Keeping the Peace

Peace protesters at Bush's ranch get their first day in court

Amid protest signs and peace songs and the animated anti-war crowd that had gathered Saturday in Crawford stood Robyn Curtz, a teenager who was worried about her mother. In less than an hour, Trish Major, Dallas mother and former church secretary, would be standing trial with four other defendants for violating Crawford's parade ordinance. The city of Crawford alleges that on May 3, the same day President Bush was visiting his nearby ranch, Major and about 100 other protesters participated in a peace demonstration without first obtaining a permit from the town.

Following her mother's arrest, Curtz grew upset that her mother was forced to spend the night in the McLellan County jail. On this morning, as peace activists prepared to stage their pretrial protest (this time, with a permit), Curtz was afraid her mother might be lost in the spectacle. "I'm glad to see all these people here supporting my mother," she said. "But I don't want this to turn into some big exhibition. It's just going to make things more tense."

Some protesters, however, seemed gleeful at the prospect of utilizing the theatricality of the trial. ("Thank you for getting arrested," shouted one man to a defendant from Austin.) Others were more circumspect but equally supportive of advancing their agenda. "What we are doing is bearing witness to power, supporting the First Amendment and supporting friends," said longtime Dallas activist Roger Kallenberg. "And we are doing it by imposing ourselves on George Bush's stage, which is a good thing."

Robyn Curtz, the daughter of a defendant on trial for violating the Crawford parade ordinance, was worried that a pretrial protest might overshadow her mother's dilemma.
Mark Donald
Robyn Curtz, the daughter of a defendant on trial for violating the Crawford parade ordinance, was worried that a pretrial protest might overshadow her mother's dilemma.

Although the offense is a Class C misdemeanor and carries a maximum fine of only $500, there is more at stake for both sides. The trial pits the free-speech rights of protesters to meaningfully demonstrate against the president in his own back yard against the right of this rural community to regulate the public safety of its 705 residents. Under the ordinance, protesters are required to obtain a parade permit 15 days before a planned demonstration.

This 15-day requirement is much of what Austin civil rights attorney Jim Harrington finds constitutionally offensive. "You never know 15 days ahead when Bush is going to be at his ranch or not," says Harrington, who represents the five defendants. "The government can impose reasonable restrictions as to the time and place of a protest, but under this ordinance, the chief of police has the unfettered discretion to grant or deny the permit." Harrington also calls the ordinance discriminatory. "It totally exempts military and school parades from getting permits," he says. "Demonstrations that would be pro-Bush."

Waco attorney David Deaconson, who was hired by the town solely to prosecute the case, believes the 15-day requirement is both constitutional and necessary. "This is a small rural town that does not have enough manpower to accommodate the requests of protesters and keep everyone safe. In a community this size, you can't do that overnight."

Because the city judge had previously ruled that the ordinance was constitutional, these arguments are relevant only if the case is appealed, which seems almost a certainty to attorney Harrington. "We just want to educate the town of Crawford about the First Amendment," Harrington says. "We have no hopes of acquittal."

A jury, however, was now being asked to decide the remaining issue in the case: Did the Crawford Five actually violate the ordinance? Seating a jury in a small town where the police are neighbors and outsiders are viewed as, well, outsiders was no small task. And peace activists in Crawford have an uneasy relationship with this conservative community, which only passed its parade ordinance shortly after Bush became president.

When it came to the trial, however, the town had been accommodating: Police Chief Donnie Tidmore permitted the day-of-trial protest; the judge blocked off an entire Saturday for the trial and moved it from the cramped municipal court building to the more hospitable Crawford Community Center. Then again, many of the 60 men and women who sat on the jury panel seem downright hostile to the defense attorney. During jury selection, Harrington asked at least a dozen prospective jurors if their obvious dislike of him would prejudice the case against his clients.

For a case that should have turned on a question of constitutional law, the facts were in considerable dispute. The defense contends that the protesters had no intention of demonstrating within the Crawford city limits but meant to stage their protest closer to Bush's ranch, which was seven miles away. If not for a police roadblock that prevented activists from leaving town, no parade ordinance would have been violated. The prosecution suggests that at least some of the protesters not only knew they were violating the ordinance but were purposefully trying to get arrested. When they came upon the roadblock, they immediately piled out of their cars, removing their placards and props as though preparing for a demonstration.

The truth may lie somewhere in between. On May 3, after a peace rally in Austin, organizers decided to take their concerns to the Crawford ranch, where President Bush was hosting Australian Prime Minister John Howard. While waiting for a contingent of Austin activists to arrive, a busload of Dallas protesters stopped at the Crawford Peace House, a center for activists, and wandered around town. For an organized protest, this one seemed fairly disorganized because no one from Dallas appeared to know just where or when it might commence. Among them were Trish Major and her daughter, who spied a police blockade that had been set up on Prairie Chapel Road, the street that leads to Bush's ranch. When they walked to the roadblock they were ordered to stand by the side of the road. There would be no rally that day.

After Major and her daughter obeyed the police, moving to the roadside, the Austin group arrived in a caravan of cars, driving up to the roadblock and immediately unloading protest signs and mock coffins. Organizer Lisa Fithian would testify that no one had any intention of getting arrested; their only purpose, even in using the protest paraphernalia, was negotiating with the officers to allow them to pass through town. "We want to send a message to the president," she told the several dozen officers who formed the blockade.

Chief Tidmore, however, would hear none of it. Speaking through a bullhorn, he gave the protesters three minutes to get back in their vehicles and disperse. Most of the crowd headed toward their cars. Regrettably, Major had no car. As she and her daughter walked toward the Peace House, a reporter began to interview her about the events of the day. Two officers then arrested Major and placed her in a van. Three other individuals from Austin who called themselves "legal observers" attempted to get identifying information from the police about Major, and each, in turn, was arrested. Michael Machicek, a longhaired, full-bearded Dallas poet, came late to the scene, carrying pamphlets, according to police, that promoted the legalization of marijuana. He was the last defendant arrested.

Local teenagers waving American and Confederate flags gathered in neighboring yards and were cheering the police and yelling at protesters. At least at first, no one told them to disperse, and "nothing happened to them," argues Harrington, who contends the police were engaged in selective enforcement by allowing what he calls the "counter pro-Bush demonstration" to proceed without a permit. Prosecutor Deaconson contends, however, that even if the chief hadn't ordered the protesters to disperse, they would still be violating the ordinance by parading without a permit. "These [constitutional] issues will be left for another day and smarter people than me," Deaconson says.

That, of course, assumes a guilty verdict and an appeal--neither of which has yet occurred. The trial did not move as quickly as anticipated. Only three prosecution witnesses have testified, and the case has been rescheduled for February 16--ironically enough, on Presidents Day.

Additional reporting from Crawford by Nathan Diebenow

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