Baltimore County antiwar protesters protest treatment

They say police held them for 14 hours without food

March 21, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

After being arrested more than 50 times in peace demonstrations, Max Obuszewski doesn't expect that being in jail will be pleasant.

But he and three others arrested March 1 in an antiwar protest at Towson Town Center said their treatment in a Baltimore County police lockup began to feel more like torture after they were shackled and spent 14 hours without food, a phone call or access to a judge.

At one point, protesters said, a police officer in the Towson Precinct yelled, "USA! USA!" on the intercom and then made the sounds of bombs exploding.

"It was really horrible," said Levanah Ruthschild, a 56-year-old Lauraville tutor who was among eight people arrested at the mall. "My ex-husband served in the Vietnam War, and he would get really jumpy when he heard a noise like that. I felt that kind of horror.

"And it was combined with anguish that another human being would want to torment someone like that -- a person working as a protector of peace would do that to a person working for peace."

The circumstances surrounding the arrests are being investigated by Baltimore County Police Internal Affairs Division, Bill Toohey, a department spokesman, said yesterday.

He said officials are aware of complaints about the length of time the protesters were held at the precinct lockup, the conditions of their detainment and the behavior of the officer who allegedly made the bomb sounds. "All of these things have been brought to our attention, and we were already looking into them," Toohey said.

"Processing eight people arrested, plus others, on a Saturday night in Towson takes time," said Toohey. "The officers take them to the [bail] commissioner as time allows. Fourteen hours is not unreasonable given the circumstances and the time it takes to complete the processing."

The protesters said they will probably seek legal advice about their arrests on charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order, and the lifetime ban from the mall that was a condition of their release.

"I think the ban is a First Amendment issue," said Obuszewski, 34, a media specialist for the American Friends Service Committee who lives in Rodgers Forge. "Today a mall is the equivalent of the town square."

Policy concerns

He and others from the Baltimore chapter of Iraq Pledge of Resistance said they also have concerns about the county Police Department's policy for detaining suspects.

"I don't think anyone --whether they're a peace activist or an accused thief -- should be treated that way," Obuszewski said. "We're all innocent until proven guilty. And I just can't believe procedures were being followed."

According to county police regulations on detention, "Prisoners are to be made as comfortable as practical, and given the opportunity and access to a telephone for the purpose of notifying relatives or friends, or engaging counsel or bondsmen."

The regulations state that prisoners will be provided three meals a day, but are not entitled to food between regular mealtimes. They also state, "Prisoners will have access to paper cups and water or a water fountain."

According to the protesters and police reports, the group was handing out leaflets in the food court area of the mall about 4 p.m. March 1. They were wearing T-shirts with peace slogans and pictures of Iraqi children.

Mall security staff asked the group to leave. When the protesters refused, police were called and told them that if they didn't leave the mall property, they would be arrested.

"The ironic thing was that we hadn't formed an obstruction until we gathered for the police officers," said Ruthschild, who added that the officers were polite and respectful, even as they handcuffed the protesters and took them to the police station.

But once at the precinct, protesters said, they were put in leg shackles, and several were handcuffed to a metal bench. "I think they wanted to make an example of us," said John F. Dornheim, a 51-year-old Lutheran pastor from Hamilton.

Several of the protesters said the air conditioning was blowing on them on all night. They also said the three women who were arrested were given one cup of water to share between them.

`Uncalled for'

It was about 6 a.m. before they were taken to the District court Commissioner, the protesters said. They were released on their own recognizance and are scheduled to appear in court June 10.

"It was my first arrest, but it won't be my last," said Maria Allwine, a 49-year-old paralegal from Baltimore. "Several young people that day were amazed that we were willing to be arrested and asked us why. I said, `We're worried about the world we're leaving you. This is the most important thing happening today.'"

Allwine said she also feels a duty not to protest not only the war in Iraq but also the way she and others were treated by police for their civil disobedience.

"We're not letting it drop," she said. "The way they treated us was uncalled for."

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