On August 9, 2010 President Obama came to the University of Texas at Austin to give a talk on the future of higher education. But while he and his adoring public had their little state-worship service in Gregory Gym, protesters outside had quite a time trying to deal with the restrictions put upon their freedom of speech.
When I arrived to the scene (coming from the north end of campus), I was dumbfounded that I couldn’t see any demonstrators anywhere. What was going on? As I proceeded south, I finally discovered why: protesters were confined to their special “free speech zone” designated by none other than the Secret Service. Apparently, they get to decide now where people have rights and where they don’t. And since they get to decide, where do you think they would put us? How about as far away as they can? Indeed, the zone was effectively at the end of the entire line, at the fringes.
To get an idea of what this looked like, I created a map to help:
View Antiwar demonstration 08-09-10 in a larger map
Shortly after arriving, I saw a middle-aged woman being taken away in cuffs. I immediately pulled out my FlipCam and started recording. Turns out her name was Stacy and she was merely collecting signatures for an open letter/petition for TexasEnvironment.org. You may not agree with the group’s position, but for the police to arrest her for this is just stupid.
Just minutes later, I was recording a little video of the line and turned around to find Dan McCarthy interacting with a police officer, trying to move his poster closer to the corner and to the press vans. He was arrested as well, ultimately under the charge of "criminal trespassing" on what I believe was a "public sidewalk." Here’s the footage, although the sound did not come out well (if somebody wants to caption it, that would be awesome).
This was all KXAN had to say about these arrests:
The media finally paid attention to us, and I was even interviewed at one point (though I cannot find a video online right now). It was quite interesting to see the variety of people present at this demonstration. I met people from the Socialist Worker, from immigration groups, from the Tea Party, and more. And for the most part, we all got along peaceably so that we could protest Obama’s policies, especially the WARS, together.
It was now about 2 p.m. and people were quickly flowing into the building. The back of the line quickly moved past us and thus the free speech zone now held absolutely zero value for the protesters. As the demonstrators began to disperse, I asked them to stick around a little longer while I tried to convince the police officers to allow us to move the "free speech zone" closer to Gregory Gym. So, I found an officer and respectfully made my request. He immediately said no. I asked if there was someone with more authority we could talk to. He called his Sergeant, and the Sergeant said no as well. I asked if I could appeal this even higher. He said there was a Lieutenant on duty, and I asked if I could talk with him. Lieutenant Birdett (I think that was his name) came over and we had another chat, with no positive result. We couldn’t go anywhere else. However, the Lieutenant did reveal something I didn’t know: when the president is around, the Secret service has, quoting the Lieutenant, "total control".
"Really?" I asked him. "Can I get you to say that into the camera?" as I hastily reached into my pocket to pull out the FlipCam again. But no, he wouldn’t give me the satisfaction. Rats!
At this point, I ran into a guy with an insane sign, saying "The Obama Presidency is Christianity in Action!" Read my comments about this guy here.
I left after this because I needed to work more that afternoon, but the action didn’t stop there. Long after the line was gone, more demonstrators were arrested simply for exercising free speech. Antiwar activist Chanda Panda was arrested for asking “Who designates the free speech zone?” and she wasn’t even asked to leave:
Just minutes later, as I understand, John Bush of Texans for Accountable Government was arrested, even though he even had a press pass (which should have, in theory, afforded him even greater protection). His response to the police’s actions was above reproach and absolutely heroic:
Finally, I recorded a recap video once I got home, so you can see better some of the signs that Dan had brought to the campus and that I made for the demonstration.
Thankfully, all of those arrested were able to go home at midnight on $20 bail.
Photo credit: KXAN. Many thanks as well to all of those people who recorded the day’s events to put on display to the world.