Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
July 31, 2006
Cathy Berta is a retired elementary schoolteacher. At 66, she’s also a member of Progressive Action for the Common Good of the Quad Cities.
When she heard that Vice President Cheney was coming to Davenport, Iowa, on July 17, she decided to heed the group’s protest call.
“I knew it was going to be extremely hot that day, but I said I’m going to take a stand,” she recalls. She joined about 120 people along River Road next to the Mississippi, and they marched part way toward the home where Cheney was doing a fundraiser for the Republican House candidate, Mike Whalen.
schoolteacher, who had her flagstick taken away. “Talk about overkill.”
Berta was carrying a sign that said: “No, You Can’t Have My Rights, I’m Still Using Them.”
And she was also holding a little American flag on a stick.
But the police wouldn’t let her, or anyone else, carry the flags.
“I’m going to have to take your stick,” one officer told her, she says.
She describes him as “very courteous, and very embarrassed.”
“I said, ‘I know you’re just doing your job,’ and he just kind of nodded,” she says.
Berta says she went along with the request because she wanted to keep the protest positive. “Had we resisted, there would have been a really ugly picture in the paper,” she says. (For a picture of Berta holding her sign next to the police officer, go to the Quad City Times article.)
“It was absolutely ridiculous,” she says. “Talk about overkill.”
Cathy Bolkcom, one of the founders of Progressive Action for the Common Good, stressed that the event “was not an anti-Cheney demonstration.”
Instead, she says, “it was all about what we need in this country.”
People talked about universal health care, Social Security, raising the minimum wage, and peace, she adds. The protest was co-sponsored by the Quad City Federation of Labor, and there were a lot of union people there, she says.
Except for the heat, she says, the protest was going along just fine.
“It was so fricking hot,” she says. “The heat index was 107 degrees.”
She says the police first were upset about a protester with a large peace flag on a pole, which they made him give up. She says the police had told them before the march not to have signs on poles so she wasn’t surprised by this.
But the taking away of the flagsticks—now that did surprise her. “I never imagined those were a problem,” Bolkcom says. The protesters relinquished them without a fight, in their polite, Midwestern way, she says.
In hindsight, she regrets they surrendered their flags so willingly. “There’s some real free speech issues involved here,” she says. “It’s so un-American.”
Davenport Police Chief Michael Bladel defends his officers. “They thought the Vice President might stop, and because these were fairly long wooden sticks with points on them, they thought they might be a threat to the Vice President,” he says. “This could be considered a weapon.”
Jeff Cook, a photographer from the Quad City Times, was on the scene, and briefly became part of the story.
“This gathering of the flags,” says Cook, “struck me as something unusual.”
So he started to do his job.
“Don’t take any pictures,” one of the officers told him, he recalls. “I asked to clarify. ‘Of Who?’ He said him and his partner.”
Cook went about his business, and the police told him three or four more times to stop.
“I kept taking pictures,” says Cook, “and then this officer walked toward me and said, ‘I told you again not to take any photographs. I’m going to have to ask you to stay behind.’ ” And then he called his supervisor.”
When the supervisor arrived, to the dismay of the officers on the scene, he informed them that Cook had a right to take his pictures.
“I went on my way,” Cook says.
“There was some kind of confusion on the part of the officers about the role the photographer was allowed to conduct himself in,” says Chief Bladel. “It was immediately cleared up by the supervisor.”
After Cathy Berta’s picture appeared in the Quad City Times, she says she got a lot of feedback, including from her son, who just finished up as a JAG at Fort Dix: “He e-mailed me that he was glad the First Amendment was alive and well in Davenport.”