Secret Service Misconduct at the October 5th Day of Action at the White House

At around 12:30 p.m. Monday, October 5, 2009, about 22 of us (members of the combined Peace Action and the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance affinity groups) left the main demonstration on the “postcard zone” sidewalk on Pennsylvania Ave in front of the White House and walked west to the nearby entrances of the White House grounds.1

There one of us, Max Obuszewski, spoke over the gate speaker system with barely visible guardhouse personnel in an attempt to deliver a letter to President Obama (a blown-up copy of which we also carried with us and which we had all signed) requesting to meet regarding our opposition to the US invasion of Afghanistan. Several weeks before the NCNR had sent the original of that letter to the President, but had received no response.

After a few minutes of conversation between Max and the disembodied voice from the guard shack, we got nowhere. We then did a die-in there on the sidewalk in front of the pedestrian and vehicle entrances to the White House. One by one, after we each made a brief unscripted statement about why we were there, we lay down motionless and silent for the next fifty minutes. My own statement was along the lines of I was “dying” because of concern that the US was losing its soul due to its brutal invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and its complicity in last winter’s Israeli invasion of Gaza.

From about 12:40 to 1:30 pm, we lay “dead,” but undisturbed (except for the extremely loud nearby construction machinery on Pennsylvania Ave). Police stood guard and established a yellow “crime scene” tape cordon around us. No police addressed us or ordered us to move.

For about two hours thereafter our group remained on the sidewalk along the iron fence in front of the gates and the guard shack. Our demeanor was neither raucous nor threatening; it was rather like that of folks waiting for an appointment. There was no chanting. During those two hours Max and maybe two or three others had several brief and seemingly courteous conversations with various higher-ranking police officers. The officers sought to cajole us into leaving the area.

One whom I heard speak encouraged us to leave, seeking our cooperation since, he claimed, his arrest resources were stretched thin. Although we couldn’t see them, dozens of other demonstrators were being arrested back in the postcard zone. The officer said we wouldn’t be arrested even if we stayed there all night. (Given the intense noise from the machinery it was very difficult to hear the police or Max’ report backs, or even to discuss our options.)

Outside the “crime scene” tape perimeter and standing on Pennsylvania Ave, about eight or ten of our supporters were keeping an eye on the situation. Some took photos or provided us with plastic bottles of water. At one point an officer confiscated a bottle that had been tossed to us. At times we were prevented from speaking to supporters across the crime scene tape. But at other times the incommunicado wasn’t enforced.

We could see various organized movements of groups of police and police vehicles including a couple of vans – presumably to take us to jail. For a time about a dozen bicycle police lined up in front of us across the northern perimeter of the “crime scene” by the curb on Pennsylvania Ave. preventing further communication with our supporters.

A couple of times police officers passed through us and into the White House grounds. Although we often sat or stood around both the pedestrian and vehicle gates, we didn’t impede anyone’s coming and going.

A force of maybe 20 policemen assembled on the broad sidewalk to the west of us just outside the “crime scene” tape. Some held plastic handcuffs. When it appeared that arrest was imminent, we all stood in a circle, held hands and sung two or three songs. But no arrest occurred. We resumed our informal clustering around the gates. After awhile those police left the area and were replaced by another uniformed group. These had Secret Service badges.

One of our group reported that he overheard an officer say we were about to be “pushed” out of the area. Several of our group then reclined on the sidewalk. Soon the Secret Service approached, and with no explanation or warning, began grabbing and pushing us west along the sidewalk beyond the crime scene perimeter. I was both grabbed and pushed. If I hadn’t been nimble, I would have had to trample those reclining on the pavement.

Some of those on the ground were dragged away. I heard a small older woman who was being manhandled tell the officer that she had a bad leg. Nonetheless he continued pushing her. A few minutes later I saw that she was wearing an Ace bandage around her knee. While a few of our group didn’t get to their feet, none of us physically resisted or defended ourselves in the face of this unprovoked assault.

Reflections

I would urge that the October 5 Action legal team vigorously pursue a formal complaint. Over the years I have been arrested various times for nonviolent anti-war protests in the White House postcard zone. Yet I have never encountered police violence there. This Secret Service violence is a menacing precedent – one that best be nipped in the bud.

The Secret Service needs to learn it can’t impair or endanger U.S. citizens exercising our Constitutional right of assembly and our right to petition the government regarding grievances. At no time did I hear an order – whether from the city police, the park police or the Secret Service — to leave the vicinity. The Secret Service gave us no warning before they began their assault. I don’t recall hearing them say anything before they got physical.

The Secret Service might claim we were resisting arrest or that we were ignoring a lawful order to move. But that would be false. There needs to be clearly understood, court-enforced guidelines to prevent law enforcement agencies using violence against peaceful citizens. Rogue behavior must not be tolerated. Law enforcement agencies need to learn that they above all must respect the law.

The rough stuff risked injury and fomented disorder. Fortunately for everyone involved and despite rather severe provocation, everyone in our group maintained his or her commitment to nonviolence.

*****

The authorities seemed reluctant to arrest us: perhaps they had orders to minimize arrests so as to limit the national and international publicity regarding the extent to which U.S. citizens oppose the recurring U.S. invasions of Middle Eastern nations.

  1. Prior to our affinity groups’ leaving the “postcard” zone, a dozen or so mounted police deployed themselves along the iron fence between the zone and the White House grounds. Entering from the west they herded demonstrators away from the fence and toward Pennsylvania Ave. Without provocation, and as I was conforming to their order to move, a passing mounted policeman kicked me just below my rib cage. I wasn’t injured, but I understand that if a citizen even so much as touched a DC policeman, s/he could be charged with a felony. []
Ed served 14 months in federal prisons for his civil resistance against the SOA. More recently he has been one of the “Hancock 2,” the “Hancock 15,” the “Hancock 33,” and the “Hancock 38.” Reach him at: edkinane@verizon.net. Read other articles by Ed.

One comment on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Lucy Bunz said on October 9th, 2009 at 2:29pm #

    The kick in the rib by a mounted policeman was a cheap shot. Not good.