We Were Arrested for Speaking

By David Swanson

U.S. Park Policeman (USPP) who shall remain nameless on Monday, October 5, 2009: Next!
Me: Is that me?
USPP: Whoever. I’m flexible. I’m agreeable. I’m just here to please.
Me: Except for the whole arresting us part, huh? [climbing out of a cramped metal van where I’d been stuck with a dozen other men, our hands cuffed behind our backs so tightly they left marks and my friend’s hands went numb]
USPP: What? I thought that was the whole point. You wanted to get arrested.
Me: No, we didn’t want to get arrested. We wanted to engage in free speech.
USPP: Oh, I’m not going to get into that. Step over here. [He asks me my name and address.] Charlottesville? It’s beautiful down there. Why would you want to come here and do this? [cutting himself off quickly] I mean I know why, you don’t need to tell me.

But of course I did need to tell him. He just didn’t want to know.

Earlier that day in front of the White House:

Another police officer (APO): You all will have to move off the sidewalk into the street.
Me: Are you sure the First Amendment says that?
APO: Oh you want to play that game? We can shut the whole area down if you want to play that game.
Me: I didn’t say anything about a game.

The president was holding a press conference inside the White House fence with a bunch of doctors who oppose serious healthcare reform. Donna Smith, star of Michael Moore’s “Sicko”, was standing next to me and telling me that every patient who had appeared in that movie had determined that the healthcare bills now under consideration in Washington would not have done anything to help them and won’t now.

Hundreds of peace activists made their way to the White House sidewalk. We joined with some doctors and nurses who were not permitted to take part in the events inside because they support single-payer healthcare. We shouted “Healthcare Not Warfare.” We shouted “Troops Home Now. End Warfare.” We shouted “Single Payer Now. End Warfare.” We made a lot of noise, but we were in the street rather than on the forbidden sidewalk. And there was an incredibly noisy truck behind us that had chosen this moment to clean Pennsylvania Avenue with pressurized hoses.

We moved down the street and the truck came too. But we made a lot more noise. Prisoners in orange from Witness Against Torture chained themselves to the White House fence. So did Cindy Sheehan whose son died in Iraq. Veterans for Peace displayed US, Afghan, and Iraqi coffins and read the names of the dead and shouted: “Mourn the dead! Heal the wounded! End the wars!” The National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, the World Can’t Wait, and lots of other groups joined in. Many of us donned black shirts, white placards with the names of dead troops or civilians, and white masks: the March of the Dead. We marched on the sidewalk in front of the White House in silence.

Then the police horses came at us. The police tried to drive us into the street with their horses, but we lay down on the sidewalk, and they didn’t trample us. Instead they put police tape around a huge area, moved everyone else out of it, gave three warnings, and began arresting people. We lay on the sidewalk for approximately two hours, rode with lights and sirens blaring in an escorted caravan of vans and buses to the jail, and were out within an hour with tickets to pay $100 fines or challenge in court.

The crime? Exercising free speech in a group of more than 25 people. Seriously. We’re charged with failing to obey a lawful order. And the order was to move farther away from the White House because with more than 25 people you have to have a special permit in order to exercise free speech. At least 50 of us, maybe closer to 100, went to jail, while many more chose to comply with the lawful (if unconstitutional) order.

And what did the Park Police SWAT team do? Nothing but follow orders. They followed orders to the exclusion of all thought. They asked us not to encourage them to think. They didn’t want to think about freedom of speech. They didn’t want to think about arresting nonviolent people for peacefully demanding peace. They didn’t want to think about whether protesting illegal wars actually constitutes something closer to law enforcement than what they themselves were engaged in. And they certainly didn’t want to think about the men and women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan who will die because the US Park Police arrested peaceful people assembling and speaking, rather than arresting war criminals like Richard Cheney who confess to felonies on television and lives right across the river.

David Swanson is the author of the new book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press. You can order it and find out when tour will be in your town: http://davidswanson.org/book

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