State Police in riot gear were called to help prevent unlawful assembly at the Capitol.
"This is what democracy looks like," protesters chanted-- until told they'd be arrested if they stayed on the state Capitol steps.
photo by lisa provence
You can eat lunch on the steps of the Capitol, but you can't protest there.
Photos of gun-equipped riot officers massed at the seat of state government and arresting 30 protesters– mostly women– have sparked a debate about the official response, which may have included up to seven hours of incarceration. The March 3 Richmond incident followed passage of the controversial bill requiring a pre-abortion ultrasound exam.
"The protesters seemed to be very peaceful," says House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville). "When you see weapons on the grounds of the Capitol, you have to wonder whether it's proportional."
Toscano fired off a letter to the Capitol Police asking for a review of protocols, noting that "the images of armed State Police in full riot gear removing Virginia citizens from the Capitol steps is troubling to many of our constituents and potentially places Virginia unfavorably in the national spotlight."
In meeting with Capitol Police, Toscano learned that the decision to arrest was theirs, not the governor's. He also discovered that their regulations on protests haven't been reviewed since 1970– at the height of Vietnam War dissent.
"I've seen a lot of protests in my time," says Toscano, who says he was arrested in front of the White House while protesting Vietnam. "There are always issues of appropriate use of force."
Jean Burke, a receptionist at the Charlottesville Free Clinic, was one of those arrested for refusing to leave the Capitol steps.
"That was bizarre to me," says Burke. "I didn't understand then and I don't understand now, particularly that on the steps of your own legislature, you're not allowed to be there. I know politicians hold rallies there all the time."
Burke says she was kept handcuffed on a hot bus for seven hours.
"The cuffs were very tight," she says. "We were not allowed to use the bathroom. We were not allowed water for over seven hours. One young woman wet her pants, and some of the women became ill."
Burke, 48, says it was the first time she'd ever been arrested.
"It took me 48 years to get really ticked off," she says. "I'm worried the controversy over the way we were treated will overshadow the reason we were there– the assault on women's rights."
It was also the first arrest for Cheryl Oliver, 55, the former office manager for the Charlottesville Democratic headquarters. She says she was detained on the bus for about five hours, and then another one and a half to two hours in a police station.
"It was about three hours before we were allowed to go to the bathroom," recounts Oliver. "The Capitol Police did not offer– not until some women started screaming. It's really uncomfortable being cuffed that long."
Colonel Steve Pike, head of the Capitol Police, disputes assertions of mistreatment.
"The folks were provided opportunities to go to the bathroom," says Pike. "To characterize 30 people as kept on a bus for seven hours– that's not accurate."
He says delays in processing were dictated by the number of magistrates at the Richmond lockup, something outside of Capitol Police control.
According to Pike, the ultrasound protesters had an hour-long permit to assemble at the Bell Tower beginning at 11am but that speakers didn't start until 12:30pm.
"We told them they had to leave until 2," says Pike, noting that protesters departed, marched around Richmond, and returned to the Capitol grounds.
"Instead of going to the Bell Tower, they went up to the Capitol," says Pike. "They were told not to. There were 277 other folks there that day to visit the Capitol. What if you drove to Richmond to visit and ran into that?"
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that demonstrations can be restricted to a reasonable time, place, and manner, says Kent Willis, soon-to-depart executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. He notes that people gather spontaneously on the Capitol steps all the time without permits and without threat to legislators, who weren't in session that weekend.
"The Bell Tower is in a corner about as far away from the state Capitol as you can get while still being on the grounds," says Willis. "The question is whether relegating protesters to the far corner of the state Capitol is reasonable."
Willis is also concerned about possible civil rights violations during the arrests. "We feel there was overreaction by police," he declares. "We feel they should never have arrested them."
Richmond attorney Wayne Powell, who's running for the 7th District Congressional seat held by Eric Cantor, agrees and says the typical treatment for someone accused of trespassing in Virginia is a summons, not a multi-hour detention.
"I was just shocked when someone told me women had been on a bus since 3:30," says Powell who showed up that evening around 6:30pm. "I knew they hadn't had water. I was so outraged by what I saw. One lady soiled herself."
Powell offered to represent pro bono 18 of the 30 protesters who are charged with trespassing and unlawful assembly.
"The second charge in particular is a constitutional issue," says Powell, who is filing a motion to dismiss both charges.
While Capitol Police have taken heat, they've also gotten support, particularly from Republican legislators, including Delegate Steve Landes, who represents western Albemarle County.
"The Capitol Police followed protocol," says Landes, citing alleged death threats and heightened security since 9-11. "If individuals don't follow rules," says Landes, "there are consequences."
While Delegate Rob Bell, who represents northern and eastern Albemarle and has announced a run for attorney general, did not return phone calls from a reporter, the issue looms large for House Minority Leader Toscano.
"The Democratic caucus feels it's important to get the facts straight," says Toscano, "and that people not be met with inappropriate force when exercising their Constitutional right to protest."