JACKSONVILLE, Ore. – Ten years ago a peaceful protest turned into a police riot. Now that confrontation is reaching the highest court in the nation.
“That was the spark that ended up, ten years down the road, challenging qualified immunity for the Secret Service in the Supreme Court,” said lead plaintiff and demonstrator Michael Moss.
In a public meeting led by the ACLU, Moss recounted the night in October, 2004 that led to this case.
It started with a visit from then President George W. Bush. Both pro- and anti-Bush protestors gathered along California Street in Jacksonville during a dinner visit. But the President made a last-minute change, cancelling his previous reservations for a new spot at the Jacksonville Inn.
The change sent police scrambling, leaving the pro side alone but forcing the detractors blocks away. Then a turning point occurred, transforming an upbeat rally into chaos.
“There were 12 riot-clad police officers standing on the skids of this armored personnel carrier,” said Moss. “You could tell that things were about to shift and they were going to shift really fast.”
Just minutes later, the sound of gunshots filled the air and mace-filled pellets flew into the crowd.
“They opened fire,” said Moss. “As soon as I was hit with those rounds, the air filled with pepper spray.”
That use of force was made worse by the events that preceded it.
According to the ACLU, the whole thing could have been avoided had secret service not moved protesters away from their designated place along the motorcade’s route.
“The Secret Service ordered the anti-Bush protesters to be moved two blocks away from the inn, and the left the pro-bush contingent within 20 feet of where the president’s motorcade would pass,” said David Fidanque, Executive Director of ACLU of Oregon.
Those actions, Fidanque says, didn’t just cause a conflict — they violated free speech.
Now this case could set the precedent for Secret Service immunity – how far they can go, and who they can favor in the interest of security.
“We’re going to find out whether the government can be held accountable,” said Fidanque.
But this hearing, scheduled for March 26th in Washington DC, will only look at whether or not protesters have a right to state their case. Determining whether or not free speech was actually violated will be another matter.
But despite the long fight ahead, protesters say they have no plans of giving up.
“It’s always worth standing up for what you believe in,” said Moss. “You don’t know what little things, like a protest in little Jacksonville, are going to end up going all the way to Washington DC and potentially having a really positive impact.”