Jonas Phillips is the third resident of Asheville, North Carolina to be arrested in recent weeks for displaying a pro-impeachment sign.
Unlike Mark and Deborah Kuhn, who were targeted for official abuse because of a display erected on their own property, Phillips was arrested for "freeway blogging" — that is, displaying a sign on an overpass spanning the interstate near his workplace.
While different considerations apply to protests on "public" property, it’s significant that Asheville authorities are finding it difficult to identify a specific offense with which to charge Phillips. That difficulty is symptomatic of institutional dishonesty: The Asheville Police Department can’t afford to admit that it arrested Phillips because of the content of his sign, rather than because of some danger his protest posed to the public.
Last Wednesday (August 15), Phillips was "standing alone with my [Impeach Bush-Cheney] sign for about 10 minutes, when I was approached by Police Officer Russell Crisp," he recounted. "He asked me how long I was planning to stay there and I told him just a few more minutes because I had to go to work at 8:00. He asked for my ID and I obliged. I asked him if I was doing something wrong, and he said that his Sergeant was on the way and he was going to wait for him. So, I went back to my sign holding over the interstate."
A few minutes later the Sergeant, Officer Randy Riddle, "showed up with a paper in his hand," continues Phillips. "He spoke briefly to Crisp, then walked over to me and told me to put down my sign, put my hands behind my back, and that I was under arrest! I was shocked and almost thought he was joking until he told me again to put down the sign and put my hands behind me and I was under arrest. So I peacefully agreed and he cuffed me. I asked him why I was being arrested, he told me I was in violation County Ordinance 16-2 (the print out in his hand that he didn’t bother to read to me or show me). He told me I was obstructing the sidewalk. I told him I was not and that officer Crisp had witnessed a guy walk by me moments before."
"Riddle yelled at me, ‘You were obstructing the sidewalk!’ and ‘I’m sick of this sh*t!’ then he said, ‘Here’s your 15 minutes of fame buddy!’ I looked back to see his name plate and he said in a mean condescending tone, ‘Yea, that’s "Sergeant Riddle" get it right!’ He then put me in Officer Crisp’s police car. Riddle took my sign with him and I was taken downtown and booked by Crisp. I was never read my Miranda rights."
Two days later, the charges against Phillips had mutated from the relatively innocuous offense of "obstructing the sidewalk" — which would hardly merit being handcuffed and stuffed into a police car — to "endangering motorists."
"The intent [behind arresting Phillips] was public safety and the banner being a hazard," insisted Asheville police Capt. Wade Wood. "That’s basically to the benefit of the motoring public," which ran an imperceptibly small chance of being endangered should the activist lose control of his 5’x1′ sign. It’s likelier that motorists would be killed in a bridge collapse, or perhaps in an accident involving falling space debris. But Wood had to pull some charge out of his emunctory aperture, and this was the best he could do.
Similar dishonest ingenuity has been on display in Kent, Ohio, where City Law Director James Silver announced plans to charge activist Kevin Egler with "littering" — an offense carrying a fine of up to $500 — for posting an "Impeach Bush" sign in a public garden. The original charge, advertising in a public space, proved useless because Egler’s sign had no commercial content.
The littering charge is obviously an instance of content-based selective prosecution: Egler has presented dozens of photographs documenting the display of other posters — including commercial advertisements and military recruiting pitches — that were displayed without incident.
As I’ve noted before, many police departments increasingly operate under the "we’ll find a reason" standard — meaning that when given an opportunity officers will contrive some excuse to cite or arrest individuals who have committed no immediately recognizable offense. Cases like those of Jonas Phillips, Kevin Egler, and the Kuhns — remember: three or more instances constitute a pattern — suggest that police are particularly prone to display their creativity when dealing with certain forms of political protest.
In his valuable new book You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression, Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, has compiled dozens of accounts from Americans who endured harassment, arrest, and various forms of official mistreatment after exercising their right to protest peacefully.
In May 2004, Joe Previtera, a student at Boston College, staged a protest of the Abu Ghraib abuses outside a military recruiting center. He chose to mimic the iconic photograph of a hooded detainee standing atop a box with his arms outstretched and electrodes attached to his body.
Previtera was surrounded by four policemen who told him the bomb squad was on its way. He was arrested and jailed overnight on $10,000 bond, accused of making a "false bomb threat"; obviously, he hadn’t made a bomb threat, but because one of the heroes in blue (they’re all heroes, don’t you know?) claimed to think the milk crate and wires could be a bomb, Previtera was charged with making a false threat. In the middle of his night in jail, Previtera was awakened by police who tried to catechize him about the virtues of the Iraq war: They "showed me pictures of U.S. soldiers with smiling Iraqi children," he recalled. "The officers told me these were pictures I’d never see in the media…."
Eventually the charges were dropped, but the point is that Previtera, like a growing number of others, spent time in jail for conducting a peaceful, legal protest the local police didn’t like.
Rothschild describes how police in Miami, with $8.5 million in federal funding tucked into an $87 billion war appropriation, waged a literal street war against protesters during the December 2003 Free Trade of the Americas Summit. Police eagerly used tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, billyclubs, and other "non-lethal" weapons against peaceful and largely cooperative protesters.