Security

‘The Right To Protest Is Under Attack’: Why This 83-Year-Old Woman Was Kicked Out Of Federal Court

CREDIT: YOUTUBE

Eve Tetaz was arrested while wearing a plain white tee shirt at a U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

She had been wearing a bright orange tee-shirt with the words “Close down Guantanamo, Stop Torture” stamped across the front in big, bold letters when she first entered the courthouse. Tetaz said that a guard told her to turn the shirt inside-out and cover it with a jacket. When she asked why, he said, “I know your intent.” In an interview at the courthouse Tetaz said, “[It was] interesting, because what is my intent? Is it to blow up the courthouse? Of course not.”

After the hearing began, Tetaz says, “I was sitting quietly in the courtroom and I took off my jacket, and immediately they said that I should leave.”

Instead, she took off the orange shirt and gave it to courthouse guards, but they came back moments later and told her she would have to leave after all. Tetaz, a member of Witness on Torture, a D.C.-based advocacy group, was eventually walked out of the courthouse building in handcuffs.

Quick to smile with a crop of white hair, Tetaz is 83 years old and a “familiar face” to some DC-area judges. According to court records, since 2005 she’s been arrested 19 times for disorderly conduct, failure to obey an officer, and unlawful assembly among other offenses. While she’s sometimes been let off with a citation or fine, Tetaz has been sent to prison on several occasions – but she doesn’t keep a running tally of her run-ins with the law.

“I don’t keep count because it’s really not about me,” she says. “What does matter is that we are losing our rights.”

Although Tetaz says she believed she had the right to wear the inflammatory shirt, she complied when told to turn her shirt inside out and cover it with a jacket upon entering the court in order to attend the hearing.

“I was sitting quietly in the courtroom and I took off my jacket, and immediately they said that I should leave,” she says in a follow-up phone interview. Eventually, she removed the inside-out orange shirt. She was wearing just the white tee with courthouse guards returned and grabbed her hands, ushering her out of the courtroom.

The guards offered her a wheelchair to help her leave the building, but Tetaz insisted that she would leave as she had come in: only on her “own volition.” A back-and-forth with a group of guards ensued, one of whom, she says, identified himself as a homeland security officer.

“He put his arm around and tried to walk me out as you would a child.” She told the officer that she would only leave if she was taken out in handcuffs, “And he pulled a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket,” put them around her wrists and walked her out.

Tetaz says her protest was “in support my brothers in Guantanamo.”

The hearing she attended was also focused on the right to protest — although in a very different context. The underlying case, brought against President Barack Obama by the 43 year old Syrian national who has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since 2002 Abu Wa’el Dhiab, could potentially make sweeping changes to how detainees are treated.

Dhiab, who has used on-again off-again hunger strikes to protest his detention at Guantanamo Bay is suing to change the policies on force-feeding at the military detention center. Much of what was discussed in court focused on the frequency and technique of inserting feeding tubes into detainees. Dhiab has also asked to be taken in a wheelchair to the feedings and restrained by a single limb instead of the five-point restraint chair that detainees are currently strapped into before tubes are passed through their noses and into their stomachs.

While Tetaz is hesitant to relate her protests to those of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, she does believe that there is a “clear and present danger” posed by restrictions on the right to protest peacefully even within the United States.

“Even judges are subject to being influenced and so the order requiring her to cover the shirt or leave probably would be considered reasonable and legal,” John W. Whitehead a constitutional attorney tells ThinkProgress in an email about Tetaz’s case. “On the other hand, if she did cover the shirt she should not have been asked to leave the courtroom unless security had reasonable grounds for believing she would be disruptive.”

But generally Whitehead, the head of the Rutherford Institute notes, “The right to protest is under attack. The government is attempting to squelch expression even in such public places as the plaza fronting the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Such increased restrictions, however, may only give Eve Tetaz all the more reason to protest. If asked if she’ll continue, she says without hesitation, “Oh of course.”