A Case of Mistaken Politics


By Matt Bieber, News Writer, MPP/MDiv ‘13

On Monday, January 9, I drove a couple of towns over to see Mitt Romney speak at the Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Company in Hudson, NH. I walked into the venue, put my backpack and jacket down on a seat near the stage, asked a neighbor to watch them, and went off to find a restroom. Afterward, I was chatting with a campaign staffer when a police officer approached. Sir, we have to ask you to leave the premises.

“Sir, is this about my backpack? I’d be happy to show you – there’s nothing dangerous in there.”

“No, sir – we’ll explain it to you outside.”

Outside, the officer said, “Sir, the campaign has identified you as someone who was at a protest at Romney’s office in Manchester.”

Now I was really confused. Protest? I didn’t even know there had been protests at Romney’s headquarters. I explained to the officer that there must have been some misunderstanding. Could I speak to someone from the campaign to clear this up? No. I’d have to leave immediately.

I asked about his authority to remove me. “We’re working for the Romney campaign,” he said. I asked if he was on-duty; he said he was. My confusion deepened. So was he working for the town of Hudson today, or for the campaign? “Both.”

I thought about Romney’s campaign staff inside. They had mistaken me for someone else, and that was enough – I was out.

I asked again to speak to someone from the campaign or the company who owned the plant. The officer refused; the company had delegated authority to the campaign, and the campaign had authorized the police to remove anyone the campaign didn’t want present. But wouldn’t it be simple for me to just talk to someone and explain the mistake? Too many people around, the cop said. (This was still at least 30 minutes before the event was scheduled to start; the venue was by no means full, and Governor Romney was nowhere in sight.) I either had to leave the company’s property or face charges for criminal trespass.

My reason-seeking brain couldn’t take in what was happening. I had come here to be a part of the primary process, to see it first-hand and to write about it. I had come to understand the candidate and his views better.

I asked another question or two, and the cop had had enough: “You’re under arrest.” He took my things, handcuffed me behind my back, searched me, and tucked me into a nearby cruiser. I could overhear him talking about going through my things, and he answered a question from the media. I was “the subject.”

A few minutes later, an officer removed me from the cruiser and had me lean up against another police car and spread my legs for a second search. Two or three TV crews had their cameras trained on us; I felt ashamed in a wholly unfamiliar way. I wanted to look directly at the cameras and explain what had happened, but I feared the police officers’ reaction.

I was tucked into the second cruiser and driven away. The camera crews continued filming. A protester – oh, did I mention that there was an actual protest there? – yelled, “Free the prisoner.”

*          *          *

The holding cell at the Hudson Police Department. (I was allowed to use my own phone to make phone calls, and I snapped these pictures as well.)

At the police station, an officer put me in a cage and asked to remove my shoes, belt, and sweatshirt and place them on the floor between us. He asked me to lift my feet so he could inspect them. He did so tentatively, from a distance.

Two officers processed my paperwork. As they did so, they told me not to go back to “that area” when I was released. I indicated that I understood I wasn’t permitted to be on the company’s land or in their facilities, but surely I could go back to the street if I so chose – it’s public property, after all. Don’t go back to that area, they said. If you go back, you might cause a disturbance or a riot, and you could be arrested for disorderly conduct.

And then the following exchange took place. I began to ask, “If I express my First Amendment freedoms –

And one of the officers interjected, “You’ll probably be arrested.”

It was clear to me that the two officers had no interest in discussing what the law actually said, or what my rights actually entailed. I was paperwork, and they wanted to get it over with. I kept asking questions, and at one point, one of them opened up the New Hampshire legal code and read me the definition of disorderly conduct.

I asked the officer if he could help me connect what he’d just read with my situation and understand why it would be a problem to return to the street outside the event. He told me that I might return and say things that “aren’t what others think.”

 

*          *          *

My cell was down the hall and to the left.

