The eyewitness and news accounts of police misconduct against peace demonstrators on Sept. 15 triggered vivid flashbacks of police misconduct during the early stages of the Iraq War. My first drafts of this column began “Here we go again.”
Back then, to disagree publicly with President Bush took some serious guts. In the marches here, demonstrators were forced to walk a gauntlet of menacing, heavily armed storm troopers. I will not forget seeing WWII veterans for peace supporting each other as they shuffled along against a wall of police cradling shotguns and assault weapons. Or mothers pushing children in strollers past the booted feet of men tapping riot sticks in their hands.
It got worse than that, particularly one night along Central outside the Frontier Restaurant. I was there, and that’s why I’m listed as one of many witnesses in the civil rights lawsuits against the Albuquerque Police Department and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
It had been a relaxed gathering of people quietly waving signs opposing the war. Parents stood with their children. I remember frail senior citizens holding homemade signs in weak hands with translucent skin. I remember jokes and laughter. The only angry words came from a motorist who flipped us off as he drove by.
I’d come from work, still dressed in a business suit. I didn’t know then that undercover police officers had slipped in among us. But I did sense trouble coming when suddenly the cars disappeared. To prevent motorists from reading our signs, police blocked traffic on Central. Down the street I saw troops of police assembling and what looked like a SWAT van. I decided it was time to go. I headed for my car with sign in hand.
I didn’t get very far before a young police officer stepped across my path and pointed a shotgun in my face. He was terrified and shaking. I’ve always wondered what had been planted in his brain to make him view a man in a suit displaying a plea for peace sign as a threat justifying leveling his gun at my head.
After what seemed a very long time, the officer let me go. When I got home, television news was showing children inside the Frontier washing tear gas from their eyes. Out in the street police in riot gear waded into the group of people who didn’t want Americans dying in Iraq. It didn’t look like my Albuquerque. It didn’t look like America out there on Central that night.
When I learned how this month Albuquerque police harassed and intimidated peace protestors outside Kirtland Air Force Base, I thought, “Here we go again.” Mounted officers in battle gear forced their way through fragile women leaning on walkers, mothers with strollers, even people in wheelchairs. An officer ticketed only cars with pro-peace bumper stickers. Another officer drove down Gibson shouting over his speaker “Go Bush!” Police hurled insults at the group. A protester was handcuffed and locked in a patrol car, windows closed, in full sun, for more than an hour. His offense, committed only after he had been seized, seems to be kicking out a window so he could breathe.
Jeanne Pahls of Stop the War Machine, a sponsor of the event, says the organization has conducted more than 30 other protests since 2002 without a single act of violence or criminal conduct by protesters. So why the show of force by APD against grandmothers, children and the disabled?
Once again, it didn’t look like America on the streets of Albuquerque.
But that’s not the end of the story. Though a few police officers dishonored their badge and uniform that day, there is a real change in the wind. APD Chief Ray Schultz immediately reached out to the protesters. Mayor Martin Chavez let it be known he was highly displeased with what happened. Both Chavez and Schultz have met personally with leaders of the demonstrators. They’ve actually apologized and promised it won’t happen again.
Pahls says she wants accountability for officers who crossed the line. But she and a lawyer for the protesters tell me they’re genuinely impressed with what they’ve heard from Chavez and Schultz.
Another demonstration is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 6, outside the offices of military contractor Northrup-Grumann. Organizers have personally invited Chief Schultz to attend. His presence wouldn’t be an endorsement of demonstrators’ beliefs. But it would deliver the unequivocal message that the First Amendment can be given a good workout in Albuquerque without fearing the very men and women sworn to protect and uphold our Constitutional rights.