ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Protesters Arrested at Bush Rally in Pennsylvania

December 9, 2004 12:00 am

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Less than two minutes after forming the human pyramid, police officers forcibly dismantled the group and took them away in handcuffs. VIEW THE VIDEO


Group Attempted to Re-Create Human Pyramid Image to Protest Prisoner Torture at Abu Ghraib

LANCASTER, PA-The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of five men who were arrested after they stripped down to thong underwear and formed a human pyramid in anticipation of President Bush’s motorcade procession through Lancaster County. The men attempted to re-create the infamous image that emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

The lawsuit charges that federal agents, East Lampeter Township police officers and Pennsylvania State Police troopers violated the men’s constitutional rights by illegally arresting them in order to suppress a peaceful, symbolic political protest against President Bush.

“These young men were arrested and removed from sight for no other reason than the fact that their presence would have resulted in an embarrassing visual for the president,” said Paula Knudsen, an ACLU of Pennsylvania attorney who is co-counsel for the protesters. “These unjustified arrests were motivated by politics, not law. The actions of these men are clearly protected under the First Amendment.”

The men planned to reconstruct the Abu Ghraib image to express their disapproval of U.S. military actions in Iraq while using a visual that would be difficult for the president to ignore. In order to ensure they were acting within the law, the men positioned themselves along the Old Philadelphia Pike, where a few other protesters and many Bush supporters were instructed to go, and wore thongs no different in design from those worn on beaches. At no point did the men treat the demonstration as a joke or disruptive event.

Within two minutes, local police officers moved in to forcibly dismantle the pyramid before the motorcade arrived at the destination. One of the men, Ben Keely, 22, had his arm twisted and was forced to the ground and handcuffed so tightly that his left hand remained numb well into the following evening. Each of the men arrested were charged with “disorderly conduct,” after being detained for nearly two hours at the police station. The men were then released after President Bush had completed his campaign appearance.

“It is a sad day when you can get arrested in America for protesting human rights violations,” said Lancaster resident Tristan Egolf, 32, a published author and one of the plaintiffs. “The only crime committed was the officers’ violation of our First Amendment rights.”

In October, District Attorney Donald Totaro withdrew all charges of disorderly conduct against the men, stating that the protesters’ actions are protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.

“One can only conclude that these citizens were arrested and forcefully removed from the area in order to silence and censor their protest against the president,” said ACLU cooperating attorney J. Dwight Yoder of the Lancaster law firm Gibbel, Kraybill & Hess. “That not only is unconstitutional but it is un-American. Political expression and dissent is a hallmark of this country and when our government arrests people to silence them, we all should be concerned.”

The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit last year, ACORN v. Secret Service, which charged that the Secret Service violated protesters’ free speech rights during events attended by President Bush and other senior federal officials. According to ACLU legal papers, local police, acting at the direction of the Secret Service, violated the rights of protesters in two ways: people expressing views critical of the government were moved further away from public officials while those with pro-government views were allowed to remain closer; or everyone expressing a view was herded into what is commonly known as a “protest zone,” leaving those who merely observe, but express no view, to remain closer. The federal court in Philadelphia dismissed that case in March after the Secret Service acknowledged that it could not discriminate against protesters through the use of out-of-sight, out-of-earshot protest zones.

Earlier this year, the ACLU again filed a lawsuit against the Secret Service and a White House official for ordering the arrest of a young couple who wore anti-Bush t-shirts at a presidential rally in Charleston, West Virginia. Jeff and Nicole Rank were initially charged with trespassing on the public grounds, even though they had tickets for the event, but the charges were later dropped and the couple received a public apology from the mayor and the city council. The lawsuit seeks a public admission that the federal agents acted illegally by ordering the arrests.

“Today’s case, along with the Rank and ACORN cases, suggest a disturbing pattern by this administration of suppressing dissent,” said ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walczak. “American colonists were jailed for protesting against King George, and we fought a war to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Today’s lawsuit on behalf of the Abu Ghraib protesters comes on the heels of the release of government documents revealing that members of a U.S. special operations task force abused and beat Iraqi prisoners in front of Defense Intelligence Agency agents and then threatened the agents to keep them from reporting the abuse. The documents were obtained by the ACLU through a federal court order that directed the Defense Department and other government agencies to comply with a year-old request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In addition to Egolf and Keely, the other plaintiffs are Jonathan Kohler, 21, Adam Willard, 21, and David Obryant, 21. The men are represented by Knudsen, Yoder, Walczak and Melvin H. Hess of Gibbel, Kraybill & Hess.

For a copy of today’s lawsuit, go to: /node/34994

For more information on ACORN v. Secret Service, go to: /node/9104

For more information on Rank v. Secret Service, go to: /node/9125

For more information on the torture FOIA, go to: /torturefoia

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