Americans are losing the fight for freedom
(Published August 9, 2004)
By KATHRYN SINZINGER
I had tears in my eyes when I returned to The Common Denominator's newsroom just before 5 on Friday afternoon, Aug. 6. I had expected to find reporters Bobby Arkell and Michael Hoffman finishing their stories for the Aug. 9 issue, but only Bobby was there. "Has Michael gotten back yet?" I asked. "No" was the reply. "Has he called?" Again, "No." Bobby looked up and could instantly tell that something was wrong. "I was just detained for 15 minutes by the Capitol Hill cops – for taking pictures," I told him. He expressed shock. I asked him to, please, get me some water and give me a minute to collect myself before answering his questions. I opened MS Word on my computer and began to write a chronology of the previous two hours.
Where was Michael? He should have been back from his assignment by now, I thought. I had asked him to cover a 2 p.m. graduation ceremony for about two dozen new Metropolitan Police officers, to take a few photos with a disposable 35mm camera that I handed him and to use the rest of his film by shooting pictures of security roadblocks before coming back to the newsroom. Maybe the ceremony lasted longer than I had anticipated, maybe he had stopped off to eat, maybe – I really didn't even want to think about the possibility on a deadline day that was getting more stressful as the day wore on – but maybe he had been detained, too. "I hope Michael hasn't been arrested," I sarcastically told Bobby.
I swigged down some bottled water. "I feel like our freedom is gone," I said, quietly. I felt the tears returning. I went back to writing my chronology, between brief phone calls and e-mails to apprise some of my colleagues in the newspaper industry about what had just happened to me and to promise details later. I got an almost immediate response – a few words of sympathy and support – from the editor and publisher of one Maryland daily. At that moment, I really needed that.
It was a beautiful, unseasonably cool August day – one of Washington's few absolutely perfect days to take a walk, I thought. It had been so long since I had walked around Capitol Hill, where I first took up residence when I came to Washington 23 years ago. My banking errand on H Street NE would take me almost there. I still needed photos of new roadblocks for Monday's paper. I grabbed my camera and an extra roll of film before heading out of the office.
Traffic was backed up and crawling on Fourth Street NE as I approached Stanton Square. I glanced at my watch. About 3:15. No time for traffic jams on deadline day. I hung a right and found a residential parking spot on Maryland Avenue. No problem. A walk around the Hill wouldn't take two hours.
With no planned route in mind, I walked toward Second Street, where I encountered the first new roadblocks. My camera – a point-and-shoot 35mm with zoom lens – stayed in my purse as I mentally noted that traffic was moving almost unimpeded, with vehicles receiving nothing more than a cursory glance from officers manning the checkpoints. So much for heightened security, I thought. I headed toward the House side of the Hill, realizing as I walked behind the U.S. Supreme Court building that private homes were caught behind the barricades. How, I thought, could an ambulance or firetruck quickly get to them? I moved on, deciding to walk toward the U.S. Capitol on East Capitol Street, pulling out my camera to document the long-present construction barriers that continue to stand between the people and what sometimes is called "The People's House."
The flowers were beautiful, as usual, at the Library of Congress, but heat radiating off the concrete was beginning to feel intense. Unlike earlier times, I could no longer take refuge under a shade tree on the Capitol grounds on the other side of First Street. The view was now a wall. Several steps away, near Independence Avenue, a woman lay on the sidewalk, conscious but obviously in some sort of distress, surrounded by concerned-looking persons. By the time I crossed First Street, heading toward the Rayburn House Office Building, a D.C. firetruck and ambulance were simultaneously pulling up to assist her.
I suddenly noticed the street signs – "Independence First," they seemed to say. I found a camera angle. How ironic, I thought, that streets called "Independence" and "Constitution" are now the site of police checkpoints that impede the free movement of vehicles. I found another camera angle at Independence and First SW, this time with "Do Not Enter" and "Stop" signs as part of the scenery adjacent to Rayburn. I remembered driving unimpeded along that short street when I first moved to Washington, just as I – like so many other long-ago Hill residents – can still recall the shortcut that New Jersey Avenue on the east front of the Capitol used to provide for a quick trip to the post office. I still remember my older brother's horrified tone when he described his reaction to seeing, on a visit to Washington nearly a generation ago, a guard booth erected to block free vehicular access to the Capitol grounds. He said it looked like "something out of Nazi Germany."
