Sign Petitions the CLG has authored or endorsed
The Bush Visit -- by Ed Whitfield, July 25, 2002
It began at the corner of Groomtown Road and Wiley Davis Road directly across from Grandover Parkway -- the street where the president[sic] was while visiting Greensboro, North Carolina to raise funds for Elizabeth Dole's senate race to fill Jesse Helms' vacant seat.
We had assembled at 3:30 PM and stood on the corner with our large "Greensboro Peace Coalition / Not In Our Name" banner. We left a group standing on the corner while a smaller group of us crossed the street at promptly 5:00 PM and began walking out of our restricted "free speech zone" toward the Grandover Hotel just over 1 1/2 miles away.
"Mr. Whitfield, I am asking you to turn around and take your group back across the street to the designated area."
"Are we breaking any law?"
"I am instructing you to take your group back across the street."
"I fully understand your instruction, but this is a public street and we are on the right of way. This street is open. These cars are traveling down the street unimpeded. That is why I am asking why we are being told to go back across the street."
"The secret service does not want any demonstrations or assemblies here along Grandover Parkway, so I am instructing you to go back across the street."
"The constitution insists that we have the right to free assembly and free speech. We are not presenting a danger to anyone. Why do we have to leave this open public street?"
"This area is private property. Where the sidewalk starts up ahead is owned by the Grandover Estates. They paid for the sidewalk."
"Regardless who paid for it, there is still a right of way along public thorough fares where even private owners of the property cannot restrict pedestrian traffic. Why are we being restricted?"
"There can be no groups allowed to have demonstrations from here forward." "Then if we proceed as individuals can we go forward?"
"If you go forward individually, then you can go ahead, but no assemblies."
Another Officer, helmeted, dressed in black with a M-16 stepped in my path.
"STOP! Those are not my instructions. I was instructed to stop you from going past this point."
"Why can we not proceed on this open public street that you are allowing others to travel?"
"I was instructed to stop you from going past this point."
"I understand that those are your instructions, but may I as a citizen of the United States and this city ask why I am being stopped?"
"We are under orders to protect the president[sic]."
"We are no threat to the president[sic]. We wish him no physical harm. If you want to check us for weapons you are welcome to. We want to express ourselves to the president[sic]. Do you object to what we have to say?"
"This is private property."
"What is the nature of our restrictions from this property? Who else is not allowed to walk down this sidewalk?"
This went on and on. Finally, a representative from the property who had come to the intersection consulted on a cell phone with someone and then came back. Around the same time, the police after some phone and radio consultation decided that if we put down our signs and proceeded as individuals that we had the same right to the sidewalk as anyone else. So the seven of us gave all our signs to one of us to take back to the initial assembly point and the other six of us said "excuse me" and walked politely through the group of 14 black-clad SWAT team members armed with automatic rifles who had blocked our way and who had begun by saying that we would not pass.
It was a small victory. They had said stop, and we did not back down. We continued to ask why and point out the absurdity and the sinister nature of them refusing to let us walk in a public area that they had closed to no one else. At that point -- when they said we could proceed if we had no signs and told us that we would not be allowed to chant or make loud sounds or demonstrate in any way near the Hotel where the president[sic] was -- it became clear what they were objecting to, and what they saw as the real threat.
The police had initially claimed that these restrictions being made by the Secret Service were for the protection of the president[sic]. Then they allowed us to physically proceed, but only if we did not express ourselves. What they must really be doing is protecting the president[sic] from public criticism. There is absolutely no justification in the constitution for their behavior. It does not say that the citizens can assemble and speak their minds if the president[sic] likes it and says it's OK. This president[sic] and his entourage have elevated themselves above the constitution, and told us that our rights that we think are held sacred by this document are contingent on the whims and desires of the president[sic] and his agents, not for his personal safety, but rather to avoid exposure and embarrassment.
We continued to walk for nearly a mile toward the Grandover Hotel. Now, we were without signs and restricted as to how loud we could talk to each other, but still we had not been intimidated at their first armed confrontation. Some one commented about what might have happened in other countries if we had done the same thing. It reminded me of what a friend told someone who had suggested that if he didn't like the USA policies, why didn't he just leave. "What, and be subjected to US foreign policy? Never." For now, it is safer here, but our "first amendment muscles" will atrophy and die if they are not regularly exercised.
We walked to within a quarter mile of the Grandover where the tall castle-like structure was clearly in sight. At least 6 more County Sheriff vehicles and unmarked city police vehicles turned on blue lights. We began again:
"You can't go past this point."
"But back there they said we could."
"Who? A security guard? We don't take our instructions from hotel security guards. You can't go past this point."
The local police official who had been present when permission was granted stepped forward to explain to the Sheriff Deputies that we had been instructed that we could proceed if we put down our signs and did not demonstrate. He was told that permission had been rescinded. It was explained to us that just like someone inviting you into their home, then deciding that you must leave, the Hotel was now saying that in spite their permission to come onto their property, that we could go no further. After some more discussion, however, a Deputy told us that we could not go further, but that he didn't care if we had signs or what we did there.
By this time our numbers had increased to a dozen or so. Others who had not wanted to be arrested this day had decided to rejoin us when we received permission to proceed. Now, we were given permission to get our signs. We accepted that as a small additional victory. Two of our group walked back the mile for signs.
The spot we ended up in was actually closer to the President[sic]'s venue than we had contemplated. Due to the way the road curves, we were a little closer at that point than we would have been if we had been in front of the main gate for the Hotel which is well off the public road.
When our signs were delivered by car, we proceeded to do what we had intended from the first. We stood with picket signs saying "Hands Off Iraq" , criticizing US criminal corporate behavior and the white house collusion in it, and criticizing the attacks on civil liberties. We were able to criticize the Bush administration on the public street, close to the President[sic]'s activities, rather than over 1 1/2 miles away in the narrow area that we were first told we would be restricted to.
As many times as they contradicted themselves and changed their directives, it became clear to us that they really were not prepared to argue with us. Armed to the teeth as they were, they were better prepared to shoot us. We, on the other hand, were only armed with the truth, our persistence and our insistence on being treated with respect and having our rights acknowledged.
We were all cordial in our discourse. There was no yelling, no profanity, no verbal abuse from either side. We treated them with respect, and at several points acknowledged that they were only following orders.
They probably did not understand the irony that they were using a defense that had been used so often by the defeated Nazis, but was not allowed in Nuremburg. "We were just following orders." It was also clear to us that the police were not united in their enthusiasm for what they were being told to do. One of the officers looked at me squarely as I walked past him and said quietly: "Good luck."
As things are going we are all going to need it.
(Addendum, July 26, 2002:)
I had a discussion with the local police "intelligence" division today where I told him that I hoped we didn't have many more situations like that one. He said that would be up to us. I told him no, that the police were being called on to do something very different from what is normal in this country. I assured him that I had protested against presidents before and that I had even dined with a president in the white house, and I have never seen a situation as the one yesterday. I even told him that I could sense that some of the other officers felt that they were being asked to do something that is wrong.
He wouldn't commit himself to agreeing with me over his tapped phone line, but it is true.
It would have been the norm previously to let us proceed to where ever we wanted to be on a public street to wave our signs and make noise. Why this president[sic] feels a need to be exempt from that type of criticism is not exactly clear to me. I guess when you are consolidating the empire, you want to be treated like the emperor.