Lawmakers react to mass arrests of protesters

Posted at 7:25 PM, Mar 05, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-05 19:25:02-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) Virginia lawmakers are reacting to the mass arrests of abortion-rights protesters over the weekend.

Democratic legislators, including Sen. Richard Saslaw, spoke out on the Senate floor Monday, condemning the heavy police presence.  The lawmakers argued “intimidation” could have contributed to Saturday’s arrest of three dozen people.

Governor Bob McDonnell says he was “incredulous” when he heard about Monday’s session.

“Taking to the floor to tear down our incredibly brave and talented law enforcement officers, it really has crossed the line,” the governor says.

What started as a passionate but peaceful protest on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol on Saturday escalated within a few hours when several protestors left the Bell Tower and began protesting on the steps of the State Capitol.

Muna Hijazi was among the thirty-one protestors arrested.  She was arraigned Monday morning.

“That was an extreme show of force at a peaceful assembly of people expressing their First Amendment rights,” says Hijazi.

Hijazi argues she and others took a stand when they noticed a large contingency of officers in riot gear.

According to Capitol Police Colonel Steve Pike, police acted with respect and caution.

Pike says the arrested protestors were given thirty minutes of repeat warnings before their arrests.  Just before being taken into custody, the protestors were read the Capitol’s rules for assembly.

According to rules established in 1972, it is forbidden to protest on the steps of the State Capitol.

Pike also says the demonstrators were outside the allotted time of their two permits and became hostile when asked to leave the steps of the rotunda.

“I even had organizers come and say they want to be arrested,” Pike says.  “That really leaves us no choice.”

Pike says Capitol and Virginia State Police have the responsibility to protect the safety of the public.  He cited concerns about violence that’s erupted during similar abortion-rights rallies across the country.

“Often times, when you get into a crowd where emotions are involved, objects can be thrown, people can spit in people’s faces, a lot of things can unfold,” argues Pike.

However, the protestors argue they were forced to take a stand and say they’ll fight until the charges against them are dropped.

Attorney Wayne Powell, who’s representing several of the arrested protestors, says his clients were acting within their constitutional rights.

“Where’s the sign that says you can’t trespass on the Capitol of our own state?”

The ACLU of Virginia says it’s investigating to determine if they’ll seek action on behalf of the arrested demonstrators.