RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — Virginia’s raucous legislative squabble over abortion restrictions took a more angry tone, replete with locker-room language, after 30 unruly protesters were arrested Saturday at the Capitol as police in riot gear responded with dogs and military-style rifles.
Democrats denounced the deployment of dozens of helmeted officers with shields and visors around the South Portico of the 200-year-old Capitol Saturday, saying it made Virginia seem a “police state” and the Capitol “an armed garrison.”
Republicans defended the officers, who moved in only after protesters violated a permit limiting their rally to Capitol Square’s southwestern corner and defied orders to stay off the Capitol’s steps. They accused Democrats of using the dispute to deflect heightening criticism for blocking passage of a state budget with scheduled adjournment just five days away.
Hundreds of abortion-rights protesters marched in downtown Richmond Saturday, then poured onto the Capitol’s south lawn. A few dozen took up positions on the columned south steps, forcing Capitol police officers to arrest them on misdemeanor trespassing and unlawful assembly charges. Administrative polices require that all events not sponsored by the state be restricted to an area near the 1824 Bell Tower that once alerted Richmonders to fires and was sounded during the Civil War when Union troops approached the Confederate capital.
Video and photos that went viral across social media over the weekend show protesters forcing police to pick them up and carry them off, though none struggled.
Video from the protesters’ encounter with police can be seen below.
“There were no injuries. No one fought us, but we had to remove them,” said Capitol Police Capt. Ray Goodloe. He said they were the first mass arrests in his 26 years on the force.
Protesters were loaded onto refitted school buses with barred windows. Some of them were forced to wait for hours while a lone Richmond magistrate worked through a weekend backlog of arrests. All were released on bail with General District Court starting next week. The median age of those arrested was 26, with the youngest 19 and the oldest age 76, according to a police list.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday offered legal representation to demonstrators who feel their free speech rights were violated.
The show of force was rare, if not unprecedented, in modern times on the Capitol’s park-like campus. Each year, gun-rights advocates — many of them carrying firearms — assemble on Capitol Square, but they never encountered so formidable a police presence.
In the House, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the big police presence was warranted because of vandalism and because of unspecified threats and menacing phone calls or emails to legislators.
Vandals spray-painted doors to the Capitol, a nearby state-owned parking deck and federal courthouse and a Virginia Commonwealth University police cruiser on Feb. 15, Goodloe said. Police know of no threats to members, he said, but some legislators have received abusive and lewd e-mails.
The protesters sought an end to legislation mandating pre-abortion ultrasound exams. The bill passed the Republican-ruled House and Senate, and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell is expected to sign it. At least three times before, demonstrators by the hundreds — most of them women — gathered at the seat of state government to voice their outrage, with a larger police contingent each time, but there were no arrests until Saturday. Organizers plan a protest Tuesday outside the polling place where McDonnell will vote in Virginia’s GOP primary.
The ultrasound bill last month subjected the state and GOP leaders to scorn by some cable news political talk shows and ridicule on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
Video from The Daily Show segment was also posted online.
Afterward, McDonnell forced legislative Republicans to amend the bill, deleting a provision mandating a “transvaginal ultrasound” exam using an invasive probe.
Sen. L. Louise Lucas, in a Senate floor speech, shocked colleagues by borrowing the nickname Stewart developed from a crude term for feminine anatomy and applied to Virginia during his Feb. 21 show.
“Virginia used to be synonymous with results: business, growth, solid management. Now, we’re the transvaginal ultrasound state, otherwise called ‘Punanny State,’ where peaceful protesters wind up in jail,” said Lucas, D-Portsmouth.
“Virginia became a national laughingstock, a joke, because of legislation passing through the General Assembly,” added Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax.
At a news conference, McDonnell disavowed any role in dictating the police response. McDonnell and his family reside in the gated Executive Mansion on the northeast corner of Capitol Square and were not home during Saturday’s protests.
Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment of James City County accused Democrats, who opposed the ultrasound mandate, of hypocrisy in demeaning Virginia’s new GOP leadership and the legislation it produced on cable talk shows, then lamenting the state’s besmirched image.
“If you think it helps the state’s image by going on national TV and further contributing to put warts on the face of Virginia, then I find it somewhat disingenuous to stand on the floor of this Senate and talk about how horrible Virginia looks,” Norment said.
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