White House Brownshirts?
Perry Patterson plans to sue the "men in black."
BY KERA ABRAHAM
Last week, EW reported on the case of Perry Patterson, who was arrested for trespassing after shouting "no" at a campaign rally featuring Vice President Dick Cheney in September 2004 (see cover story 2/9). On Feb. 14, Patterson and her attorney, Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, decided to file a civil suit against the men who forced her out of the rally. The only problem is, they're not sure yet who those men are.
Patterson testifies that after her outburst, a pair of "men in black" came up behind her, took her by the elbows and led her out of the Monaco airport hangar where the rally was staged, delivering her to Eugene police. When Patterson refused to leave the property, the police arrested her and charged her with trespassing. Municipal Court Judge Alan Leiman dismissed the case after a pre-trial hearing last fall, but city prosecutor Mark Haight appealed the ruling to the circuit court. A new hearing was scheduled for Feb. 16, but that date has been postponed.
Who were the "men in black"? Process of elimination makes the question perplexing.
"It's definitely not the Eugene police," Regan said. "Everyone agrees at this point that they are denying it." EPD Lieutenant Pete Kerns, who was the officer in charge at the event, declined to comment.
They couldn't have been Monaco representatives, Regan said, because Monaco's "person in charge" wasn't even contacted until Patterson was already outside. Monaco spokesman Craig Wanichek said that "Eugene police came and escorted her out."
Haight originally assumed that the "men in black" were Secret Service agents, but Oregon Secret Service Agent in Charge Ronald Wampole denied that claim in an interview with EW.
Wampole offered another explanation. "It may have been VP staff people who dress just like the SS, complete with ear piece," he wrote in a Feb. 6 e-mail. "They are usually the ones who would take action if someone was arrested for trespassing."
In other words, the vice president's staff may have impersonated Secret Service agents to force Patterson and other protesters out of the rally. Cheney's spokespeople declined to comment.
According to Center for Constitutional Rights Director Bill Goodman, White House staff have no legal authority to remove protesters from political events. "They are public officials and act under color of law," he wrote via e-mail. "As such they can and did violate the First Amendment."
Acts under "color of law" include things done beyond the bounds of a person's lawful authority while pretending to carry out official duties, or while using power given to them by an authority. Federal law forbids anyone acting under color of law to deprive a person of his or her constitutional rights, including free speech.
While not familiar with the Patterson case, U.S. Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur said that White House staffers may have been involved in ejecting protesters from other events featuring Cheney and President Bush. In most cases, he said, they act on the instructions of the "host committee" and local law enforcement authorities.
But the legality of that practice is hotly debated. In March 2005, three people were removed from Bush's speech on Social Security in Denver because of a bumper sticker on their car reading "No More Blood for Oil." They assumed that the man who ousted them, who wore an earpiece, navy blue suit and lapel pin, was a Secret Service agent. But after months of stonewalling, the Secret Service admitted that the mystery man was Michael Casper, a White House "host committee" staffer, who followed orders to kick out anyone with views contrary to the president's.
Eight Colorado legislators called for a federal investigation of the incident. Federal prosecutors declined to press charges against Casper for impersonating a federal agent. But in November, the ACLU filed its own a lawsuit against Casper and six other White House staffers involved in the incident. That case is still pending.
The Denver case may give Patterson more ammunition in her lawsuit against the still-unnamed "men in black." But since the city has not yet chosen to withdraw its case against her, Patterson also faces a criminal trespass charge.
"Based on the obstinance of the city of Eugene prosecutor, a decision was made to proceed with a civil suit to find once and for all the truth of what happened," Regan said.