Each step down the grassy strip along James S. McDonnell Boulevard takes them farther from the entrance to the Boeing plant where President George W. Bush is scheduled to speak to workers in 45 minutes. The protesters' chances of getting their anti-Bush views across to the president are nil. Bush, who is being driven directly from the tarmac to the plant, will never leave airport property. The protesters also aren't going to be handing out any fliers at intersections near the plant. The cops make sure of that.
"Keep moving," orders Berkeley police Lieutenant Art Jackson, urging the three dozen demonstrators toward the designated protest area. With rain threatening and the protest zone nowhere in sight, Jackson offers to give them a lift. "We've got a nice, big bus to take you there," he says. No one wants a ride, and so the procession continues under the watchful eyes of at least a half-dozen Berkeley officers, some of whom walk among the crowd while others creep along in three police cruisers.
Jackson is polite but firm with protesters who ask why they can't set up a little closer to the plant. "Blocking traffic is illegal," he explains, although no one has entered a traffic lane. "The Constitution doesn't allow that. Let's walk while we talk."
"Our goal is to get our message to Bush and have him see us," one woman tells Jackson. "We can accomplish that goal if you all move to the designated area," Jackson replies. "Is there a lot of visibility at the area?" a man asks. "Yes," Jackson answers, a bit haltingly. "To whom?" the man asks. "All this is interpretation," the lieutenant replies. "Keep moving -- we can do this. You have to understand, safety is an issue on this road."
Even the cops realize the situation is ridiculous when the procession reaches the protest zone, about a half-mile from the plant. Consisting of two roped-off areas, each about the size of a boxing ring, the protest zone sits 60 feet from the road in a field near the end of a runway, providing an excellent view of the back end of a United Parcel Service cargo jet and little else. The road here is straight and the speed limit is 40 mph, ensuring that motorists will zip past with barely a glance at the demonstrators, if they see them at all. And so the police relent, allowing demonstrators to march alongside the road instead of confining them to the pens.
With her five-year-old daughter Andrea on her lap, Christine Mains of Spanish Lake sits next to the road, about a football field away from the other protesters and that much closer to the plant. It is a tiny act of defiance, tolerated by police, who take no action when she refuses an officer's request to join the other demonstrators. "I refused to move and I stood my ground and I sat right there and I told him if he wanted to move me, he would have to move me physically," Mains later recalls. "I'm standing on my convictions and my First Amendment rights. I had a right to be there. I was on public property."
Suddenly the protesters head back toward the plant. The police follow along, making no attempt to stop the marchers until they try crossing McDonnell Boulevard to reach the entrance to Boeing administrative offices. The cops stop them on a narrow concrete median in the middle of the street.
"You have one of two choices: Go back across the street or be arrested," Jackson says. Most turn around and head toward a nearby parking lot where the cops say they can stay. But Mains remains on the median.
"You're blocking a street," Jackson warns. "You're also endangering the welfare of a child." Mains sits down, her arms around Andrea as a half-dozen officers move in. Patience on both sides has expired.
An officer snatches Andrea from her mother's arms and carries the child to a squad car. She's bawling, as is her mother. "No!" Mains screams. "She's five years old!" Mains goes limp as the cuffs go on, forcing officers to carry her to a patrol car while her daughter, tears streaming, is sped away. Mains will spend the next six hours in police custody. She goes home facing charges of failure to comply with a lawful order, resisting arrest, endangering the welfare of a child and peace disturbance. The cops, she says, originally tried citing her for blocking a street but changed the charge to peace disturbance because police had already closed the street in preparation for Bush's appearance.
The demonstration winds up within a half-hour, with a few protesters lingering to chat with Jackson and other officers. The atmosphere is cordial. When one protester says herding demonstrators into pens as if they were sheep is silly, Jackson doesn't disagree. He looks upward, smiles and then notes that police today didn't force the demonstrators to stay inside the roped-off areas.
"Of course, you can all understand this is for national security," Jackson explains. "We're protecting everybody."
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.
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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