Invisible protesters

Bushwhacked: Why were protesters kept away from President George Bush’s motorcade route through Sacramento last week?

That’s the question that Bites has been trying to get answered for the last week, and the answers that are coming back should disturb anyone who believes in the First Amendment and the vital role that political dissent plays in the United States.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Secret Service and Sacramento Police Department point fingers in each other’s general direction for the policy of forcibly keeping protesters away from a motorcade route that was open to the general public. At least neither had the audacity to make any claims that it was for security reasons.

So what we’re left with is the fact that about 100 people who question the president’s war and free trade policies were denied their most basic rights. Our president was presented with a sanitized version of the country he’s leading, allowed to see “We support the war” signs, but not “We oppose the war” statements.

Why? That’s what activists like Medea Benjamin, Heidi McLean and Laurel O’Connor are asking of city officials, with the latter urging Mayor Heather Fargo to tell the White House: “If you won’t let our citizens be citizens, then we won’t stage your dog and pony show. Go away.”

If city officials like Fargo want to look into the matter, they should start with police officers who funneled protesters of all stripes into a designated “protest area” on K Street, away from official eyes. Even many who broke away from the group and tried to access I Street as individuals were turned away, often rudely, with the threat of arrest but little explanation as to why.

“A two-block radius around the route was designated as a controlled area by the Secret Service and they said no protesters,” police spokesman Sgt. Daniel Hahn said later.

But Secret Service spokesman Mark Connelly denied such a policy exists, saying critics were welcome on I Street: “Our goal is to create a safe and secure environment without violating anyone’s First Amendment rights,” emphasizing that local jurisdictions often have their own standards governing organized protests, strongly implying it was local police who chose to contain protesters on K Street.

So which was it? Was the Secret Service trying to shield the president from the scorn of protesters, or was Sacramento trying to put on a “unified America” face for the visiting president? Who trampled the Constitution?

In a follow-up interview, Hahn held firm that it was the Secret Service’s no-protester policy. Pressed on the point, Connelly fell back on the typical wartime silencer, “I can’t and would not comment on specific security recommendations,” but he did concede that people with anti-war signs posed no greater security risk than those with pro-war signs.

Ultimately, both men said security for the visit was a collaborative effort, so perhaps both entities are to blame for this blatant stifling of free speech. Nobody forced police officers to be openly hostile to protesters, or to selectively let some through and keep others back.

Listen, this issue is neither liberal nor conservative, and it has nothing to do with how you feel about the critics of our president. This is about the core value that our now-ubiquitous American flag is supposed to stand for—our right to speak our minds and challenge our leaders—and if you aren’t outraged by what happened in our city last week, then perhaps the terrorists really did win a major victory on September 11.

Bipartisan pandering: Speaking of wartime questions, here’s another one: Where does unity leave off and political opportunism begin?

Last week, our own Assemblyman Dave Cox and Assembly Speaker-to-be Herb Wesson—respectively the most powerful Republican and Democrat in their house—announced legislation to create “a special state license plate to raise funds for the state’s ramped up effort against terrorism and to memorialize victims of the 9/11 tragedy.”

Does this strike anyone else as not just irrelevant, and an unsettling way for our cash-strapped state to raise some dough, but also a little weird and creepy? Perhaps no more strange than Governor Gray Davis holding press conferences and photo ops on every nuance of the war, but still, creepy.