Why a Rep. Paid the Fine for My Arrest In Congress
Why a Congressman Paid the Fine for My Arrest in Congress
By Ann Wright
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor
Monday 26 March 2007
What irony! I was arrested last week in a Capitol Police abuse of power upon leaving a Congressional hearing on FBI abuses of our civil liberties.
I was arrested on March 20, 2007 in a hallway outside the Judiciary Committee hearing of the US House of Representatives. As I stood to walk out of the hearing on the FBI's abuse of National Security letters, I vocally agreed with a committee member that the public does not trust the FBI because of those abuses, and I thanked the committee for holding oversight hearings on them. The Justice Department Inspector General had reported to the Congress that FBI officials have illegally obtained access to bank records, telephone bills and Social Security numbers without tying the need for access to specific investigations.
When I stood and publicly agreed with the committee's actions, House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers said that I could either stop speaking and sit down or I could leave the hearing room. Since I was walking out of the committee hearing to drive to the airport to fly to a speaking engagement at Brown University later that day, I acknowledged the chairman's admonition and continued out the door. I was escorted the last couple of steps by the police officer assigned to the hearing room.
Outside the hearing room, the police officer was joined by a Capitol Police captain who ordered his fellow officer to arrest me. I protested, saying that Congressman Conyers had not "gaveled" my arrest but had merely told me to either sit down or leave the room. The normal Congressional protocol is that if a committee chair gavels once, the visitor is removed from the hearing room. If the committee chair gavels twice, the visitor is arrested.
I know the protocol well, as in the past 18 months I have stood and respectfully and quickly aired my views in many committee hearings, and then have sat down following my comments. In other committee hearings, I have been removed after my comments, but not arrested. Prior to March 22, I had been arrested only once at a committee hearing. In July 2006, wearing a "Gitmo orange" jumpsuit during the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing on the nomination of William Haynes, the Department of Defense general counsel who was one of the architects of the Department of Defense torture policies, I loudly and strongly told the committee that Haynes should not be confirmed to the lifelong appointment as a US Circuit Court of Appeals judge, as his actions in formulating the torture policy of the Bush administration had compromised the integrity and professionalism of the US military. As I spoke, committee chair Arlen Specter gaveled about twenty times and I was arrested.
But this time, after I was detained in the hallway, Congressman Conyers' chief of staff joined us and told the police captain that the Congressman did not want me arrested. The captain ignored the pleas of the chief of staff and told the officer to handcuff me and take me to the station. The committee chair's chief of staff protested my arrest, I protested and others in the hallway protested, but to no avail.
Handcuffed, I was driven to the Capitol Police station. As the two hours of processing at that station ended, a member of Congressman Conyers' staff came to the station and paid the $35 fine for my "disorderly conduct." The police officer who received the money from the congressman's staff member said that was the first time in her memory that a member of Congress had paid the fine of an activist.
Later I found out that other activists (Medea Benjamin and other members of Codepink Women for Peace) had been in the Judiciary Committee room earlier in the morning before the meeting began, introduced themselves to the witnesses and sat down. They were told by the hearing room staffer not to sit in particular chairs and later were told to leave the room. The police removed the activists from the room. As they were forced into the hallway, Congressman John Murtha walked by. The activists appealed to Murtha for help to let them stay in the hearing. Murtha said, "This is not a police state, and you should be in the hearing room." He called the House of Representatives' sergeant-at-arms and told him to let the activists back into the hearing room.
Less than one hour later, I went into the committee room, eventually made my comments as I walked out of the hearing room, and was ordered arrested by the Capitol Police captain against the wishes of the committee chair. No amount of explanation by me, the committee staffers or the police officers who observed my actions could prevent the arbitrary actions of the police captain, who apparently was irritated from the earlier rebuke from Congressman Murtha via the sergeant-of-arms.
So my question is: Who runs the US Congress? The Congress or the Capitol Police? If it is the Congress, then the head of the committee holding hearings should be the individual who decides if an individual should be removed from the hearing room or arrested for particular behavior in the hearing room. If removal or arrest is left to the discretion of police officers, I believe the officer's individual political views and her views on the role of activists and protests could very easily be the basis for a decision on whether to arrest someone.
In peaceful, nonviolent actions in Congressional committee rooms, the Congressional committee chairperson should decide when a person should be arrested, not the police.
Ann Wright is a 29-year US Army veteran who retired as a
colonel. She also spent 16 years in the US diplomatic corps
in Grenada, Nicaragua, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia. She was on the first
team into Kabul, Afghanistan, to reopen the US Embassy there
in December 2001. She was one of three US diplomats who
resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the war in Iraq.