A few minutes before George W. Bush began his State of the Union Address Tuesday night, during which he boasted that his administration stood for “freedom and the dignity of every life,” Capitol Police hauled off Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq and an opponent of Bush’s policies, for the crime of wearing a T-shirt. Sheehan’s 26-day protest last summer near Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, drew widespread national and international support.
Sheehan, given a ticket to the State of the Union by California Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, had worn the shirt, which read “2245 Dead. How many more?” at various protests throughout the day.
As she explained in a letter to supporters, after being handed the ticket she had “second thoughts” about going. “I didn’t feel comfortable going. I knew George Bush would say things that would hurt me and anger me and I knew that I couldn’t disrupt the address.” However, since Woolsey had already informed the media that she would be attending, “I sucked it up and went.”
Sheehan describes what happened once she was shown to her seat: “I was warm from climbing three flights of stairs back up from the bathroom so I unzipped my jacket. I turned to the right to take my left arm out, when the same officer saw my shirt and yelled, ‘Protester.’ He then ran over to me, hauled me out of my seat and roughly (with my hands behind my back) shoved me up the stairs. I said something like, ‘I’m going, do you have to be so rough?’
“The officer ran with me to the elevators yelling at everyone to move out of the way. When we got to the elevators, he cuffed me and took me outside to await a squad car. On the way out, someone behind me said, ‘That’s Cindy Sheehan.’ At which point the officer who arrested me said, ‘Take these steps slowly.’ I said, ‘You didn’t care about being careful when you were dragging me up the other steps.’ He said, ‘That’s because you were protesting.’ Wow, I get hauled out of the People’s House because I was, ‘Protesting.’ ”
Contrary to police statements and press reports, which claimed that Sheehan refused to cover up the shirt, she explained, “I was never told that I couldn’t wear that shirt into the Congress. I was never asked to take it off or zip my jacket back up. If I had been asked to do any of those things...I would have, and written about the suppression of my freedom of speech later. I was immediately, and roughly (I have the bruises and muscle spasms to prove it) hauled off and arrested for ‘unlawful conduct.’ ”
Sheehan’s arrest was a flagrant attack on democratic rights, in a city where free speech and the right to protest are under siege. Sheehan violated no laws. According to Capitol Police regulations, “demonstration activity” means “parading, picketing, leafleting, holding vigils, sit-ins, or other expressive conduct or speechmaking that conveys a message supporting or opposing a point of view” or anything that might attract a crowd. It does not include the wearing of “Tee shirts, buttons, or other similar articles of apparel that convey a message.”
Capitol Police have protocols for avoiding ‘incidents’ during the State of the Union, but Sheehan had done nothing to disrupt the event. The very fact that she revealed the shirt before the speech began, providing the police the opportunity to haul her out, is evidence enough.
Beverly Young, the wife of right-wing Florida Republican congressman C.W. Bill Young was treated quite differently. Mrs. Young showed up to the event wearing a T-shirt that read, “Support the Troops—Defending Our Freedom.” When asked to leave the gallery, she argued loudly and called one of the police “an idiot.” She was not roughed up, however, nor was she dragged off to jail for four hours or charged with a crime.
Moreover, Mrs. Young’s departure came after Sheehan’s arrest. Clearly, the Capitol Police felt that their actions would have been exposed as a blatant attack on opponents of Bush unless they asked the congressman’s wife to leave as well. Rep. Young spoke on the House floor Wednesday, complaining that his wife had been asked to leave the gallery.
On Wednesday, following publicity over the incidents involving Cindy Sheehan and Beverly Young—and the obvious double standard in the handling of the two women by the Capitol Police—the charges were dropped against Sheehan. Sheehan plans to file a First Amendment suit over her arrest.
The treatment Cindy Sheehan received at the House gallery on Tuesday evening demonstrates that the Bush administration is so frightened of opposition and so determined to maintain the fiction that the country is united behind the war in Iraq, that any hint of opposition can expected to be met with police-state measures.
Organizers of an anti-Bush protest were denied a permit to hold a demonstration the day of the State of the Union around the US Capitol Reflecting Pool, a traditional location for such events, because the area had been reclassified as part of the security perimeter for that one day. The organizers of the protest, called “World Can’t Wait—Drive Out the Bush Regime,” explained that the National Park Service and the Capitol Police initially offered them the Reflecting Pool as a demonstration site, but later changed their minds. Instead, they were offered a location about a mile from the Capitol. At the protest, police apparently outnumbered the demonstrators, according to press reports.
Fox News has reported that a new provision included in the Patriot Act by Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania would give the Secret Service virtually unlimited authority to make felony arrests of demonstrators inside a security perimeter at any “special event of national significance,” even when the prominent figure in question, like Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, is absent. This would apply to any “National Security Special Event,” such as the funeral for Ronald Reagan or the Super Bowl. What was previously misdemeanor trespassing has been elevated to a federal felony.
Cindy Sheehan, in her open letter, explained that after she had been fingerprinted by police, “a nice Sgt. came in and looked at my shirt and said, ‘2,245, huh? I just got back from there.’ I told him that my son died there. That’s when the enormity of my loss hit me. I have lost my son. I have lost my First Amendment rights. I have lost the country that I love. Where did America go? I started crying in pain.
“What did Casey [her son] die for? What did the 2,244 other brave young Americans die for? What are tens of thousands of them over there in harm’s way for still? For this? I can’t even wear a shirt that has the number of troops on it that George Bush and his arrogant and ignorant policies are responsible for killing.
“I don’t want to live in a country that prohibits any person, whether he/she has paid the ultimate price for that country, from wearing, saying, writing, or telephoning any negative statements about the government. That’s why I am going to take my freedoms and liberties back. That’s why I am not going to let Bushco take anything else away from me...or you.”
Sheehan has suggested in public recently that she is considering opposing Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, in the California Democratic Party primary next June; she has until March 10 to decide. Sheehan has said she would not support a pro-war Democrat again and regrets endorsing Democratic Party candidate John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, for president in 2004.