A Flashback to the 60's for an Antiwar Protester
The federal prosecution of an antiwar protester from South
Carolina is being seen by some as part of a growing pattern
of repression of civil dissent.
COLUMBIA, S.C., April 23 — At the time, Brett A. Bursey says, he seemed to be having a 60's flashback.
There he was at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport with his antiwar sign. There were the thousands of Republicans gathering to welcome a president. There were the police officers arresting him for trespassing.
The first time this happened was in May 1969, before a visit by Richard M. Nixon. The charges against Mr. Bursey were dropped after the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that if protesters were on public property — as the antiwar demonstrators were — they could not be charged with trespassing.
Last Oct. 24, 33 years later and about 100 yards away, the now graying Mr. Bursey was again arrested for trespassing, this time before a visit by President Bush. The charge was soon dropped.
But last month, the local United States attorney, J. Strom Thurmond Jr., brought federal charges against Mr. Bursey under a seldom-used statute that allows the Secret Service to restrict access to areas the president is visiting. He faces six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
This being South Carolina, Mr. Bursey's story includes lots of colorful history, old grudges and improbable plot twists, not to mention the Confederate battle flag.
But to some legal experts it is also part of a growing pattern of repression against protesters, demonstrators and dissenters. The American Civil Liberties Union says it has found many examples, like increased arrests and interrogations of protesters and the shunning of celebrities who have opposed the war in Iraq.
"When you connect the dots, you see very clearly a climate of chilled dissent and debate," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the civil liberties group.
In particular, Mr. Romero said, there is a growing practice of corralling protesters in "free-speech zones," which are often so far from the object of the protest as to be invisible. "It's an effort to mitigate the effectiveness of free speech," he said.
And he does not buy the argument that such zones are necessary to protect the president and other officials. "John Hinckley wasn't carrying an anti-Reagan sign when he shot him," Mr. Romero said.
It was just such a "protest zone" that got Mr. Bursey in trouble last fall. A spokeswoman for the airport said officials there had established a protest area on the verge of a highway, a good half mile from the hangar where the president would be speaking. (Airport police are not sure if anyone actually protested at the official zone, she said.)
Mr. Bursey hoped he and some friends could protest somewhere closer, maybe across the road from the hangar, he said. The police in Charleston and Greenville had been accommodating, he said, when he had asked to avoid the protest zones, which he described as being "out there behind the coliseum by the Dumpsters."
It did not work this time.
"We attempted to dialogue for a while, them telling me to go to the free-speech zone, me saying I was in it: the United States of America," Mr. Bursey said. Finally, he said, an airport policeman told him he had to put down his sign ("No War for Oil") or leave.
" `You mean, it's the content of my sign?' I asked him," Mr. Bursey said. "He said, `Yes, sir, it's the content of your sign.' "
Mr. Bursey kept the sign and was arrested; he said he watched Air Force One land from the back of a patrol wagon and spent the night in the county jail.
A Secret Service agent was present at the arrest, Mr. Bursey said, but he added that no one could have seen him and his companions as a security threat. "There was no one under 50 in that crowd," said Mr. Bursey, who is 54. "In my mind, at that time, we didn't pose a security threat; we posed a political threat."
A spokesman for the United States attorney's office, Scott N. Schools, said the message on the sign was not the problem. "It's not the fact of what Mr. Bursey was doing," Mr. Schools said. "The problem was where he was doing it. That's the basis of the prosecution."
Mr. Schools did allow that federal prosecutions of protesters at presidential events had been rare.
Since 1992, only a dozen cases involving this part of the United States Code, Section 1752 of Title 18, have been referred to federal prosecutors by the Secret Service and other government agencies, according to TRACfed, a database of federal enforcement information at Syracuse University.
Most of those referrals were dropped; three resulted in trials or pleas (the best known was the prosecution of a mentally ill and heavily armed man who tried to hand-deliver a letter to President Bush at his Texas ranch).
Mr. Schools said he could not comment on why the government was taking the unusual step against Mr. Bursey, but he said it would become clear at the trial, which is likely to be in the next month or two.
"Nobody's seen a case like this before," said Bill Nettles, a former public defender who is on Mr. Bursey's legal team. "I have to wonder if some of it's not Brett."
By this he means Brett Bursey the local character, professional protester and liberal voice in a conservative state (he's a vegetarian in the land of pork barbecue).
Since 1968, "I've been a political organizer," Mr. Bursey said. "That's been my job, that's been my mission. I've at least been diligent at it."
The son of a Navy dentist, Mr. Bursey has a life story compelling enough to be a novel. And at least some of it appears to be; anyone who has read Pat Conroy's 1995 best seller "Beach Music" will remember the student radicals who tried to destroy a draft board office, only to discover at trial that one of their leaders (and friends) was a government agent.
That happened to Mr. Bursey, and he ended up spending almost two years in the penitentiary for malicious destruction of property — as he puts it, for spraying "Hell No We Won't Go" on walls. But not before he spent some time hiding in New York City (he says his family feared he would be killed in prison). Then he was arrested in Texas for buying 500 pounds of peyote buttons, but beat that charge on a technicality, he said.
Indeed, he has been arrested so often that although he thinks the first time was when he burned a Confederate battle flag, he is not sure. "Lordy, it was such a busy time," he said. "My chronology has been kind of messed up."
Unlike most of his peers, Mr. Bursey never got a nine-to-five job; instead he founded "progressive" organizations and started an alternative weekly newspaper. And he protested against things: nuclear power, nuclear warheads, government corruption and, of course, the aforementioned Confederate battle flag, which until two years ago flew on the dome of the Statehouse here.
Columbia, however, is not exactly a protest-friendly town, especially these days.
Yellow ribbons are everywhere, from the airport to the Statehouse to Angeline's Beauty and Wig Salon on Assembly Street. Instead of advertising sandwich specials, the sign outside a Wendy's reads "Support Our Troops." And plenty of people remember Mr. Bursey's youthful transgressions, including the county sheriff, who arrested him at the airport in 1969.
"I've told Brett that in this climate, in this state, there is a real possibility that he gets convicted," said Mr. Nettles, the lawyer.
In the current case, he plans to argue that the federal statute is unconstitutional as it applies to Mr. Bursey, who he said was not the only person in the area the Secret Service says was restricted; the others, he says, were mostly Bush supporters. And Mr. Nettles said he was surprised that the federal prosecutors had not tried to drop or settle the case, which is attracting attention to his client and his views.
"If they really wanted to torture Brett," he said, "if what they really wanted was to take his voice — they'd dismiss it."
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