I'd been in New Hampshire for several days to follow the Republican primary campaign and see the candidates in person. On Monday, January 9, I traveled to Hudson, NH to hear a speech by Mitt Romney at the Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Company. The event had been advertised on Romney's website and was open to the public. I was shooting the breeze with a campaign volunteer before the event when a police officer approached. Sir, we have to ask you to leave the premises, he said.
"Sir, is this about my backpack?" I replied. "I'd be happy to show you - there's nothing dangerous in there."
"No, sir - we'll explain it to you outside." I tried to ask a few additional questions to figure out what was going on, but he refused to answer. "Outside."
I was intimidated. I gathered my things and walked past a group of citizens and press, humiliated and confused.
Outside, the officer said, "Sir, the campaign has identified you as someone who was at a protest at Romney's office in Manchester."
Now I was really confused. I had stopped in to Romney's Manchester office the previous Friday to pick up some literature (where I had a pleasant conversation with a young volunteer). I'd also attended Saturday's debate watch party at Romney's office and had a great time talking with his supporters and staff. I was hoping Monday's event might be a nice opportunity to see and hear Governor Romney in person.
I'd never been arrested, so I was beginning to feel fairly nervous about the whole situation.
I explained to the officer that there must have been some misunderstanding. Could I speak to someone from the campaign to clear this up? No. I'd have to leave immediately.
I asked about his authority to remove me. "We're working for the Romney campaign," he said. I asked if he was on duty; he said he was. My confusion deepened. So was he working for the town of Hudson today, or for the campaign?
"Both." (Later, I think I got it straight: the campaign had contracted with the police for the day to provide security at the event.)
I thought about Romney's campaign staff inside. They had mistaken me for someone else, and that was enough -- I was out. They had imagined trouble and whisked it away, out of sight. And the police -- my police -- were being paid to do their bidding.
I asked again to speak to someone from the campaign or the company who owned the plant. The officer refused; the company had delegated authority to the campaign, he said, and the campaign had authorized the police to remove anyone the campaign didn't want present. But wouldn't it be simple for me to just talk to someone and explain the mistake? Too many people around, the cop said. I either had to leave the company's property or face charges for criminal trespass.
My reason-seeking brain couldn't take in what was happening. As a divinity, politics and public discourse student at Harvard, I had come here to be a part of the primary process, to see it first-hand and to write about it. I had already attended events with Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, and Newt Gingrich (and I would later see Ron Paul and Buddy Roemer). In each of these instances, I had come to understand the candidates and their views better and had developed greater respect for each of them. And I fully expected that the same would happen with Romney.
In other words, I came because I was curious, and on my own nickel. I wasn't part of any protest group or in anyone's employ. Couldn't we just have a reasonable conversation and figure this out?
I asked another question or two, and the cop had had enough: "You're under arrest." He took my things, handcuffed me behind my back, searched me, and tucked me into a nearby cruiser. A few minutes later, an officer removed me from the cruiser and had me lean up against another police car and spread my legs for a second search. Two or three TV crews had their cameras trained on us; I felt ashamed in a wholly unfamiliar way. I wanted to look directly at the cameras and explain what had happened, but I feared the police officers' reaction.
I was put into the second cruiser and driven away. The camera crews continued filming.
A protester - oh, did I mention that there was an actual protest there? - yelled, "Free the prisoner."
At the police station, I was put in a holding cage and asked to remove my shoes, belt, and sweatshirt. Two officers processed my paperwork. As they did so, they told me not to go back to "that area" when I was released. I indicated that I understood I wasn't permitted to be on the company's land or facilities, but surely I could go back to the street if I so chose -- it's public property, after all. Don't go back to that area, they repeated. If you go back, you might cause a disturbance or a riot, and you could be arrested for disorderly conduct.
I tried to keep calm and ask even-keeled questions. Were they telling me I wasn't even permitted in the street near the facility? And if so, on what grounds? I thought: Can the Romney campaign really cordon off a whole neighborhood? I'm not planning on starting any trouble, but if I wanted to go and express myself by talking to the media about what had happened, isn't that my right?
And then the following exchange took place. I began to ask, "If I express my First Amendment freedoms --"
And one of the officers interjected, "--you'll [probably] be arrested." (I'm not entirely sure he said 'probably,' but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
I couldn't find words.
The two officers had showed no interest in discussing what the law actually said, or what my rights actually entailed. I was paperwork, and they wanted to get it over with. That didn't sit right with me, so I kept asking questions as patiently as I could. At one point, one of the officers opened up the New Hampshire legal code and read me the definition of disorderly conduct. He read the words dully, as if they were just syllables, with no evidence of interest in what they meant.
I asked the officer if he could help me connect what he'd just read with my situation and understand why it would be a problem to return to the street outside the event. He told me that I might return and say things that "aren't what others think."
(It might have been "aren't what others believe" or "aren't what most others believe." I'm not 100% sure. But that was the essence of it.)
He actually paused before he said those words, as if searching for something politically correct to say. I don't think he realized that the words he found had so little to do with the letter and spirit of our laws and Constitution.
Nearly four hours after all of this began - after time spent in an actual cell, and then even more time back in the cage - the bail commissioner arrived. He set up an arraignment date, drove me to an ATM so I could extract the $40 bail commissioner's fee, and dropped me off at my car. And as he let me out of the car, he repeated the officers' advice from earlier: "Don't hang around this area." Apparently, even hours after the event had ended, the Romney campaign and the local police were still present, nibbling away at my freedoms.
As of this writing, the Romney campaign has not yet responded to my request for an explanation. I also asked them whether if I try to attend another Romney event in the future, I can expect the same treatment.
Matt Bieber is a graduate student in politics, religion and public discourse at Harvard University's Kennedy School and Divinity School. You can read the full, unexpurgated account, and associated updates, on his blog, www.thewheatandchaff.com