Let's have answers on peace rally police presence

The Times-Standard
Friday, November 11, 2005

My Word
Ellen Taylor

On Nov. 2, a large group of citizens gathered at the Federal Building, otherwise known as the Central Post Office, to denounce the Iraq war, and honor the brave and trusting U.S. soldiers, now numbering 2,057, who died there. The event had been discussed amicably with the city manager's office, and with police official Murl Harpham, so no problems were expected. It was therefore with amazement that the participants discovered themselves to be in the crosshairs of a massive police presence.

The post office fairly bristled with what were overheard to be FBI agents. All had weapons. A policeman in full riot gear stood in the window with his weapon pointed at the crowd. More flanked the building. Others, armed with cameras, moved through the crowd, ignoring questions, but photographing everyone. Most wore no name badges.

After an initial friendly phase, the traffic police became what can only be described as provocative. In the crowded intersection, they began apprehending demonstrators and citing them for not having passed the center of the intersection before the pedestrian signal turned red. In this manner a flag-draped coffin honoring the fallen, which had been proceeding solemnly around the intersection, was removed from the flow, as the pallbearers were ticketed. To make matters worse, a delegation of Humboldt State University students, who had chosen to join the rally from Arcata by means of a standard "Critical Mass" bike ride, were roughed up and arrested by the CHP, so that the remainder arrived in an injured and excitable state.

One can only speculate what law enforcement had in mind with these maneuvers. Many people take a dim view of demonstrations involving the police. If, as is so often the case, their purpose was to blur the demonstration's intended message, which is now the predominant national opinion, that the war must end, and interpose a picture of police action, they were partially successful. And it is easy to suspect them of this intention. The crowd would have been delighted to comply with a request to move more rapidly through the intersection; there was no intent to block traffic.

The exhibition of extremely selective enforcement certainly engendered resentment. And the young HSU riders, with their message of physical health, and reduction of both pollution and dependence on foreign oil, should have been tolerated in one lane of U.S. Highway 101 for the 15 minutes it takes to cover 7 miles. It was far more dangerous to dispatch helicopters, shut down the highway and tackle the riders. Moreover, good public relations are needed to counter local law enforcement images of pepper spraying and headshaving. Many people in Humboldt County are not eager to pay for more police misadventures, the expense of which, as with Nov. 2, are considerable.

The most ominous feature of the event, of course, was the intimidating mass of fully armed police concealed in the post office. Several customers picking up their mail were alarmed enough to call local radio stations.

Did the officers really suspect terrorist activity from a peaceful demonstration?

If there had been civil disobedience, would they have burst forth with pepper spray and rubber bullets?

The Board of Supervisors has resolved to protect the county from illegal interference by the federal government under the U.S. Patriot Act. We deserve some answers.

Ellen Taylor is an activist on peace and environmental issues. She lives in Petrolia.

The opinions expressed in this My Word piece do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of the Times-Standard.