Open harassment by Columbus Police, vigilantes and possibly federal agents against the peace movement began Saturday, March 15, 2003. More than 400 peace activists gathered in Blackburn Park at 18th and Main Streets in the heart of the black community. Bill Moss, a prominent African American Columbus School Board member and former “Soldier of the Year” in Ohio spoke out against the illegality of the war with Iraq; Barry Edney, local barber, founder of the Ordinary People’s Movement and a Vietnam-era vet also spoke. Despite the involvement of these well-known black activists within the peace coalition, the Columbus Free Press learned that local precinct officers fanned out through the community, including those assigned to the gang squad, to warn black youth that a large group of white troublemakers was coming into their neighborhood to cause disruption.

The Columbus Police had been charged by the Clinton administration’s Department of Justice with a pattern and practice of violating the civil rights of Columbus’ black citizens and their warnings were not taken seriously. Nevertheless, the Police’s intent was to sow distrust between the mostly white middle-class peace movement and the urban minority community that was being recruited.

The night before the peace rally, mainstream TV and radio news reports citing unnamed police sources, claimed the peace movement had issued a “threat” against the Franklin County Courthouse, which was the announced end of the peace march. Newscasters earnestly warned Columbus residents that an unnamed judge had reported these threats and the Courthouse had to be closed, and that people should avoid the rally. The advance publicity helped swell the ranks of the peace rally to 550 people at the Courthouse.

When asked about the threats, the Police told demonstrators that one of the peace organizers had said something about “if they start, we will shut everything down.”

The official Columbus Police line was that “we’re only here to keep the peace.” They passed out fliers to the crowd in the park, essentially warning everyone that they would be arrested for any violation of traffic laws.

As the 400 marchers gathered, surrounded by a massive police presence, three pro-war demonstrators, one carrying an Israeli flag and one other with a large German Shepherd, entered the park demanding the U.S. to attack and disarm Saddam Hussein. All three TV news channels and the Columbus Dispatch, the city’s daily monopoly newspaper, featured the three disruptive pro-war advocates as the story.

Escorted down Main Street by a heavy police phalanx of cars and officers on horseback, the peaceful march ended in a massive drumming and dancing circle in front of the Courthouse.

While the marchers were dancing and drumming, the Police moved into the Blackburn Park area and massively ticketed all the cars of the activists for a few real and mostly imagined parking violations. Everyone was too far from the curb, on top of a curb, too near a crosswalk, to close to an alley, and various other offenses that are never ticketed in the neighborhood.

After the war broke out, a gathering of over 700 peace demonstrators at the federal building downtown experienced no harassment, but were met with a huge show of force by the Police in “securing” the federal building. The Police seemed intimidated by the pure size of the crowd. The media underreported the crowd size as 200-350.

The next night was a different story. A smaller crowd of 150 people gathered again at the Statehouse, met by a large Police presence. New to the gathering were two apparently drunk vigilantes carrying American flags. One had a large stick and a flashlight with him. The two pro-war advocates began to aggressively push and shove their way through the peace demonstrators. At one point, the man with the flashlight attacked me as I was speaking into the mic, hitting me in the chest with his flashlight. I instinctively pushed him away and demanded that a Police officer who saw it protect me from assault. His response: “I should arrest you for assault for pushing him.” Other Police officers said they were there to protect the rights of the pro-war people from the likes of us.

This is odd in a city that is famous for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect the Ku Klux Klan when they come to Columbus to speak, and allowing them to dress in the Police garage and under the Statehouse on two different occasions. As one activists put it, “The only time they’re interested in protecting your rights in Columbus is when you’re wearing a sheet or advocating genocide.”

The Police then cleared a path, although it was 10pm at night, to make sure that the free speech rights of the two apparently drunk men were honored and they could pass through the peace demonstration.

Emboldened by their Police allies, a man reeking of alcohol, weighing 300 pounds began to shove peace activists, mostly women, into the street. Columbus’ finest answered complaints by threatening anyone with arrest who interfered with the “free speech rights” of the violently aggressive individual.

When I attempted to speak again into the mic, I was shielded by another peace activist. When he stood in the way of pro-war demonstrators who were attempting to shout in my face, he was taken into Police custody for allegedly violating their rights and disturbing the peace. When I complained that I was about to be assaulted again, I was grabbed by a Police officer and roughed up and threatened with arrest.

At the end of the night, a young housewife attempted to shake the hand of a Police officer thanking him for making sure no violence broke out. He declined because he wasn’t close enough to water to wash his hand after the contact with her.

At the Clintonville Families Against the War demonstration of 300 people on March 22, there were a handful of yellow-shirted “Support our Troops” demonstrators holding signs and having occasional shouting matched with the peace activists. One held a “Gas the Kurds” sign. A large pro-war demonstrator shoved a female peace activist and reportedly when she complained to a Police officer, he told her he should arrest her for blocking the sidewalk.

The following night at 15th and High Streets after the weekly peace demonstration on the OSU campus, four pro-war activists, one drinking a long-necked bottle of beer, threatened to assault peace activists for not supporting the troops.

During the last Gulf War, the Police stood by while peace activists at Ohio State were punched, struck, knocked down, and assaulted with beer bottles, sticks and rocks. Columbus Police officers were seen high-fiving the drunken assailants. The person who organized the drunken assault from the campus area bars was on the payroll of a Kuwaiti government lobbying organization and an activist in the campus Republican Party. After routing the peace activists, the Police allowed the drunken pro-war advocates to take the streets and march to state capital building to sing God Bless America.

The Police seemed well-schooled in their responses and invoking the law to the peace demonstrators. This appears to be an orchestrated campaign involving the Columbus Police and the local FBI office, and their military attachés. The Free Press reported in its March-April issue of the harassment of a local hair salon owner by a man the local FBI office described as part of a military attachment to the Bureau.

Two local law government officials told the Free Press that there’s a new COINTELPRO-style operation ongoing in Columbus in order to intimidate the peace movement and they are justifying it under the Patriot Act and supposed “national security” grounds.

Editor’s Note: We at the Free Press are seeking information, articles, badge numbers and any photos or license tag numbers of the people who are harassing the peace movement from Columbus or other areas. We also encourage articles on how activists should deal with Police and other kinds of harassment.