Nearby, two marked U.S. Capitol Police cars had hopped the curb and were parked across the grass by the U.S. Botanic Garden. I snapped a few pictures. On Independence, eastbound traffic was backed up, with police officers directing motorists into checkpoint lanes. Metrobuses and tour buses were being boarded. The luggage compartment of one tour bus was opened and inspected. Most other motorists appeared to move on after officers took only a cursory glance inside their vehicles. I shot a few photos, crossed Independence, shot a few more.
Time to start heading back, I thought. As I walked along the West Front of the Capitol, I realized how few tourists I could see – not like the old days, when a beautiful summer day would mean the streets and grounds around the Capitol were clogged with people. As I approached Constitution Avenue – noticing, again, the street signs that here seemed to say "Constitution First" adjacent to a throng of police vehicles and uniformed officers stopping cars – I suddenly, sadly, wondered if American citizens, like me, would still be able a few months from now to take a leisurely walk around the Capitol. So much had changed in the 16 years since I had relocated to put down roots in a D.C. neighborhood about five miles north of the Hill.
The sun's angle was bad for taking photographs along Constitution Avenue, but I tried anyway. Finding an appropriate shooting location meant attempting several vantage points. In retrospect, after my detention by police, my movements might have seemed strange – but were not dissimilar to what I would imagine any tourist who is an amateur photo buff would have done to try to ensure good photos. I headed for the park at the foot of North Capitol Street to continue my journey back to my car. While waiting for a walk light, I overheard a checkpoint police officer asking drivers of two vans – one of them a church van – where they were going. I wondered why the answer to that question mattered.
When I reached First Street NE, which had been closed to through traffic days earlier over the objection of local officials, I pulled out my camera again. First, I photographed the barrier at First and Constitution, then began walking toward Union Station to take wider-angle photographs to show the street's closure. Near First and C Street, I looked over my shoulder to see that a police checkpoint and barricade impeded traffic behind me. I stepped into the partially blocked street to snap a few photos. The two U.S. Capitol Police officers standing at the barricade seemed to be alarmed. "You can't take pictures," one of them said as he approached me. I took a couple of steps toward him, introduced myself and assertively told the officer that "I think I have a constitutional right to take pictures of public streets that are blocked." "But you can't take pictures from the middle of the street," the officer rebutted. I asked him, in an even-mannered tone, if he wanted to cite me for having done so. In response, he expressed his concern that "a grandmother" might drive through the barricade and strike me. I thanked the officer for looking out for my safety, noted that – being almost 49 years old and able to watch my own back in traffic – I had checked for oncoming traffic before snapping photos, but again thanked him for his concern for my safety. I moved on.
I crossed D Street and turned around, this time staying at the curb, to shoot a couple of quick photographs to show that the First Street barricades began at the southern end of this intersection. I turned to wait for the "Walk" light. I needed to get back to my newsroom. I was tired and thirsty and knew I had a long night of work ahead to get Monday's paper ready for our printer. When the sign said "Walk," I began crossing the street but turned – halfway across the street – to see that the person hailing "Miss!" was a U.S. Capitol Police officer addressing me. I finished crossing the street, then turned to wait for the officer to reach me. I looked at my watch. It was 4:20 p.m. I offered a handshake, identified myself by name and as "editor and publisher of The Common Denominator" and asked "How can I help you, officer?" He told me that I couldn't take pictures of the "security perimeter," asked if he could see my pictures – at first, assuming that I held a digital camera – and asked if I had identification. I readily produced my D.C. driver's license and my press card and handed them to him. He told me to "wait here," then began speaking with someone on a radio. I asked him if I was under arrest or being detained and requested my ID cards back. I told him that it was my deadline day, I was parked in a residential parking zone, and I needed to get back to my office. He again told me to "wait here" and crossed D Street toward his original position near the barricade, retaining my ID cards.
I became alarmed. At this point, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the one telephone number I could recall that might offer some assistance to get me on my way quickly. I called the Metropolitan Police Department's Public Information Office in my distress to speak with the officers there about my situation. They said they could offer no assistance. The officer who had told me to "wait here" returned to my side. I again asked that he return my ID cards. He said we had to wait for a "task force" person to arrive. I began to assertively protest that I should not be detained for taking photographs of something in public that has already been all over television and in the newspapers. The officer said he had never heard of The Common Denominator. I proceeded to tell him about the newspaper, which has been published since June 1998, and where he could obtain a copy. He noted that I lacked Capitol Hill press credentials. I told him that we don't regularly cover federal activities on Capitol Hill – the only reason that reporters obtain Capitol Hill press credentials. I suggested that the officer could call his chief, Terrance Gainer, to verify my identity because the chief knows who I am. (After returning to my newsroom, I would learn that Gainer was out of town – in the midst of what he has claimed to be a crisis that requires the heightened security in which I was mired.)
