From the Activism Issue (Nov 2000):
Freedom of Speech Suspended on College Walk
Gore Protestors Restricted to 'Free Speech Zones'
On Thursday, October 19, the right of free speech was suspended on College Walk. Snipers stood atop buildings. In place of students trying to get to class, there were dozens of police officers and secret service agents milling about, preventing freedom of movement across campus. No, George Rupp had not declare himself dictator of Harlem, I mean Morningside Heights. The police presence and suspension of our constitutional rights was, in fact, quite routine. It was simply that Vice President and Presidential candidate Al Gore was coming to campus to announce his fiscal policy.
A group of about twenty students, myself included, gathered at the Sundial to protest Gore's stance on the death penalty and to support Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. The Secret Service, however, determined that we posed a risk to Gore's safety. The VP's motorcade was going to pull up on College Walk and he would have to walk exposed for 300 feet up the Low Library steps. Obviously, we could be harboring an assassin, hiding grenades in our backpacks or packing .45s in our cargo pants.
The protesters were given the option by Columbia Security of moving to the "free speech zone" on Furnald Lawn, which would be conveniently out of Al Gore's sight. We refused, citing our right to freedom of speech. A Secret Service agent approached and informed us that we would be arrested if we did not voluntarily move ourselves. Again we refused, and started to chant "Whose democracy? Our democracy!" as various university and police officials shouted threats. Finally, the head of the Secret Service detail asked us who our "ringleader" was. "We are all ringleaders, sir," we answered in unison.
Eventually, when a dozen NYPD officers approached us, we offered to move off the Sundial and onto the grassy area behind it, where we would still be seen by Gore. We figured that while many of us were willing to get arrested, the logistics of getting bailed out of jail would be overwhelming. Our move placated the officers, and they left us alone. When Al Gore finally arrived, he waved at us and smiled as we chanted, "Gore says death row, we say hell no!"
What amazed me the most about that day was the sight of my fellow students standing their ground against armed law enforcement agents. Kids who were normally shy became emboldened to defend their rights against armed men. Some sat down and refused to move, others stood up and made speeches about how the University, after the 1968 riots, agreed to never let police handle students on campus again.
While these events were exciting to those who experienced them, they should not be considered unusual. The police violate the rights of protesters on a regular basis, and they followed standard procedure at Columbia. During the Republican Convention this past summer in Philadelphia, activists were charged with felonies for possesing chicken wire in a warehouse. They were using it to make puppets, but the police construed it to be bomb making material! It is simple - if what you say or who you are is a perceived threat to those in power, watch out.
What kind of democracy do we ultimately want? Is it one where one privileged individual can legally impinge on the rights of the many? Where a leader is afraid of his own people? I challenge Columbia students to think outside what we are taught to regard as "normal" and envision a society where our most sacred rights cannot be taken away by a group of men in black suits and earpieces.