Silenced by the President

A few weeks before my father died, he woke me in the wee hours of the morning. He needed to talk. He was worried about Attorney General John Ashcroft and the destruction of American civil liberties. I comforted my father, believing he was delusional from medications. I was wrong. I write this from my home in Jacksonville Oregon (population 2,226). President George W. Bush came here this week. The purpose of his visit was political. Southern Oregon has been deemed a “battle ground” area in the presidential race. John Kerry has made incredible inroads in this traditionally Republican stronghold. President Bush’s campaign stop was an attempt to staunch the slide.

Jacksonville is an old gold mining town. Our main street is only five blocks long, lined with restored storefronts. The sidewalks are narrow. We are a peaceful community. The prospect of an overnight presidential visit was exciting, even to me, a lifelong Democrat. My excitement turned to horror as I watched events unfold during President Bush’s visit.

In the mid 1800s, when Indians invaded Jacksonville, citizens clambered upon the roof of the old library. It was the one building that would not catch fire when flaming arrows were shot. This week it was a different scene. Police armed with high powered rifles perched upon our rooftops as the presidential motorcade approached. Helicopters flew low, overhead. A cadre of motorcycle police zoomed into town. Black SUVs followed, sandwiching several black limousines carrying the president, his wife and their entourage as they sped to the local inn where they would eat and sleep.

The main street was lined with people gathered to witness the event. Many supported the president. Many did not. Some came because they were simply curious. There were men, women, young and old. The mood was somewhat festive. Supporters of John Kerry sported signs, as did supporters of George Bush. Individuals, exercising their rights of free speech began chanting. On one side of the street, shouts of “four more years” echoed in the night air. On the other side of the street, chants of “three more weeks” responded. The chants were loud and apparently could be heard by President Bush. An order was issued that the anti-Bush rhetoric be quieted. The local SWAT team leapt to action.

It happened fast. Clad in full riot gear, at least 50 officers moved in. Shouting indecipherable commands from a bullhorn, they formed a chain and bore down upon the people, only working to clear the side of the street appearing to be occupied by Kerry supporters. People tried to get out of their way. It was very crowded. There was nowhere to move. People were being crushed. They started flowing into the streets. Pleas to the officers, asking, “where to go” fell upon deaf ears. Instead, riot police fired pellets of cayenne pepper spray into the crowd. An old man fell and couldn’t get up. When a young man stopped to help, he was shot in the back with hard pepper spray balls. Children were hit with pepper spray. eemed “Protesters” people were shoved and herded down the street by the menacing line of armed riot police, until out of the President’s ear-shot.

There the “Protesters” were held at bay. Anyone vocalizing anti-Bush or pro-Kerry sentiments were prohibited from venturing forward. Loud anti-Bush chants were responded to by the commanding officer stating: “FORWARD,” to which the entire line of armed police would move, lock-step, toward the “Protesters,” forcing backward movement.

Police officers circulated filming the crowd of “Protesters.” Some were people like me, quiet middle-aged women. Some sported anti-Bush signs, peace signs, or Kerry signs. A small group of youth, clad in black with kerchiefs wrapping their heads chanted slogans. A young woman in her underwear, sporting a peace sign sang a lyrical Kumbaya. Mixed among the “Protesters” were supporters of the President. One 19 year- old man shouted obscenities at anyone expressing dissatisfaction with the president, encouraging the police to “tazar” the “Stinking Protesters.” Neither the “Protestors,” nor the police harassed this vocal young man. Across the street, individuals shouting support for the president were allowed to continue. Officers monitored this group but allowed them to shout words of support or hurl derisions toward Kerry supporters, undisturbed. Honking cars filled with Bush supporters were left alone. A honking car full of Kerry supporters was stopped by police on its way out of town. The standoff with “Protesters” continued until the President finished his dinner and was secured in his hotel cottage for the night. Only then were the riot police ordered to “mount-up,” leaping upon the sideboard of a huge SUV, pulling out of town, and allowing “free speech” to resume.

In small town American I witnessed true repression and intimidation by law enforcement. I saw small children suffering from the effects of being fired upon by pepper bullets. I felt legitimate fear of expressing my political opinions: a brand new feeling. Newspaper accounts state the chaos started when a violent “Protester” shoved a police officer. No one I talked to witnessed this account.It is reputed that President Bush and his staff will not allow any opposition activity to occur within his ear or eye sight. I can confirm, that in tiny Jacksonville, Oregon, this was true. Physically violent means were taken to protect the president from verbal insults. Freedom of speech was stolen.

My father was not paranoid as he lay dying. He was expressing great insight into the dangers of our current presidential administration and its willingness to repress personal freedoms. If I could talk to my father today, I would say, “I am sorry Daddy for doubting you.” And, no matter what, I will continue to exercise my individual right to freely express my opinions. Americans cannot take four more years.
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