of the United States."
If convicted, Bursey faces a six-month trip up the river and a
$5,000 fine. Federal Magistrate Bristow Marchant denied Bursey's
request for a jury trial because his violation is categorized as
a petty offense. Some observers believe that the feds are
seeking to set a precedent in a conservative state such as South
Carolina that could then be used against protesters nationwide.
Bursey's trial took place on Nov. 12 and 13. His lawyers sought
the Secret Service documents they believed would lay out the
official policies on restricting critical speech at presidential
visits. The Bush administration sought to block all access to
the documents, but Marchant ruled that the lawyers could have
Bursey sought to subpoena Attorney General John Ashcroft and
presidential adviser Karl Rove to testify. Bursey lawyer Lewis
Pitts declared, "We intend to find out from Mr. Ashcroft why and
how the decision to prosecute Mr. Bursey was reached." The
magistrate refused, however, to enforce the subpoenas. Secret
Service agent Holly Abel testified at the trial that Bursey was
told to move to the "free-speech zone" but refused to cooperate.
The feds have offered some bizarre rationales for hog-tying
protesters. Secret Service agent Brian Marr explained to
National Public Radio, "These individuals may be so involved
with trying to shout their support or nonsupport 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." Except
for having their constitutional rights shredded.
The ACLU, along with several other organizations, is suing the
Secret Service for what it charges is a pattern and practice of
suppressing protesters at Bush events in Arizona, California,
Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas and
elsewhere. The ACLU's Witold Walczak said of the protesters,
"The individuals we are talking about didn't pose a security
threat; they posed a political threat."
The Secret Service is duty-bound to protect the president. But
it is ludicrous to presume that would-be terrorists are
lunkheaded enough to carry anti-Bush signs when carrying
pro-Bush signs would give them much closer access. And even a
policy of removing all people carrying signs -- as has happened
in some demonstrations -- is pointless because potential
attackers would simply avoid carrying signs. Assuming that
terrorists are as unimaginative and predictable as the average
federal bureaucrat is not a recipe for presidential longevity.
The Bush administration's anti-protester bias proved
embarrassing for two American allies with long traditions of
raucous free speech, resulting in some of the most repressive
restrictions in memory in free countries.
When Bush visited Australia in October, Sydney Morning Herald
columnist Mark Riley observed, "The basic right of freedom of
speech will adopt a new interpretation during the Canberra
visits this week by George Bush and his Chinese counterpart, Hu
Jintao. Protesters will be free to speak as much as they like
just as long as they can't be heard."
Demonstrators were shunted to an area away from the Federal
Parliament building and prohibited from using any public address
system in the area.
For Bush's recent visit to London, the White House demanded that
British police ban all protest marches, close down the center of
the city and impose a "virtual three-day shutdown of central
London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by anti-war
protesters," according to Britain's Evening Standard. But
instead of a "free-speech zone," the Bush administration
demanded an "exclusion zone" to protect Bush from protesters'
Such unprecedented restrictions did not inhibit Bush from
portraying himself as a champion of freedom during his visit. In
a speech at Whitehall on Nov. 19, Bush hyped the "forward
strategy of freedom" and declared, "We seek the advance of
freedom and the peace that freedom brings."
Attempts to suppress protesters become more disturbing in light
of the Homeland Security Department's recommendation that local
police departments view critics of the war on terrorism as
potential terrorists. In a May terrorist advisory, the Homeland
Security Department warned local law enforcement agencies to
keep an eye on anyone who "expressed dislike of attitudes and
decisions of the U.S. government." If police vigorously followed
this advice, millions of Americans could be added to the
official lists of suspected terrorists.
Protesters have claimed that police have assaulted them during
demonstrations in New York, Washington and elsewhere.
One of the most violent government responses to an antiwar
protest occurred when local police and the federally funded
California Anti-Terrorism Task Force fired rubber bullets and
tear gas at peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders at the
Port of Oakland, injuring a number of people.
When the police attack sparked a geyser of media criticism, Mike
van Winkle, the spokesman for the California Anti-Terrorism
Information Center told the Oakland Tribune, "You can make an
easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting
a war where the cause that's being fought against is
international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that
protest. You can almost argue that a protest against that is a
Van Winkle justified classifying protesters as terrorists: "I've
heard terrorism described as anything that is violent or has an
economic impact, and shutting down a port certainly would have
some economic impact. Terrorism isn't just bombs going off and
Such aggressive tactics become more ominous in the light of the
Bush administration's advocacy, in its Patriot II draft
legislation, of nullifying all judicial consent decrees
restricting state and local police from spying on those groups
who may oppose government policies.
On May 30, 2002, Ashcroft effectively abolished restrictions on
FBI surveillance of Americans' everyday lives first imposed in
1976. One FBI internal newsletter encouraged FBI agents to
conduct more interviews with antiwar activists "for plenty of
reasons, chief of which it will enhance the paranoia endemic in
such circles and will further service to get the point across
that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."
The FBI took a shotgun approach toward protesters partly because
of the FBI's "belief that dissident speech and association
should be prevented because they were incipient steps toward the
possible ultimate commission of act which might be criminal,"
according to a Senate report.
On Nov. 23 news broke that the FBI is actively conducting
surveillance of antiwar demonstrators, supposedly to "blunt
potential violence by extremist elements," according to a
Reuters interview with a federal law enforcement official.
Given the FBI's expansive definition of "potential violence" in
the past, this is a net that could catch almost any group or
individual who falls into official disfavor.
James Bovard is the author of "Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling
Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil." This
article is adapted from one that appeared in the Dec. 15 issue
of the American Conservative.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle