It was to be one of the last events of our weekend at Occupy the New Hampshire Primary. We had made signs, chatted with Ron Paul supporters, and danced to the Leftist Marching Band outside the debates at Saint Anselm College (where they had us corralled like misbehaving farm animals – all of us together, Romney, Huntsman, and Paul supporters, along with some extremely in-your-face Gingrich nuts). The night before, I had shared a crash pad in a basement bedroom with the Occupy New Hampshire media guy, some dude from Mother Jones, and two female Occupiers, my buddies from Occupy Hartford. I’m 43, but felt twenty years younger. The one thing we hadn’t done yet was visit a public event where we might get a chance to pose a difficult question to a candidate.
When we found out that Newt Gingrich was going to be speaking at a Latino Town Hall event at Don Quijote restaurant, my friend Rachel and I decided to go. We grabbed signs and took off. We arrived at Don Quijote’s, a tiny dive with about five tables and a very confused waitress. Luckily Rachel speaks fluent Spanish, and was able to figure out that the Town Hall was being held at the much larger other Don Quijote’s restaurant down the street and around the corner.
When we arrived, there were few protesters there, and we were able to walk into the restaurant unimpeded. I tucked my sign under my arm, but didn’t bother to take off my “Occupy Hartford” pin, or a handmade “99%” tag that someone had handed me earlier that day. I didn’t feel the need to hide who I was or where I was from, as I wasn’t there to be disruptive, but instead, to question Gingrich on his thoughts about the Citizens United decision and how it affects American citizens. Rachel wanted to ask him about his (we suspected) nonexistent relationships with Latinos.
The restaurant was full, even perhaps over capacity. We squeezed into a spot against the wall where we could sort of see the stage (Rachel being ten inches taller than me afforded her a better view, I’m sure) and waited for Newt to make his appearance. Immediately one of Newt’s supporters, someone who was surely a frat guy ten years before, started heckling us about our signs, calling them garbage, and accusing us of littering after we put one of the signs against the wall. We gave back as good as we got, and though tensions were too high for it to be completely “good-natured,” I wasn’t too worried. I asked a guy standing next to me to help me hold the sign up against the wall, but out of the corner of his mouth, he told me he was trying to be incognito. His fur coat and pink scarf gave him away as a member of Occupy, and Rachel later said she remembered him from the Gay Pride march earlier that day. He loosened up a bit when we told him we weren’t there to be disruptive, and asked to borrow my phone to take pictures of the complete lack of Latinos at the Latino Town Hall. I handed over my phone, then turned to my friend Rachel, laughing about the irony of the sea of rich white guys at the – and suddenly, my sign was ripped out of my hands, hard. I whipped around to see a guy disappearing through the crowd, with a large part of my sign clutched in his hand.
At that moment, I could not piece together what had happened. I didn’t know who this man was, or why he would so violently rip my sign out of my possession without a word. So I followed him, calling after him in anger, fear and disbelief. I believe my initial words were, “Are you SERIOUS?” Followed by a whole lot of, “Why?” and “Who ARE you?” I pushed through the crowd, my eyes on my neon green sign. At that moment, getting my sign back was the most important thing I’d ever done – it felt as if he was walking away with my right to free speech, with my very dignity. I caught up with him and grabbed for my sign, somehow snatching it back, and he wheeled around to face me. I again asked him, “Why are you doing this?” And he, with what seemed like an intense amount of rage, grabbed my arm and shook me roughly, and then pushed me back into the crowd. “Because we don’t WANT you here. Get out!” And he stalked away. I barely registered the earpiece and blazer he was wearing. Later I found out that Quinn Bowman of PBS News Hour came forward as a witness and his account corroborates my own. He tweeted from the event, “Man w earpiece at Gingrich event in Manchester struggles violently to get sign out of female occupier’s hands.” His comment to a Buzzfeed reporter later was, “He pushed and shoved her with considerable force, tried to take her sign and he seemed enraged that she was there.”
