a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

My 9/11 Freedom Perp Walk

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 12th, 2005

Reporting on the “Freedom Walk” yesterday from the Pentagon to the Mall, the New York Times’ Glen Justice and John Files noticed a few notes of discord. One lady had her anti-war sign taken away, and a protester along the march route held up a “Bush is a liar” sign, to be met by “USA” chants — coached by Allison Barber, a Rumsfeld aide. And there was also this:

One man who registered for the walk was detained by a Pentagon police officer after he slipped a black hood over his head and produced a sign that read, ‘Freedom?’

The other side said:

For Them, For Us, For Our Troops: Never Again
Support the McCain and Levin Amendments

I know, because that’s the side I displayed first. Just as I had done at the inauguration, I was wearing a black poncho along with the hood the reporter noticed, an allusion to the infamous Abu Ghraib photo. My single alteration was to cut a couple of eyeholes in the pillowcase, a decision for safety over verisimilitude — I wanted to be able to maybe avoid a punch.

I had registered for the march soon after noticing it, but was frankly apprehensive about the whole thing. I gathered my equipment — poncho, file clips and twine for the sign — in the hood and carried it on my shoulder into the staging area for the march, the south parking lot of the Pentagon, arriving around 9 AM. While my bag was searched, there was obviously nothing of concern in it.

The scene that greeted me was fairly strange. A prominent sign declared “Signs and banners prohibited” — which may or may not have seemed like a non sequitur to the other “freedom walkers,” but I didn’t talk with any of the walkers to find out. Everyone was issued a “Freedom Walk” t-shirt and required to wear it — a signal, along with a tape wristband, that one had been processed and deemed safe. Along with people bearing large organizational signs — “AOL,” “HUD,” “Justice,” and so forth, so groups could find to each other — the whole thing looked homogeneous, hyperorganized and somehow infantilized. I found myself thinking of the old TV series “The Prisoner.” On a small stage, an Air Force band played tunes, with a pretty good female vocalist singing country and other favorites, in dress blues.

I went over to a booth describing the Pentagon 9/11 memorial, which does look like it will be quite nice. There was an inscription book, where after a bit of thought I wrote “The best memorial to the 9/11 victims will be an America that preserves its freedoms.” (In case anyone is ever bored enough to check, this may not be the precise wording, but it’s close — I jotted down some notes on that and other things, but eventually lost that scrap of paper).

As the start time approached, a pastor in uniform (I think, I wasn’t close enough to the stage) led the crowd in prayer, which I did not join. Then Undersecretary of Defense Gordon Something gave a brief speech, in which he recalled Bush’s first visit to the Pentagon, and the (perforce) unforgettable moment when Bush looked at all the generals in the room and said “Never forget.” This was presumably inspirational.

A large gateway had been built, with “Freedom Walk” painted on the arch, under which walkers were to file out of the parking lot and on to the walk. Barricades to either side of the gateway funneled the walkers under the gate. Out of some concern for my safety from gung-ho types, I decided to stand behind those barricades and wait until the march had just begun to don my costume and hold up my sign. It didn’t hurt that it was near a photographer and a TV man, and within a short distance of some uniformed police officers.

I was shaking a bit as I put on the poncho and hood and slung the sign around my neck. I first showed the “For them, for us…” side. Within maybe 15 or 20 seconds, an officer approached and told me that I would need to go to a designated protest area. I flipped the sign around at that point and said I didn’t see why, I had a right to say what I was saying. Without further ado, I was handcuffed and marched off. The vocalist was actually singing the refrain “freedom” to some syrupy song at that moment. The crowd of walkers cheered for the police.

I was treated professionally by the Pentagon police. Frisked, put in a car, watch your head, latched behind a safety belt, out of the car, pockets emptied, transfer to a van, drive to a holding facility in a nondescript warehouse near the Pentagon City Metro stop, 13th and Fern or so if I recall correctly. Stood around for a while there — they weren’t sure which door was the entrance — and once inside, there was more standing around. Finally some more officers appeared. We sat down at a table, and they began doing the paperwork for the arrest. It was hot, and one of the fellows at the table asked for a portable fan to be pointed more directly at them. “You sure? It’s going to blow the papers all over the place.” “Yeah.” Papers blew all over the place.

I was eventually read my rights, and then the arresting officer got on the phone with a DA to see whether to add a charge because of the hood — I learned that wearing a mask is potentially a “class 6 felony.” But they decided not to press that charge.

