Obama Campaign in South Carolina Causes Row Over Free Speech Zone
One of Barack Obama’s slogans is “Turn the Page,” but his campaign seemed to take a page from George Bush on December 9 in South Carolina.
That Sunday afternoon, Obama and Oprah were about to speak at University of South Carolina stadium.
A crowd of about 30,000 was entering.
And three demonstrators against nuclear power were carrying signs to warn of the risk that nuclear waste might be dumped in South Carolina in an Obama Administration.
“Obama, Please Oppose a Nuclear Dump in S.C.,” one sign read.
“Obama, Don’t Let S.C. Become Yucca Mountain,” said another.
“Barack: Stop Supporting Plans to Dump High Level Nuclear Waste in South Carolina,” said the third.
Two of the protesters, Leslie Minerd and Tom Clements, have been opposing nuclear power for three decades now. Clements even worked for Greenpeace for fifteen years, starting in South Carolina, and Minerd has been a freelance anti-nuclear activist in the state her whole adult life.
Elaine Cooper, who was raised in Chicago, became active in the anti-nuclear movement in South Carolina over the last two years.
All three of them were concerned about Obama’s support for nuclear power and his opposition to reprocessing nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, since South Carolina would likely be the next candidate for it.
So they decided to show up with their signs.
“A couple of people with the Obama campaign said, ‘You can’t take those signs in.’ And we said, ‘Oh, we know, we’re going to stand outside.’ Then the Obama staff told us we had to leave the property,” Minerd says.
“I said, ‘This is public property, and I should be allowed to be here.’ But they repeated their line, and added: ‘If you want to hold your signs, you can go to the Budweiser sign, which is on the Budweiser building three blocks away.’ So I said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a free speech zone set up just like the Bush Administration.’ I couldn’t believe they were acting like Bush.”
Minerd and Clements, who were standing together, decided not to move. Then the cops came.
According to Minerd, the police told them the stadium had been rented by the Obama campaign. “It was private property for the day, and we had to leave,” they said, according to Minerd. She says the police had patches on their sleeves to cover up their names.
“So then we stood on the other side of the bushes over the fence,” she says, “and they told us, ‘The bushes belong to USC also and you have to completely get off the property.’ And we went across the street, and we just stood there on the sidewalk.”
Clements says, “We stayed over there for about an hour and a half, we had no chance to discuss the nuclear issue with anyone. The whole thing was just a huge disappointment in the Obama campaign. They’re presenting themselves as a new approach to politics, but what they did to us shows it’s just business as usual. They treated us as the Bush campaign would have.”
The activists believe they were discriminated against on the basis of the content of their signs, since they say there were people wearing “Clean Coal” T-shirts who were handing out material, and these people weren’t hassled by campaign staff or the police.
Cooper met up with Clements and Minerd when they were on the sidewalk.
“I finally find them, and they’re across the street,” recalls Cooper. “And I ask them what’s going on, and they say, ‘We were asked by the Obama folks to clear off and go to the free speech zone.’ So I said, ‘That’s bullshit. I’m going to go back across.’ Tom said, ‘You’ll probably be arrested.’ But I went across, and a USC cop hustled after me. This guy was larger than me, and was threatening to arrest me.”
But that’s not all, she says.
“Once I was behind the TV trucks, that’s when he took to shoving me with his chest,” says Cooper.
“I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing shoving a lady over 50?’
“I’m being nice to you today. I’m in a good mood, I’m not going to arrest you,” he responded, according to Cooper, who says she was physically assaulted.
The University of South Carolina police department refused to give me a comment and connected me with the campus communications office.
“We weren’t involved with that, and you should contact the Obama campaign,”said someone who identified herself only as the business manager in the office of communications at the University of South Carolina.
The Obama campaign issued the following statement on the incident:
“Senator Barack Obama and his campaign fully respect the right to free speech and the important role it plays in our democracy. For the safety of last Sunday's event we worked to incorporate those with other views who were not interested in attending the rally so that they could express their opinion without infringing on the safety of others. We were able to safely usher over 29,000 people into a highly successful event that was free and open to anyone who wanted to attend. Our campaign is currently looking into this matter and takes very seriously any claims regarding unfair treatment.”
The activists have met with members of the South Carolina Obama campaign about the incident and were told the actions were the result of “overzealous campaign staff.” But Minerd says, “I’m still pissed off. I didn’t expect this from Obama.”
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