South Carolinians fight for free speech

CHARLESTON, S.C. – When George W. Bush spoke at a waterfront terminal here Feb. 5, two days after the South Carolina primary, scores of protesters picketed outside chanting “U.S. out of Iraq.”

The demonstration was sponsored by the South Carolina Progressive Network (SCPN), a multiracial alliance of unions, religious groups, civil rights and community groups with a proud record of picketing Bush every time he ventures here. Brett Bursey, a founder of SCPN, was convicted Jan. 6 on trumped up charges of “threatening” Bush. He had picketed when Bush flew into Columbia, S.C., in October 2002.

On that October day Bursey held a sign, “No War for Oil,” in the midst of a crowd of placard-waving Republicans who had come to welcome Bush. Bursey was the only one in the crowd ordered by police to move to a “designated free speech zone.”

Bursey refused, telling the officer, “I’m already in a free speech zone. It’s called the United States of America.” He was arrested, and his case has become a celebrated free speech battle here.

SCPN organizers met with Charleston police to arrange the site of the Feb. 5 picket line in hopes of avoiding a confrontation this year. Nevertheless, mounted Charleston police penned them in parking lots and ordered them not to move until Bush’s motorcade sped past.

“It took me an hour and a half to get here,” said SCPN organizer Melanie Knight. “The police wouldn’t let me through.”

SCPN activist Merrill Chapman held a sign, “How many deaths will you accept in Iraq?” She told the World, “We are working hard to build a base to fight the agenda we see coming out of the White House.”

She added, “We set this rally site up with the police ahead of time but when people tried to get here they were hassled and harassed. It is an attempt to intimidate us, to negate any dissent against Bush and his policies.”

Women’s equality activist Cookie Washington and Ken Riley, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422, both members of SCPN, managed to obtain passes to hear Bush.

“There were only about five other African Americans there,” said Washington. “Bush delivered a string of compliments: ‘Charleston is great! South Carolina is great! America is great!’ But things are not so great. So many are unemployed. So many living in poverty. So many without health care. Bush comes to a state near the bottom on these vital needs yet he won’t meet with the people. He really played to that affluent crowd. He talks about homeland security but his policies are eroding civil rights and civil liberties.”

Bursey told the World that five months after his 2002 arrest, the state dropped all charges against him. But U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr. had him arrested under a rarely used statute titled “Presidential Assassinations, Kidnappings, and Threats.” He was denied a jury trial, denied access to evidence, and had subpoenas quashed in a trial modeled on Attorney General John Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act.

Bursey had been facing a six-month prison sentence, a $5,000 fine and five years of probation. The judge limited the penalty to $500. Bursey said any penalty is unacceptable. The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights is handling his appeal.

No date has been set to hear his appeal before Federal Judge Cameron Currie. But Bursey voiced hope based on Currie’s ruling in a 1980s case involving a peace movement billboard that read: “Remember Vietnam: Keep the U.S. out of Central America.” The governor at the time went ballistic and the billboard was torn down. The peace group sued and Judge Currie directed a verdict of guilty, ordering that $50,000 be paid for violation of free speech.

“We used the $50,000 to buy a printing press,” Bursey said with a chuckle. “We’re looking to the judiciary to impose some restraint on the Secret Service which is violating their own handbook which bars them from denying people their right to demonstrate. The federal authorities used the law to force us into a zone where no one would see us. It was a ruse to deny us our First Amendment rights.”

Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO and an active member of SCPN, told the World the labor movement is defending Bursey. What if police establish “designated zones” to keep striking workers’ picket lines far from the gates of plants and factories, she asked. “I think the AFL-CIO needs to pay more attention to this case. It is a threat to labor’s basic rights,” she said.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.