Hell No, They Won't Go

Protesters say pens are for sheep, not Bush critics

Not everyone agrees.

The arrest of Mains a week ago Wednesday marks the third time since November that Bush has visited St. Louis and police have arrested demonstrators who've refused orders to stay far away from the president. It's a scene that's repeating itself across the nation: In Florida, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Utah, demonstrators who don't agree with Bush's policies have been arrested after refusing to go to protest areas that are out of eyesight and earshot of the president.

"That's what we've come to in terms of freedom of expression in this country -- it's defined by others," says longtime peace activist Bill Ramsey, who was arrested in November by St. Charles police at the Family Arena during a Jim Talent rally attended by Bush.

Christine Mains, holding her daughter, was arrested last week by Berkeley police.
Jennifer Silverberg
Christine Mains, holding her daughter, was arrested last week by Berkeley police.

Ramsey and Angela Gordon, a Washington University graduate student, refused to move from the entrance to the arena parking lot after police ordered them to the official protest area, a gravel area near the Katy Trail about a quarter-mile away on the opposite side of the arena from the building entrance. As Ramsey and Gordon were led away in handcuffs, two busloads of union activists from Service Employees International Union Local 2000 showed up. Hauling two peaceniks to jail was one thing, but arresting more than 100 people who were chanting opposition to Talent's labor views was quite another. When the cops told union members to go to the protest area, they told police to think again.

"We said, 'No, you're wrong -- you'd better go check your books,'" recalls Grant Williams, president of SEIU Local 2000. "We informed the police that we had a right to be there and that we weren't going to leave. There were a lot of us. I think they figured there were too many of us to lock up." And so Williams and his crew remained, demonstrating at the same spot where Ramsey and Gordon had been.

Charged with obstructing police, Ramsey and Gordon have accepted legal representation offered by the American Civil Liberties Union and demanded jury trials. Last week, a trial date of June 24 was set in St. Charles County circuit court.

Andrew Wimmer, manager of student technology services for St. Louis University, also accepted ACLU legal help after he was arrested during a Bush appearance at a South St. Louis warehouse on January 22, but the city counselor's office declined to press charges.

"Anybody that was arriving with a sign, a police officer immediately came up to them and said, 'We have a place for you all -- it's down two blocks; make a left and go over to the park,'" Wimmer recalls. He was holding a sign saying "Instead of War, Invest in People." A woman in the same area held a sign saying "We Love You Mr. President." Wimmer recalls passing her as the cops drove him to the 3rd District precinct. "The woman who was holding the sign kind of peered in the window at me," he says. "I looked out at her. She was looking rather bemused by the whole thing. It's not a question that you can't have a sign. It's not a question of the safety of the president, because there are other people standing there. It's pretty clear what's happening."

Richard Wilkes, spokesman for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, says police were following directions from the Secret Service, which decides who must go to protest areas. About 150 people followed orders and went to the designated area, which was down an embankment and out of sight of the presidential motorcade, says Denise D. Lieberman, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. "No one could see them from the street," Lieberman says. "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."

Gordon and Wimmer say they're considering filing civil-rights lawsuits, perhaps with ACLU help. Lieberman says the ACLU is pondering legal action on a national level. "The exact same thing is taking place all over the country," she says.

Donovan Kenton, spokesman for the St. Charles Police Department, says it's a question of protecting the president and the public. "Plain and simple -- it doesn't take a rocket scientist -- you have a crowd of people, from a security standpoint, they could stick a rocket launcher up someone's rear end," he says.

But history has shown that presidential assassins are more likely to pose as supporters than foes of their targets. Charles Julius Guiteau, the mentally deranged man who killed James Garfield in 1881, gave speeches in support of the president before the assassination. A century later, John Hinckley, found not guilty by reason of insanity, blended in with bystanders before pulling the trigger on Ronald Reagan. And Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme wasn't holding a sign when she tried to kill Gerald Ford in 1975.

"I think this is going to be litigated eventually," says Ramsey. "In the meantime, the president gets the protection from dissent that he wants."

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