Restricting speech, resisting violence

Last Saturday, pro-war demonstrators carrying American flags and shouting rallying cries marched up Virginia Street and effectively took over an anti-war demonstration on the steps of the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse.

“The emotions were as high as at any demonstration I’ve seen in Reno for the past 35 years,” said Richard Siegel, a political-science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Siegel and other peace demonstrators recounted the verbal harassment of the pro-war crowd. Many of the anti-war demonstrators, who advocate nonviolence, didn’t respond to the verbal drubbing, following guidelines that they read aloud at every peace demonstration.

Finally, after the rowdy pro-warriors broke up a prayer group, peace demonstrators vacated the scene, leaving the federal courthouse to the flag-waving pro-war demonstrators.

Sgt. Mark Morten of the Reno Police Department, who was apparently in charge that day, could not be reached for comment. One activist, Patricia Axelrod, said she has filed a complaint against the police for not separating the groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union took a different stance. The ACLU favors maximum freedom of expression without violence. All reports so far indicate that there was no physical assault of the peace demonstrators.

“I expressed the view [to the peace protesters] that it wasn’t in anyone’s interest to get the police involved,” said Siegel, who works with the ACLU. “The risk was greater than the benefit. In my view, the police made the right call.” His only criticism was that the police, 20 or 30 uniformed officers by one estimate, could have announced some rules for conduct—in effect, warning that physical violence wouldn’t be tolerated.

The ACLU had helped the peace demonstrators get the necessary permit to protest on the courthouse steps. Under last year’s Patriot Act, the right to petition government or to protest on federal property has been restricted.

On Monday evening, peace demonstrators were back on the steps of the federal courthouse. The pro-war crowd was nowhere to be seen.