This is from the December 15, 2003 issue of the American Conservative, by James Bovard:
When Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up “free speech zones” or “protest zones” where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.
When Bush came to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.” The local police, at the Secret Service’s behest, set up a “designated free-speech zone” on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush’s speech. The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical signs, though folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the president’s path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated his sign. Neel later commented, “As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.”
Bovard points out that if someone had wanted to harm the President he could have cleverly disguised his intentions by holding a pro-Bush sign.
I urge you to read the entire article from this conservative journal, taking note of the parts about FBI surveillance of peace groups — remember how the feds were watching the Quakers? — and the part about how citizens were being urged to turn in “suspicious” people to the FBI. And this part:
The Bush administration’s anti-protester bias proved embarrassing for two American allies with long traditions of raucous free speech, resulting in some of the most repressive restrictions in memory in free countries. When Bush visited Australia in October, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mark Riley observed, “The basic right of freedom of speech will adopt a new interpretation during the Canberra visits this week by the US President, George Bush, and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. Protesters will be free to speak as much as they like just as long as they can’t be heard.” Demonstrators were shunted to an area away from the Federal Parliament building and prohibited from using any public address system in the area.For Bush’s recent visit to London, the White House demanded that British police ban all protest marches, close down the center of the city, and impose a “virtual three day shutdown of central London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by anti-war protesters,” according to Britain’s Evening Standard. But instead of a “free speech zone”—as such areas are labeled in the U.S.—the Bush administration demanded an “exclusion zone” to protect Bush from protesters’ messages.
Note that The American Conservative was launched by Patrick Buchanan (those of us who remember Buchanan's role in the Nixon Administration will find that ironic) and is currently running articles calling for “free market” solutions to health care. But credit where credit is due.
The point of the “free speech zones” was not security, obviously. The point was to suppress speech for political purposes. Just as it was the point of screening people at Bush rallies to be sure no one but loyal, registered Republicans were allowed inside. For eight years liberals were told that’s just how things were, and suck it up. Terrorists hate us for our freedoms, you know.
But now, confront some clearly agitated righties with the realities of physics, seating capacities and fire code laws, and President Obama is being compared to Hitler.
I remember during the 2004 Republican convention, the NYPD turned several blocks around Madison Square Garden into not only “no free speech” zones; they were also “no loitering,” “no photographing” and "get your butt out of here" zones. If it weren’t for Macy’s they might have roped off the entire area, but at least one could still shop at the Columbus Circle Macy’s.
That said, one afternoon during the convention I left Macy’s and boldly walked down the street opposite Madison Square Garden — the President would not have been there at the time — just out of curiosity. I carried no signs and wore no buttons or other indicators of political preference. I was nowhere close to an entrance to Madison Square Garden and made no attempt to enter. I was just a 50-something woman walking down the street with a Macy’s shopping bag. There were no protesters, and the only people I saw going into and out of the Garden looked like young staffers. No VIPS. I pulled a camera out of my purse to take a picture of Madison Square Garden showing the “Republican convention” sign — from across the street — and the cops told me to put the camera away and go somewhere else. No pictures.
So we liberals complained about this at the time, and most of the Right told us to suck it up.
My experience with leftie demonstrations goes back to the Vietnam era. Although I can’t say I was active in the antiwar movement then, I was sympathetic, and attended a few demonstrations, none memorable. More recently I took part in some big antiwar demonstrations in New York and Washington. I’ve never personally seen lefties get violent. I realize violence does happen, but it's very far from common.
No, what's more common for lefties is self-indulgent and vulgar. In my experience a lot of leftie demonstrators are more interested in drawing attention to themselves than in doing anything effective for the cause. And I never again in my life want to be subjected to some young man hogging a megaphone and screaming “no blood for oil” incessantly for an hour and a half. I mean that sincerely.
But I’ve also been in big leftie demonstrations that were confronted by hostile counter-demonstrators, and it was rare to see anyone get into a shouting match. Mostly the counter-demonstrators were just ignored, although in one march in Washington I remember some of us sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” for them. The righties didn’t join in. They just looked grumpy.
So, yes, demonstrations tend to be messy and undisciplined, and there are always a few hotheads who make everybody else look bad, and I appreciate sometimes there are crowd control and security issues that may override someone’s need to vent.
But it would be really nice if we could all recognize that we have a common interest in preserving a right to free speech, and we also have a common interest in public order and civility.