Instead, I was cited for “failure to obey a lawful order,” and will have a court date in early January in Alexandria. I was fingerprinted, photographed, and then, finally, released. It was around noon.

I did this to to remind people of the wrongs that have been committed in this so-called war on terror, to counter an organized, regimented official demonstration with a real demonstration of my own, and basically to rain on Rumsfeld’s little parade in my own small way.

I do not at all disrespect the impulse to memorialize the victims of 9/11. I do object to using that impulse as a blatant political rallying tool by people who have botched so very much of the response to that attack, abused that attack to start another war to botch, and brought so much dishonor on this country in the process. I don’t feel especially noble about my protest, and I was distressed about the possible felony charge. But not so much that I would have regretted anything.

NOTE: In the interests of complete disclosure, I should say that I also added a small “” to the “For them” side of the sign. I wouldn’t do that again, since I’m not affiliated with the group and didn’t discuss this with them, let alone get their approval. It was a blogger’s impulse: give onlookers a place to look stuff up.

For more of my own discussion of the McCain and Levin amendments, see Three Senate detainee abuse debates , Torture commission, detainee treatment votes expected soon, Independent torture commission vote expected soon. See also Look pretty similar to me (re the Durbin flap this summer). If you would like to read even more of my incomparable discussions of Abu Ghraib and the wider topic of prisoner abuse and torture at Baghram, Guantanamo, and elsewhere, use the search box at the upper [right] of this page.

11 Responses to “My 9/11 Freedom Perp Walk”

  1. Diana Says:

    Your one-man demo was way cool.
    A few thoughts.
    1. This past 9/11 was, for me, a moment of numbness. Two reasons for that, mainly, Katrina-fatigue–life and death go on, and my concerns are, frankly, more immediate. I’m more concerned with Katrina, both its terrible effects the horrible weaknesses and incompetence and plain evil at the top that it exposed and
    2. I am so wary of being manipulated emotionally by 9/11 that I just refuse to get involved. As long as the Bush-Rove-Cheney junta is running things, I refuse to become involved in any public commemoration of 9/11.
    Isn’t that a shame? 9/11 was an atrocity and a tragedy and we really ought to be able to come together and mark it with appropriate solemnity, but as long as this clacque of thieves is in power, we can’t.
    3. I learned during the demonstrations against the Republican convention that personal demonstrations on the part of one or two people are completely legal. In NYC you have to be unmasked, however.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I think the Bush folks have come close to squeezing all the juice right out of 9/11; there was a real “jumped the shark” feeling to that “Freedom Walk.” I honestly didn’t anticipate that; while it seemed like it would be deadly, I figured that it would be a big deal, and that it would somehow be saved from itself by people being people and doing their own thing. That didn’t happen; it was as stilted and empty an event as I’ve seen in a while.
    I agree about the emotional manipulation, and I think a lot of other people do, too. That’s what happens when you wave the bloody shirt too much: people get sick of it.
    It’s too bad, you’re right. That day was terrible, and the losses of so many people and so many good people was grievous. But also: so many people did so much for eachother that day and the following days. It will be good to remember the dead and honor the heroes for their own sakes someday, without the political calculus.
    Thanks for writing!

  3. Mrs. Coulter Says:

    It’s the freedom to agree with them that they love so much…

  4. Paul Says:

    I was cited for “failure to obey a lawful order,”
    Welcome to my world, won’t you come on in… 😀
    I didn’t know that law even existed in the civilian world. Is it the same as failing to obey a police officer, but worded differently because of the State? Weird.

  5. Iris Says:

    This incident strangely dovetailed with my conversation about the importance of reading “The Chocolate War.”
    Sometimes doing what you feel is right gets you in deep shit with so seemingly good outcome.
    Thank you for your sacrifice, Thomas. 🙂

  6. Iris Says:

    Make that “no” seemingly good outcome.. 😉

  7. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Paul, I finally got around to looking up the charge. Your instincts were right — the charge has to do with being on the ‘Pentagon reservation’: 32 CFR 234.6(b): …(b) Violation of a lawful order. Violating the lawful order of a government employee or agent authorized to maintain order and control public access and movement during fire fighting operations, search and rescue operations, law enforcement actions, and emergency operations that involve a threat to public safety or government resources, or other activities where the control of public movement and activities is necessary to maintain order and public health or safety.”
    Hmm. Necessary.

  8. Gary Says:

    Good thing you did, Thomas!
    I’ll be there on your day in court.

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