Part 1, Protests – View from Top
By all rights, this should have been a boring article. Saturday, March 3, over a thousand activists converged on the steps of the State Capitol building. They assembled there to petition their government for a redress of grievances, in this case, asking Governor McDonnell not to sign into law a piece of legislation—HB462. Many of the marchers argued that HB462 was designed to shame and humiliate women seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy; something that had won the Republicans of the Virginia General Assembly overwhelming ridicule and nationwide notoriety. A massive protest barely two weeks earlier, organized by Speak Loudly With Silence, had flooded the State Capitol with protestors lining the walkway from the General Assembly building to the State Capitol. Saturday Night Live made jokes about the invasive transvaginal ultrasounds required by the language of HB462, with one wit noting that she really enjoyed ‘Transvaginal Airlines.’ Realizing that his conservative base had badly overstepped, Governor McDonnell suggested that they soften the language somewhat lessening the ‘transvaginal’ part of the bill and allowing for a less invasive abdominal ultrasound. The amendment passed, but it hardly lessened the fury of Pro-Choice activists who saw the bill as an intrusion of government into women’s reproductive rights, the proverbial war on women.
One activist, Sheila Jones, noted that over a million women marched to block such governmental overreach in reproductive health matters years ago. “I thought we’d taken care of these atrocities [on women’s rights] back then, and we haven’t,” On that Saturday, she wore a t-shirt from the 1992 Pro-Choice rally at the National Mall, “So I had to come back down here and do this for all of the young women that now are fighting for the same thing that we thought we had taken care of 20 years ago.”
If you happened to be standing on the top steps of the Virginia Capitol this last Saturday at around 2:00 pm, you would have seen something to make Sheila proud: a stream of hundreds (over a thousand by most estimates) Pro-Choice activists, many wearing red arm bands, filling the State Capitol grounds and waving signs that read “Life Begins when you Stand Against Madness”, “Gov. McDonnell Get Out Of My Vagina” and “Mind Your Own Private Parts.” All the while they chanted “Kill the Bill.” You may also have seen two or three Capitol Police officers on bicycles creating a mini phalanx attempting to block the protestors as they ascended the Capitol steps, but impotent against the sheer number of outraged citizens the General Assembly of Virginia had managed to piss off.
Now, as in the first protest march, the activists had a permit to assemble by the Bell Tower, but not on the Capitol steps. Eileen Davis, who helped organize the original Speak Loudly With Silence along with APV board member, Clair Tuite, saw this and quickly spoke to Capitol Police Col. Pike. “Just let this play out,” she pleaded. She asked for time. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. No good. According to Ms. Davis, Col. Pike argued that if he did this for one group, he’d have to do it for every group. Luckily for Col. Pike, State Police just happened to be on hand that day; State Police in full riot gear, as chance would have it….
Shortly, thereafter, the call went out that the activists had to leave the steps. “Alright everyone we have 5 minutes and then Capitol Police are bringing in the troopers!”
They weren’t kidding. State Police Troopers went quickly on the march themselves. Over-armored and over-weaponized, they made a tidy black row, creating an ominous phalanx of plexiglass covered helmets and body-length shields to separate those who refused to move off the steps from those who were further out on the State Capitol grounds. They wore the familiar body armor reminiscent of Darth Vader with padded elbows and padded knees and bullet proof vests, and thick scarves around their faces in case they might need to use tear gas (in order to disperse, through chemical weapons if necessary, the group of men, women and children requesting a redress of grievances by sitting peaceably on the Capitol steps). Captain Goodloe of the Capitol Police refused to say how many State Troopers in riot gear were on hand that day, but the number was right around 20, and even that number, apparently, wasn’t sufficient. To protect the Commonwealth from the dreadful depredations of 31 protestors sitting in silent protest, his men needed back up.