The chase and struggle had landed me at the front of the room, near the stage, in front of a sea of cameras. I turned with my sign, and beseeched everyone around me. “Did you see that? Did you see him assault me? He ripped my sign, and pushed me hard. I don’t understand what happened. Did you see that?” I believe all eyes were on the drama unfolding at the front of the room. I had begun to shake with the effects of being attacked completely without provocation. I continued to appeal to anyone who seemed like they were listening, and eventually a female officer asked me to step into the lounge area. I asked her if I would be able to come back into the room, and she was evasive in her answer. I told her I didn’t want to go, that I still had a question I wanted answered, but she was clear that it would not be a good idea for me to stay in the room. I finally followed her, because I needed to tell my story and I felt I needed her help. When we got out to the lounge, she said I would have to leave the building. I refused, saying I wouldn’t leave until the guy was questioned. She told me in a kind voice that Newt’s people wanted me gone, and that it was like being invited to a party, and then having the host ask me to leave. When I told her it was absolutely nothing like that, she then suggested I could be arrested for trespassing. Finally, a male police officer joined us, and I restated my position – I wanted this guy held accountable for what he had done. The male officer told me that he had gone into a “private meeting” that couldn’t be interrupted, and surely I could understand the delicacy of the, ahem, situation. Still, I stood my ground, saying, “He can assault me, and then because he’s in a private meeting, you’re not going to question him?” Finally they brought him out and asked me to ID him.
They led both of us outside and questioned each of us. They asked me to stay in the parking lot, but said I could demonstrate with the other protesters if I wished. Reporters surrounded me, asking for my story. After about five minutes, the male officer came back and told me I had two choices – to do nothing, or to press charges. What did I want to do? I thought for a minute, and then said I wanted an apology from my attacker. On camera. I gestured at the various reporters and cameramen milling around in the parking lot. The officer said they wouldn’t “make him jump through hoops,” so I thought for another moment, and said, “Fine. I want to press charges.” The officer said he would have to call a supervisor, and again for me to stay put. I told the Occupy group exactly what had happened, using the people’s mic, and then halfheartedly chanted with them until the officer returned with a case number and told me to call the police department the next day. I was completely shaken. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I waited for the rally to end. I was without my phone, so I couldn’t reach out to anyone who cared about me. While I was outside waiting, another protester walked by me holding his bleeding hand. He said he had been punched in the hand several times by a Newt staffer, but didn’t want to press charges.
When I called the Manchester police department on Monday to follow up, I was told that the case was not a criminal one, and that my name appeared nowhere in the notes, and therefore I was not privy to any information. I was incredulous, and told the officer on duty what had happened to me, and asked that a supervisor call me back. A few hours later, I got a return call, and was told that the case number had “changed,” and they did have my information, and asked if I wanted to press charges. I again said that I did. Tuesday morning I received a call from the detective assigned to investigating the case, once again asking if I was sure I wanted to press charges, because it involved a lot of paperwork (on his part) and possibly a trip back up to Manchester from Hartford (on mine). He said I needed to make a decision quickly due to the attention from the press. I agreed to think about it overnight, talked to an advisor, and then called Wednesday morning and for the third time, I reiterated that yes, I still wanted to press charges. The detective took more information from me, and told me that the staffer’s report differed from mine. I told him I was not surprised.
It’s Friday night, and I haven’t heard back from the detective yet. I finally went to the doctor Wednesday night due to back and shoulder pain that the doctor attributes to the assault. She said it’s similar to the injuries people sustain when they’re hit from behind in a car accident. It was the sudden shock of the attack that messed with my muscles.
With every day that goes by, I find myself getting more and more angry. Do we live in a world where it’s acceptable for people to just take what they want with force? To assault people because you don’t like what they stand for? If the detective decides to not pursue the charges, I can only imagine it’s for political reasons, and that will not be okay with me. I was in New Hampshire fighting for civil rights in sort of a general way, but to have my own violated so blatantly has made it intensely personal. As for my resolve to continue to protest the erosion of our civil rights as United States citizens? I’ll tell you this: It’s unshakable.