Those chilling images - reminiscent of the historic Civil Rights confrontations - shot across the state and the country as heavily armed SWAT teams reinforced the Capitol Police trying to deal with hundreds of protesters who had left their permitted protest site and occupied the south steps of the historic Capitol building.
It couldn’t have looked worse: Right there on the steps of one of the oldest legislatures in the United States, a heavy masonry monument to freedom became a monolith to state oppression of women, at least according to those who have been sickened by recent abortion-related legislation, including a bill mandating an ultrasound before a woman can get an abortion.
State Senator Janet Howell (D- District 32), a fierce opponent of that bill, took up the matter of the arrests on the floor of the Senate Monday: “Our state Capitol is becoming an armed garrison,” she said, “peaceful demonstrators are being intimidated and arrested.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell was accused of pushing for the arrests, which he and his spokespeople denied, saying security is the job of the Capitol Police. McDonnell said he was “incredulous” when he heard about Monday’s session.
“Taking to the floor to tear down our incredibly brave and talented law enforcement officers, it really has crossed the line,” the governor said.
But that’s politics. And as political theater, the protests and arrests were extremely effective.
But accurate? Is it fair to call it a “peaceful protest” when the crowd surged past its designated protest spot, ignoring officers repeated requests to move back?
“Walking is not a crime!” they shouted as they moved, en masse, towards the Capitol steps at little after 2 p.m.
That’s when one of the Capitol Police officers told his fellow officers he was going “to activate the troopers.”
(You can see this video at the Richmonder Blog http://www.the-richmonder.com/, titled “Bob McDonnell’s Virginia.”)
Some of those occupying the south Capitol steps were members of the Occupy Richmond movement. More than 100 people were sitting there at one point, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!”
Capitol police supervisors repeatedly warned the protesters that it was illegal to protest there, and it has been since 1972. The rules for assembly at the Capitol were read to them, although the chanting drowned out some of the officers’ words.
This went on more than a half-hour. At about 2:45 p.m., the state police SWAT officers massed in force to back up the Capitol Police.
“Who are your protecting? Who are you serving?” the crowd chanted.
The crowd on the steps thinned to about 30. After final warnings from police, the arrests began.
The Monday before there had been a preview. A silent women’s rights protest in an unusual spot – right behind the governor’s mansion - drew out SWAT officers who lurked in the bushes, prompting accusations of intimidation and overkill and explanations from the state police and the governor that the unusual location of the protest elicited a typical response.
In the past year, there have been more than 30 protests or political gatherings at the Capitol. All but Saturday’s and the one the Monday before have stayed at the usual Bell Tower location, which is why those groups didn’t see the same SWAT presence, according to Capitol Police.
Capitol Police Colonel Steve Pike said, “When we get to the point, after repeated attempts to ask these people nicely to leave the steps, when I realize that those folks are defiant – I even had some of the organizers come to me and told me they want to be arrested - that really leaves us no choice.”
Pike said Capitol and Virginia State Police have the responsibility to protect the safety of the public, including the protesters. He cited concerns about violence that has erupted during similar abortion-rights and pro-life rallies across the country.
No doubt, if the police were more worried about political fallout, they would’ve let the protestors sit there until the General Assembly reconvened on Monday morning.
After all, the city let the Occupy Richmond crew break the law for two weeks before cracking on them.
On Saturday, the Capitol and state police gave the protestors exactly what they wanted.
“This is what a police state looks like,” said one of the protestors as she looked at the assault rifle-toting officers in military-like uniforms massing on the steps.
Vivek Jain, a physician and protestor who has been active in the Occupy Richmond movement, said the heavy police action just underscored the heavy-handedness of Virginia Republicans. “They’re here to intimidate us, and they think that they can run this kind of misogynistic legislation and cram it down our throats.”
So, as a piece of protest theater, it worked beautifully. Gov. Bob McDonnell and his fellow Republicans came off looking like goons, especially to those who thought that anyway.
There’s no question that the gloves have come off with some of the recent legislation that has come through the General Assembly. Bob McDonnell will likely take more political poundings if he signs the ultrasound bill.