Day One February 6, 2002
Tonight, I was arrested for nothing more than exercising my rights as a citizen in what I thought was a free country. Dick Cheney came to my town to stump for one of the Environmental Dirty Dozen, Indiana 8th District Congressman John Hostettler.
I had made up a sign which stated, "CHENEY-19th Century Energy Man." The event was held at the convention center across the street from Evansville's government center. I walked down the street with my sign in hand to a location that I thought would at least be visible to the people entering the $100 to $1000 event.
As I stood across the street from the people who were entering the event, I was approached by a plain clothes policeman. The cop confronted me saying that protesters were not allowed in that area. I asked why, since it was clear that everyone but protesters were allowed in the area in which I was standing. In fact, the whole incident took place as the public employees who worked at the government complex walked by without being accosted by the police at all.
It was clear that I was singled out only because I had a sign.
In the course of our conversation, several other cops surrounded the scene, more out of curiosity than anything else. I surprised myself with my calm demeanor, but I will admit to asking several questions concerning the First Amendment and why others were allowed in the area and I wasn't.
The main cop informed me that if I did not go more than a block away to the area he apparently had just arbitrarily decided was to be used by protesters, that I would be arrested. I complied and started to walk away. When I turned to ask if it was OK to go to the parking lot where hundreds of people were, either leaving work or arriving to attend the event, he instructed his uniformed men to arrest me.
They failed to read me my rights. They even talked among themselves what the charge should be. Finally they decided to say it was "disorderly conduct."
An 87-year old man who was standing there with me observed the whole thing and told the local media how shocked he was about the whole thing. I was shocked too. I was not in the least belligerent, although I did ask questions of the officer who ordered my arrest.
What I was arrested for was exercising my rights, not necessarily to protest since I had done none of that. No, this was a pre-emptive arrest to ensure that no one going to the event would see any protesters, let alone hear any protesters.
I have learned a lot about civil liberties in my years as a photojournalist and as an environmental activist. I also understand the need for security, especially for people like the VP. However, I was singled out simply because I was carrying a sign that showed my disdain for Cheney. That is something that certainly falls within the realm of rights our country's founders fought to attain.
If you can be confronted by a cop simply because you are carrying a sign, then it won't be long before you will be subject to arrest for writing a letter to the editor or speaking out about injustice. If I had been in an area that was cordoned off or otherwise secured, there may have been reason to tell me to leave, indeed I may have been subject to arrest. But none of the people passing by were confronted by any authority. They did not have a sign stating their views. They were not exercising their free speech.
Frankly, I felt as if this must be akin to the silence that was mandated by the Taliban toward Afghani women. Events such as this will certainly quell the prospect of protest of all official actions. I fear, that we have become just what Osama Bin Laden wanted us to be when he ordered the attacks on 9/11.
I am going to plead, "NOT GUILTY" when I am required to go to Court. I will never say anything more accurate in my life.
Day Two, February 7, 2002
It was difficult sleeping last night. I stayed awake questioning whether this was all worthwhile. I awoke early to make my court appearance on a disorderly conduct charge. I got to court to find that the prosecutor had decided that my charges should be increased to a Class A Misdemeanor called Resisting Law Enforcement instead of the lesser charge. So now I am facing what could be a year in jail for my political crime of carrying a sign to a political event.
Some people have suggested that I was marked before I even got there. I do not believe that to be the case, but it is true that I am a very outspoken member of this rather compliant and docile community. It has also been said that I am courageous for what happened last night. I would beg to differ since I had no intention of getting arrested and took no pride in being forced to be a spectacle in my home town.
I had some great advice on the possibility of bringing a Civil Rights action in Federal Court. I will consider that path. However, I am trying to remain focused on what is turning out to be the battle of my life with Peabody Energy and their plans to build two 1500 megawatt power plants-one in Illinois and one in Kentucky. The one in KY is in the comment period until February 28. The comment period was supposed to end tomorrow. Am I ever glad it was extended since I have not been able to focus on that at all today.
Today has been a mixture of elation and depression as people have called and written their support. In fact, I arrived at my office after court to find my flag at half staff and a Kleenex anonymously attached to my door. Very metaphoric.
Also on the positive front, a friendly attorney, representing another client, showed up in court and offered me his services pro bono for my defense. I accepted. Then, too, a local TV station has decided to do an in-depth (at least for TV) analysis of the things that I am involved in from the numerous environmental fights to winning the Pulitzer for News Photography. No doubt that will be an ego boost but...
