Protest turned ugly during president's visit to Jacksonville

Eds. Note: This story, which details local protestors clashing with police during President's Bush appearance in Jacksonville on Oct. 14, 2004, ran on Dec. 11, 2004 in the Tidings. We reprint this edited version today to compare details from the White House's "sensitive" manual for advance personnel to the actual events during the protest in Jacksonville. ()


When Secret Service helicopters began hovering above the streets of Jacksonville during President George Bush's visit to the Rogue Valley on Oct. 14, Heidi Parker knew the candlelight vigil protesters had designed would not go as planned.

She was not the only one.

"This little girl looked up at me and said 'I'm really getting afraid,'" recalled Parker, an Ashland School Board member. "I said 'I am too.' Clearly the tension was building. I didn't like the feelings it evoked in me."

The premonitions Parker and the young girl experienced were right on.

Approximately 100 officers from multiple law enforcement agencies worked together to control an estimated 250 demonstrators &

mostly anti-Bush &

on the streets of downtown Jacksonville. Two arrests were made, a less-than-lethal weapon was fired into the crowd and, by some accounts, the size of the police force rivaled the crowd.

"You have to be ready to handle the situation if it erupts, and these things deteriorate in a hurry," Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said. "People, they try to paint it like we were intentionally out there, trying to infringe on their First Amendment rights. There's a balance."

Still, no clear decree has come down regarding the level of police force exacted on the crowd or whether demonstrators' rights were violated.

One plan

In the days leading up to Bush's campaign visit to the Jackson County Fairgrounds and stay in Jacksonville, local activists Grady Boyd and Shelley Elkovich spoke with local law enforcement officials to outline a peaceful protest in Jacksonville that October night. Organizers talked to Jacksonville Police Chief David Tao three times and had one conversation with Winters. Winters stressed that protesters would need to remain on the sidewalks and could be arrested for loitering in the streets.

"I had a conversation with a lady from Peace House," Winters said, referring to Boyd. "I said we won't tolerate the streets being closed down. That was all agreed upon over the phone."

The discussions led organizers to believe everything was under control.

"They knew every single thing we were going to do," Elkovich said. "It was not a really rowdy confrontation."

The protesters had planned a candlelight vigil and came equipped with candles and glow sticks. A diverse crowd, including families with small children and elderly people, descended on Jacksonville for the peaceful assembly, which started around 5:30 p.m. with sign-making. The group gathered in a park area to sing folk songs before walking together along the sidewalks in downtown Jacksonville.

"It was very peaceful and cordial, from my perspective," Parker said, remembering Jacksonville police officers smiling at the crowd and talking informally with people. "It was all very low-key, in my opinion, and not antagonistic. There was no animosity between the police and demonstrators."

Change of plans

When President Bush made a last-minute switch in his dinner plans as the presidential motorcade drove through Medford, the tone on the streets in Jacksonville also shifted.

Originally, Bush and his staffers had planned he eat dinner in the cabin where he was staying with his wife, Laura. Following the rally in Central Point, Bush decided to dine at the Jacksonville Inn, right in the area of town where protesters had converged.

"It was one quick shot out to Jacksonville," Winters said. " the time the decision was communicated through channels, they were about three minutes out."

The combined law enforcement brigade from the Secret Service, the Oregon State Police, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department and the Jacksonville Police Department, as well as extra forces brought in from the Linn-Benton County Sheriff's Department for the day, resulted in a convoluted hierarchy. Winters remained at the fairgrounds in Central Point while the Secret Service lead operations in Jacksonville.

"It was a little more difficult to communicate," Winters said, explaining that the Secret Service also jams radio connections around the president, so officers had a hard time using cell phones and radios.

this time, Parker and others had chosen to leave Jacksonville because they felt the atmosphere had changed after the motorcade rolled through town. Helicopters began flying overhead with spotlights shining down on the crowd, roadblocks were being constructed on side streets and more Mobile Response Team officers &

dressed in protective gear &

had appeared in the crowd.

"Clearly the tension was building and more and more riot police were coming," Parker said. "I started feeling really claustrophobic."

The Secret Service initially requested a 1-block radius around the president, a normal expectation, according to Winters.

"They eventually said they wanted people back a block and then they changed their minds," Boyd said. The zone around Bush jumped from one to three blocks when police had difficulties moving protesters back.

"People were questioning why they had to back up and locking arms," Winters said, recalling scenes he'd watched on a Sheriff's Department video shot that night. "A lot of people did adhere [to requests], they really did. But it was apparent to me on the tape that that group didn't want to comply."

A joint statement released by the law enforcement divisions present in Jacksonville on Oct. 14 reported approximately five men were locking arms and ignoring police requests to move back.

"The vast majority of individuals complied and cooperated with law enforcement requests," the statement read. "However, after several requests had been made by law enforcement officials to disperse, a very small group of male protesters had to be pushed back by State Police MRT members. This small group became aggressive with officers and pepper balls were used to gain compliance."

Among the group, two were hit with pepper balls and two were arrested &

one for disorderly conduct, the other for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

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