That’s why they brought in the Capitol Police tactical force, or the Men in Green. At a distance I mistook them for an armed military presence. Close up, I realized they were not, but they are no less scary. I was assured, later, that they were indeed just ‘police’… A somewhat rarefied variety of the Capitol Police, like our S.W.A.T. teams, apparently. They were decked out entirely in green camouflage, with green helmets that looked exactly like military helmets and they wore the same specialized padding the State Troopers wore and they carried –this is the scary part—assault weapons (like the kind they use in the military when they are ‘assaulting’ something deadly – an enemy military force equipped with Light Weight Anti-Tank Weapons, say, or bombs made of plastic explosives or nuclear weapons hijacked by maniacal terrorists for that matter—not, however, American men, women and children interested in petitioning their government for a redress of grievances). They also, by the way, spent a fair amount of time passing canisters back and forth that may have been tear gas, or, as I was told, flash grenades. No one was sure, and when asked, the officers refused to answer.
Labor organizer, Muna Hijazi, was dismayed by the heavy police presence: “The show of force was amazingly ugly and over the top.” Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond also spoke out. She said she had “never seen a similar police presence [even] when guns rights advocates assembled on Capitol Square on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.” She thought there was a slight political slant in such policy decisions.“ The men and women who marched on Capitol Square have a right to peacefully protest without the threat that they will be arrested for exercising that right,” McQuinn said in a news release. “At several recent women’s rights events, there has been an overabundance of police presence. In fact, the Capitol Police tactical team has been at all of the events,” she said.
Despite this show of force, thirty-one protestors chose not to relinquish their right to assemble on the Capitol Steps that day. Some were arrested to assert their first amendment right to peaceably assemble, after all the protestors had a permit for their assembly at the Bell Tower about 50 yards away and were within their time frame for that permit. No other like-sized protests were met with this ugly show of a police presence. Others who were arrested were protesting in favor of a woman’s right to choose. They were given numbers to call, legal advice and opportunities to leave. But they refused.
As an historical note, up until the 1970s, protests were allowed anywhere on the State Capitol grounds—or more accurately were not required to be ‘permitted’. This picture, taken in 1969 by APV member Mike Garrett, shows hundreds of anti-war protestors flooding the steps and covering the entire front of the of the State Capitol building. No arrests, no State Troopers and certainly no Men In Green. That’s mostly because up until then there weren’t that many protests to worry about. But by the 1970s –in the aftermath of the civil rights marches and the beginning of the anti-war protests– the Virginia Assembly decided that protests required permits with limited time durations and specific geographic areas –down to the foot and yards, apparently.
Protestors of this Saturday, March 3rd, 2012, locked arms and huddled. One by one they were pried apart and handcuffed, then led, dragged or carried to awaiting white buses emboldened with the initials DCP that drove them to the station at Ninth and Leigh Street.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. Those arrested Saturday afternoon were charged with either trespassing or unlawful assembly and were taken to the Richmond City Jail. Both charges are Class 1 Misdemeanors, usually processed with a summons (basically, like a traffic ticket) to return to court at a convenient date. But that’s not what happened to our March 3rd protestors. Not by a long shot.
Ninth and Leigh is an nondescript block, which, if you didn’t know better you would mistake for a faceless bureaucrat building ringed by a large parking lot. Maggie N., who works everyday as a Registered Nurse at MCV just across the street from Ninth and Leigh, had no idea what went on there. “I didn’t even know there was a jail here.” It’s easy to miss because the spot is actually about 10 -20 feet below street level, dug out, effectively, so unless you knew that the police vans backing up to the garage doors held desperate criminals, or, in this instance, disoriented women’s rights protestors, you’d never guess its true function.
On the afternoon of March 3rd, two white buses containing handcuffed activists parked in front of those two double garage doors and essentially spent three to four hours while the activists waited in handcuffs, either on the bus or inside the garage doors without water, without food and without access to a lawyer. Keep in mind, every one of them was ultimately charged with a Class 1 Misdemeanor that should have required the equivalent of a traffic ticket. Said one Richmond Police Officer (who preferred anonymity), “I think that this is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen.”
That’s how the male protestors that day were treated. But there was special treatment for the female activists. Many of them were made to wait a total of eight to nine hours before the last of them was finally processed and released. They were made to wait eight to nine hours with hands tied behind their backs, without food and without water and without access to a lawyer.
