Wednesday, October 3, 2007

US Rep. Allen to protestors: go directly to jail

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Neither US Senator Susan Collins nor the man challenging her for her senate seat will mention an important difference between the two: First District US Representative Tom Allen, a Democrat, has activists arrested when they demonstrate at his offices; Collins, a Republican, lets them stay.

In February, two anti-war protests at Allen’s Portland office resulted in 19 arrests. There were eight more, on September 25, at a rally supporting impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney.

“In Allen’s office, [the staff] really have the attitude like, ‘Why are you coming here? [Allen is] a liberal Democrat. You should be voting for [him],’” says Bruce Gagnon, a longtime Maine peace activist who has been arrested at several nonviolent civil disobedience demonstrations. He says Allen’s staff has been “cold and harsh and even a bit nasty to us” since at least 2005 (see “A Somber Occupation,” by Sara Donnelly, December 14, 2005).

Mark Sullivan, Allen’s spokesman, says the staff calls the police to arrest demonstrators because “at the close of business, we can’t leave the office with people still there.”

“I hope they realized that the man they work for had ordered the arrest of eight of his constituents,” wrote one of the eight who was arrested, Jonathan Queally, in an e-mail to the Phoenix, “whose only demand was that he uphold his solemn oath to defend the Constitution of the United States by holding Bush and Cheney accountable.”

Collins’s office doesn’t feel the need to involve the cops. At a March protest, a member of the senator’s staff was willing to stay the night to avoid throwing the demonstrators out or leaving them alone in the office, says Collins spokeswoman Jen Burita. She says the 12 arrests during that protest were at the insistence of security staff who needed to secure the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building, not at the request of Collins’s staff.

The test of the senator’s hospitality came on August 31, when five anti-war protestors from Farmington visited Collins’s Portland office, which is not in a federal building. The group, all women involved in Farmington’s chapter of the protest group Women in Black, had an appointment with one of Collins’s aides, in which they urged the senator to end funding for the Iraq war. After that, all five stayed in the office and began reading aloud the names of Americans and Iraqis killed in Iraq.

At the end of the day, the aide asked if the women intended to stay. “We said we hadn’t finished reading the names,” says Lee Sharkey, a retired UMaine-Farmington professor who was with the group. The aide’s response made it “clear we could have stayed all weekend,” Sharkey says, but the aide has a family, and she was “uncomfortable” with the idea of staying so late on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. Sharkey says the protestors “had nothing against her” and didn’t want to keep her from her family, so they left voluntarily at around 9 pm. There were no arrests.

“Clearly the senator wasn’t interested in that kind of negative publicity,” Sharkey says.

Activists have had mixed results at the offices of Maine’s other two delegates to Washington.

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s office in Bangor has been “very, very bad,” says Gagnon. “The chief of staff ... slams the door in your face, won’t even let you get in.” In September 2006, 11 people were arrested there during a sit-in. Snowe’s Bangor office is not in a federal building.

At Second District Democratic Representative Mike Michaud’s Bangor office on September 26, the staff was so polite and welcoming to anti-war demonstrators, that the protestors “decided not to sit-in his office,” Gagnon says. “They felt they were having a real dialogue.”

Allen’s efforts to avoid speaking with protestors are extensive: those arrested in February were warned that Allen’s staff would have them arrested again if they returned to the building within a year. The protestors objected, saying that prevented them from having access to their elected congressman, and the warning was retracted, according to Kathe Chipman, who was arrested on February 21 and again on September 25.

Chipman, a retired art-and-architecture librarian, chose not to pay a $40 bail commissioner’s fee on September 25, and stayed in jail overnight because, she says, “I believe that sitting on the floor of an office paid for by taxpayers beyond closing time is not a criminal trespass but rather a purposeful presence, one that is the opposite of ‘criminal,’ since the sole goal is to effect honest adherence to the Constitution of the United States.” She was released without being charged the following day.

None of the February protestors at Allen’s office was charged with a crime, says Portland lawyer John Branson, who has represented people arrested at both February events. And Branson doubts the eight arrested September 25 will be charged, though prosecutors have reserved the right to do so.

“It’s a political decision,” says Branson. “This Republican district attorney [Stephanie Anderson] has essentially done a favor for this Democratic member of Congress by making the story go away very quickly” by not charging those arrested at his office. With Allen challenging Collins, Branson wondered aloud how long Anderson’s favors would continue.

On the Web
Video of protest: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=maineactivist | http://www.youtube.com/user/patriciaWheeler

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