While we continued to wait for a task force person to arrive, I asked the officer if other residents and tourists who take pictures were being treated the same way that I was. He told me yes. I immediately asked: "Are you under orders to do so?" His reply: "Yes." At that point, I told him that I understood that he was only doing his job. However, I again protested my detention and suggested that he call his chief to check me out. As I continued to protest my detention, the officer told me that I was not being detained, that I was "free to go." "Does that mean I can have my driver's license back?" I asked. "No," he replied. "Then I guess I'm being detained, because I can't drive my car back to my office if you have my driver's license," I told the officer. He did not respond.
A U.S. Capitol Police car pulled up at the corner. An officer got out of the car, introduced himself, but I didn't catch his name. He was the task force person we had been waiting for. He used the word "reasonable" to describe what was happening to me. I again stated my objections to this officer. He retrieved and returned my driver's license and press card, told me that I "checked out" and that I was free to go. I asked for his business card and for a card from the officer who had detained me. The task force officer handed me a card (I later discovered it lacked his name), and I immediately flipped it over and wrote down the name of the other officer, who did not have a card to give me. I told them both that I knew that they were just doing their jobs, but that I objected to what they were doing. I walked away, heading back to my car, and looked at my watch. It was 4:35 p.m.
I was completing my chronicle of events when Michael Hoffman returned to the office at about 6:05 p.m. and stopped at the receptionist's desk. I glanced out of the newsroom and headed for the coffee station, near where Michael was standing. He was visibly shaken. I asked if he got some good pictures and he responded that he did. I asked for his camera. "They took it," he replied. He pulled out a form that he was asked to sign when they took the camera and the story of his detention started spilling out.
Suddenly, my own detention – which I consider a serious matter – paled as my reporter told me how he was treated "like they thought I was a terrorist." U.S. Capitol Police officers asked him to empty his pockets, took his reporter's notebook from him for about 30 minutes, took away his camera, interrogated him about his reporting assignment at length and asked if he had "engaged in these types of activities in the past" – all after he told them that he was on a news assignment for The Common Denominator. They apparently didn't believe him and never bothered to check that what he said he was doing was true. Instead, they found it more expedient to continue to detain my reporter, rather than making a simple local telephone call. In addition, Michael's byline could be found in the issue of The Common Denominator that was readily available at several locations on Capitol Hill, and his status as a "staff writer" appears in the newspaper's online staff directory. (Later in the evening, Capitol police officers would ridiculously defend their failure to call the newspaper to verify Michael's assertion that he was on a news assignment by telling me: "He said it was his last day.")
During his interrogation, the young reporter was given a form, labeled "Authority to Seize," stating that he had been informed of his "Constitutional Right NOT to consent to a seizure" of his camera. The form went on to state: "I am giving this written permission to the above named persons voluntarily and without threats or promises of any kind." Admittedly frightened, Michael signed the form, although the camera was the property of The Common Denominator.
I was angry and became even angrier as I heard more details from my reporter. Any possible consideration of a "reasonable" explanation for our treatment at the hands of the Capitol police evaporated, along with my tears for our loss of freedom. What happened to us – and similar treatment that may be happening to others, both U.S. citizens and foreign tourists – is wrong.
My mother likes to quote a maxim often repeated during the World War II era: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." But those words, once interpreted by Americans of my mom's generation to mean an average citizen's vigilance to maintain civil liberties, are now being twisted by our government. At least U.S. Capitol Police officials appear to believe that the government must direct its vigilance against citizens to maintain something that I – and many other Americans of my generation, the "baby boomers," and older – no longer recognize as "freedom."
Despite official assertions, the front line in the defense of our freedom is not in Iraq or some other foreign land. It's right here at home, in our nation's capital – and American citizens, most assuredly, are losing the battle.
Kathryn Sinzinger is editor and publisher of The Common Denominator. Contact her at email@example.com.
Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator