Toe to Toe

On 2 campuses, arrests during protests of military recruiters set off more protests.
October 10, 2005

There’s nothing like on-campus military recruiters during an ongoing war to bring campus police and students close together. Way too close together, as two recent confrontations on the same day –- one at George Mason University and one at Holyoke Community College –- attest.

Tariq Khan, a student at George Mason University, had made a practice of standing near military recruiters in the Johnson Center on campus with a piece of paper affixed to his shirt that read: "Recruiters Lie, Don't Be Deceived." Khan served four years in the United States Air Force, and said he would hand a pamphlet to interested passersby that asked such questions as, "Do you really want to become government property?"

Khan said he never had any trouble with the recruiters themselves, but on September 29, a man who Khan said is a student, and who identified himself as a Marine, but was not in uniform, took exception to Khan’s signage, ripping it up and throwing it in his face, according to Khan and witnesses. The two got into a verbal argument, and the man who said he is a Marine summoned a member of the building staff who told Khan he did not have a permit to hand out his pamphlets, and that he would have to leave. "I don’t need a permit, because I don’t have a table, and I don’t offer anything to people,” Khan said he told the staff members. "I only give them something if they ask for it."

Daniel Walsch, a George Mason spokesman, said that if Khan was only distributing material to people who asked, then he probably did not need a permit.

The Johnson Center staff member called campus police, and the officer who showed up asked Khan for identification. He did not have any on him. Walsch said that the Johnson Center is open to the public, and Khan was not required to carry identification. When Khan refused to leave or produce identification, the officer went for the cuffs.

At that point, Khan says he "walked” backward, while Michael Lynch, chief of the university police department, says he ran away. “He was told to turn around and put his hands behind his back,” Lynch said. “Had he done that, it would have been something similar to Cindy Sheehan or other peaceful protesters making a statement and getting arrested.” Witnesses said that Khan ended up face down with a center staff member and an officer restraining and handcuffing him. "A police officer put him in a headlock, and he was trying to get away while repeating loudly, ‘I’m not violent, I haven’t done anything wrong,’ ” recalled Aimee Wells, a student who saw the incident.

Khan was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, and trespassing, for his refusal to leave the building when asked. The incident prompted demonstrations by students and faculty members. On Monday, around 100 students attended an outdoor rally protesting Khan’s arrest. Campus police videotaped the event, they said, just in case it got out of hand. Then, on Wednesday, faculty members held a teach-in that drew about 100 people to talk about free speech and the history of protest in American. One-hundred and twenty-nine faculty members signed an open letter that read that “no one non-violently exercising his/her right to free speech, blocking no flow of traffic … should ever be ordered to move from a public space.” Said Roger Lancaster, an associate anthropology professor and one of the organizers of the letter: “We’re accustomed to allowing free speech on this campus.”

"A few months ago when anti-abortion people set up large installation … they weren’t asked to take it down,” Lancaster said, adding that he was glad to read an open letter last week from Provost Peter N. Stearns that promised further inquiry, including into police behavior, and to “make sure that” campus policies “are compatible with free speech.”

At Holyoke Community College, a student was temporarily banned from campus for a September 29 confrontation with security during a demonstration protesting military recruiters. In that case, students both from the Republican Club and the Anti-War Coalition were given designated areas to support or protest the recruiters. Erica Broman, a Holyoke spokesperson, said the anti-war protestors began to push forward toward the recruiters, and became engaged with officers who tried to restrain them. During the clash, an officer tried to take a sign from a student because, Broman said, it was attached to stick, which was against the protest guidelines.

Charles Peterson, a Holyoke student, stepped in to hold the officer back as the scuffle escalated and ended up getting pepper sprayed, and was told to stay off campus until he could meet with administrators. Broman said Peterson was invited to have a meeting as soon as possible, and one did occur on Friday. Peterson will be welcomed back to class on Tuesday, as the college continues to investigate the incident.

On Thursday, about 100 students marched in support of Peterson. William J. Messner, president of Holyoke, met the marchers in the middle of campus and took their questions. Broman said Messner is currently taking suggestions from faculty members on how to turn the event into a “learning moment.” Some of the marchers told Messner to rid the campus of recruiters, to which he explained that Holyoke would jeopardize $7 million in federal aid by banning recruiters. “I don’t think a lot of students believe it. Their response was not positive,” Broman said. “But unless the Supreme Court changes the rules, we must follow that.”


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