It does not in anyway make up for the trampling my civil liberties took last night. In court this morning, the Prosecutor tried to imply that I was being removed from the scene because I was some sort of threat to Cheney. I guess the pen is mightier than the sword.
In the affidavit, signed by the arresting officer, it was stated that the boss cop told me to leave or get arrested "at least five times." In fact, I was told that only once and I then complied. But of course, they had to make something up in hopes that I would come into court this morning and bow to their injustice. I am not sure how to counter the lie in the affidavit since my only witness is an 87-year-old man with hearing problems.
That is what has been depressing today. When the cops lie, what is anyone to do to defend himself?
Six months later
It has been more than six months since I was wrongfully arrested for merely carrying a sign to the Cheney fundraiser for John Hostettler. The element of time has served only to make me angrier and more troubled about the direction our country has taken of late.
My charges were dropped, inflated as they were, and the local prosecutor told me directly that he did not understand why I was arrested in the first place. He understood completely that the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteed me the right to do what I had done. After all, protest is what this country was founded upon. That fact has been lost across much of the country today.
Is it necessary to give up any of our freedom to deal with terrorists? NO! But since September 11, 2001, all of us are finding the presence of increasing numbers of police to be a direct affront on our basic rights in nearly everything we do. A good example is my son, Will.
Will joined the U.S. Navy after high school graduation last year. He left for boot camp a little over a month before 9/11. Just before he left, he shared with me that fact that at age 18 he had already had to "blow" a breathalyzer on four different occasions. Not once had he been drinking when this happened, but that made little difference to the zealous cops that thought it was OK to toss aside the notion of "probable cause" to get their self imposed quota of teenage drinkers.
I cannot debate the need to keep teenage drinkers of the street, all too many die needlessly from errors in judgment immature minds make when influenced by alcohol. However, I find it downright bizarre that an 18-year-old who has never been accused of drinking by the police has had to prove his case prior to any charges being leveled on four different occasions. I am older than the hills and (knock on wood), I have never had to "blow" for a cop.
Apparently, the thinking of the gendarme community is that if you can get kids to readily submit to searches, blood tests and breathalyzers, they will be easy marks when the cops come to search your house and steal your computer for some other trumped up reason. Kids make an easy target for police because they know so little about the way things were compared to today.
But it is not just kids getting hassled by overzealous law enforcers. The whole realm of civil protest is under attack and suspicion. A few days ago, the prez appeared in Portland, Ore., to declare war on our forests and the environmentalists who seek to protect them. More than a thousand people turned out to protest Bush and his policies. Mothers, infants, children and others concerned with our future showed up with signs to have their voices heard.
What happened there, which was not printed in conventional media, was a riot that was started by Portland police who assaulted the peaceful crowd with a combination of pepper spray and rubber bullets until they dispersed. An otherwise peaceful protest turned violent, not by the protesters but by those paid to keep the peace.
While most protests have not become as violent as the one in Portland, it is clear that people who want to redress their grievances to the Prez or his vice should expect frustration if they expect to be heard. It is like dissent is no longer allowed. Those with the courage to do so, may find themselves prisoners of the state for crimes that did not exist prior to Bush seizing office.
Quelling political dissent is nothing new, despots have tried to do so throughout history with varying degrees of success. However, for my generation, it was long considered a right, even a duty, to stand up and be counted. Today, most of my generation has elected political castration, becoming eunuchs in service to the ABC team of Ashcroft, Bush and Cheney.
Today, most people seem content to watch from the sidelines of TV, bitchng only to themselves about how their liberties are being stripped, if at all. Docile attitudes are a contagious addiction, making us all mere pawns in a game of corporate control.
America was founded in protest. The Boston Tea Party was about much more than tea taxes. It was about fundamental freedom that our forefathers sought and died for. The Sons of Liberty were not pussies, they were patriots. Patriotism requires steadfast adherence to a set of freedom principles.
Have our generations lost those principles to the likes of the Ashcroft and Bush? Maybe. But that does not mean we should not get them back. Freedom is essential to the values held in common by Americans. If we give it up, America will no longer exist.
As for me, I am now suing the city of Evansville for violation of my civil rights. I want to make them pay and pay dearly for the wrong they committed on me. It is not for the money I am doing it, rather it is to make sure it does not happen again. The only way to assure that is to exact some form of punishment on the people who stripped me of my rights.
John Blair runs Valley Watch, an environmental group in Evansville that battles big coal and the nuclear industry. In 1978, he won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography. He can be reached at: email@example.com.