An officer returned, and I given a choice: I could either pay a bail commissioner’s fee or spend the night at a nearby jail and see a judge for an arraignment in the morning. Neither option seemed particularly fair: I could either pay money for not having done anything wrong, or I could go to jail and take my chances with a judge for not having done anything wrong.

I opted for bail, and I was brought back out to the holding cell for mug shots. (The booking officer made sure that I knew not to smile. “The court doesn’t like that. They take it as an insult.”) He then took a second set of mug shots in a different room. Last came fingerprints. The prints involved no ink; instead, a digital machine captured my “finger slaps.”

The booking officer put me back in the holding cell to wait for the bail commissioner, and I sat there for the next couple of hours. At some point, he offered to let me make a call, and he allowed me to use my own phone to do so. “Can I make more than one?” I asked. He didn’t care: “You’re not a murderer.”

So I called a journalist friend, hoping she was nearby. (I only had $16 in my wallet, and I wasn’t sure if I’d need help with the bail commissioner’s fee.) I called my dad, too, and a couple of other friends. Then, remembering I had internet access, I searched for news of the arrest. It had been reported by a local CBS affiliate. Unfortunately, the reporters (or the police with whom they interacted) had gotten the facts wrong. (I had never spoken with the owner of the company where the event had been held. In fact, I had asked the arresting officer for that very privilege and been denied.)

I was humiliated again. There was a picture of me looking like a thousand other pictures I’d seen, being cuffed and taken away.

I sat and talked with the booking officer. He was friendly with me – I was freezing in the holding cell, and he let me have my sweatshirt and jacket. We chatted about his time as a police officer in Boston, and we joked about Hahvahd. He answered my questions about what might happen at the arraignment as best he could.

Nearly four hours after the arresting officer had first taken me aside, the bail commissioner appeared. He – like some of the other policemen at the station – seemed to think I had been protesting down at the event. I explained otherwise, and he brushed it aside. He issued me an order to appear at an arraignment in Nashua on January 26th; I would face a charge of criminal trespass. I told him I didn’t have enough money to pay his bail commissioner’s fee, but that I’d be happy to go to a nearby ATM and get it. He offered me a ride, and we chatted along the way. When he dropped me off at my car, he had some last words of advice: “Don’t hang around this area.”

*          *          *

When I got home, I wrote all of this and posted it on my blog. The story quickly went viral, and I was inundated with comments, inquiries from reporters, and offers of legal assistance. People were upset on my behalf.

Much of the discussion centered on the question of whether the police acted correctly in removing me from the event under these circumstances. For me, though, the legal question isn’t the most compelling one. In my view, this experience has relatively little to do with the police, and much more to do with the campaign’s desire to remove me in the first place. In fact, I don’t even think this is really about the Romney campaign; instead, it speaks to a more general problem with our politics.

Our campaigns and candidates are far too timid.

Running for president – or any office, for that matter – ought to be an exercise in building relationships with the people you seek to represent. It ought to be about getting to know them – their views, their needs, their hopes and desires. At its core, campaigning ought to be about openness and receptivity.

Instead, candidates frequently campaign from a crouch. They seek to avoid anything that could be perceived as a mistake or a vulnerability or a moment of uncertainty. They host highly controlled, heavily sanitized events that are little more than PR for the cameras. They pretend they already have all the answers, and they play perpetual defense. Sometimes, that defensive posture leads to absurdity – as it did in my situation (and as it has in many others like mine).

We can be better than this. We can let our candidates know that when they run for office, we expect more. We expect that when we take them seriously and show an interest in their ideas, they will return the courtesy. More basically, we expect that when a candidate invites his fellow citizens to discuss issues of public import during a campaign for public office, that his fellow citizens are truly welcome.
If we had that kind of attitude governing our political campaigns – a bravery, an openness, a readiness to engage in real dialogue – that would be a pretty big win.

[Note: this essay originally appeared at Matt’s website, The Wheat and Chaff (thewheatandchaff.com). Versions have also appeared in The Huffington Post and elsewhere.]

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