The wretched conditions for the activists were well known. Fellow protestors had taken up a position around the block-wide dug-out at Ninth and Leigh and spent all of that Saturday night banging on the metal rails, chanting “Give Them Water” and “Take off the cuffs” and trying to update anyone of influence in the city to let their general condition be known. Stories trickled out about their treatment. Apparently, one bus contained a primitive bathroom facility while the other did not. The women were kept on the bus without the bathroom, so, if nature should happen to call within their 5-9 hour wait, they were taken off one bus, transported to the other bus and allowed to use the restroom. Each time this happened the activists circling the lot would shout, “Give them water.” When women were finally released, one of the first things they looked for was some soap and water to clean up, because none had been provided in the primitive bathroom.
Initially, when asked why they couldn’t receive water, the protestors were told that while on the buses, the prisoners were under jurisdiction of the Capital Police. The Richmond City Police claimed that they were not supposed to assist them until they were taken into the building and processed. When the Capitol Police heard that, they repudiated it in the strongest terms, and said that, in fact, it was the City Police who had a policy of not allowing prisoners to drink water. Either way, the women did not receive water for easily seven hours that day, even when complaining of headaches or nausea.
In some instances, the treatment of the women approached the absurd. When Gabi S. was asked what country she came from, she replied “Israel”…. Before she was led away, the police officer asked her, “How do you spell that?” She was later placed in solitary confinement for two hours, apparently because she hailed from a different country. She noted in a short summary of her time there: “So yesterday I was arrested for peacefully protesting. I was pulled from the group of women to be fingerprinted, given a mug shot, strip searched and put in solitary confinement. After 2 hours in there without any updates I was allowed out to see the nurse because my wrists were swollen from the handcuffs [a frequent complaint from other protestors]. When I was eventually released I was told that I had been processed differently because I was born in another country, Israel….” But Quincy M. who hailed from Scotland and didn’t have a social security number (or US citizenship), was not put into solitary confinement, and was released hours before Gabi so it’s difficult to determine if there was any rational procedure being followed, outside of general harassment.
Activists, Glen B., who works for the Sierra club and was released after being held for about four hours, said that holding the women under such conditions was abominable. “We can’t let them get away with this. This state, remember, Virginia, has a history of abusing prisoners, of sterilizing its own citizens. What they are doing here is inexcusable, unacceptable and un-American”
Eileen Davies put it more bluntly, “Attorney General Cucinelli is trying to bitch slap all these women.” Indeed, rumors that someone in the nether reaches of State government was requesting a particularly long and punitive process for the detainees did not seem outlandish. Each activist arrested had a thorough background check which is unusual for a Class 1 Misdemeanor. Wayne Powell, a criminal defense lawyer running against Eric Cantor in the 7th district, offered to represent the detainees pro bono and was outraged by the delays, the fact that he was not allowed to speak with his clients, and the enforced background checks. “This is nowhere close to standard operating procedure for this kind of offense.” A few of the arrestees were even given relatively large bails – up to $500, some for prior offenses, but at least one was given the large bail for putting into words what many of the activists felt—a resolve not to be ground down by the excessive use of force, the government overreach, and the punitive harassment involved in their detention.
When asked by the magistrate if he intended to return to the Capitol grounds after he was released, activist Jonathan C. answered simply, “What time is it?”
If you appreciate that 31 of the courageous M3 protestors chose to be taken to jail in defiance of Virginia’s attack on women’s rights, rather than retreat and just go home when they were given the option, you might consider donating to their legal fund today. You can do that here. I’m grateful for what they did and wish them a speedy and fair experience with Virginia’s court system! Big thanks to all 31!
One more important thing: The ACLU is investigating the conditions of detention for March 3rd, 2012 protestors at the State Capitol. If you or someone you know has information regarding the arrests and/or detention conditions, please contact Tom Fitzpatrick at 804-644-8080 or email him at email@example.com.
And stay tuned for updates, as I imagine this story will be unfolding for some time to come ….
(All photos, unless otherwise identified, are from Style Weekly Magazine’s Facebook page.)