New Hampshire State Police arrest eight after State House protests

  • The Hall of Flags inside the State House in Concord as seen on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file

  • This tattered flag is in a case kept behind glass in front hall of the State House. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Eight activists were arrested at the State House on Tuesday evening after refusing to leave when the building closed, an organizer said, the latest incident in a six-week campaign of “civil disobedience” styled after Martin Luther King Jr.

In part three of a weekly series of social justice demonstrations carried out in the mold of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” nearly 100 activists had thronged outside the State House steps Tuesday afternoon, gathering to take in speeches and prayers on the theme of anti-militarism. But after moving inside to the Hall of Flags – the expansive entryway to the legislative building that features tattered, Civil-war era battle flags – the group overstayed its welcome, according to Arnie Alpert, co-director of the American Friends Service Committee and an organizer of the event.

Told by building security to clear out at 5 p.m., the building’s closing time, eight participants refused to leave, Alpert said. State police officers arrested those who stood pat; others, including Alpert, left the building peacefully.

The group was taken to Merrimack County jail in Boscawen, according to Alpert, where they awaited release on personal recognizance. A representative for the New Hampshire State Police was not immediately available Tuesday evening to confirm Alpert’s account.

The arrests were not unexpected by the protesters. In fact, they were welcomed.

Since May 14, the American Friends Service Committee and other activist groups have embarked on a New Hampshire-centric “Poor People’s Campaign,” 50 years after King launched his own version. Once a week for six weeks, the advocates are aiming to peacefully disrupt State House business, blocking traffic in one instance, or, last week, swarming the secretary of state’s office to protest voting laws. The causes, mostly left-leaning, range from minimum wage increases to open voting laws to denuclearization.

Those who are arrested choose to be. They take nonviolent resistance training courses and sign a “covenant of nonviolence” pledge to cooperate with police peacefully, Alpert said. The events are arranged in advance; the expected by all parties. Those comfortable being arrested wear colored armbands to stand out.

To the outsider, the pre-arrangements may seem synthetic. But to Alpert, they don’t detract from the effectiveness of the demonstrations.

“One of the things is that non-violence has a particular power to it,” Alpert said. The point of working with the police, he added, is “to be able to communicate to the police or to state officials that our grievances are not with them, our grievances are with the systems that keep people poor.”

“All the individuals we’re going to treat with respect,” Alpert added. “And that enables us to get our message across much more clearly.”

It isn’t the first time protesters from the group have been arrested; at their first demonstration, six were arrested after intentionally blocking traffic in an act that was also planned. Last week, despite armband-wearing demonstrators blocking the doorway to the secretary of state’s office, state police officers declined to move in, citing a lack of a specific complaint from State House staff on which to act.

Despite the end of the legislative calendar last week, the group has three more weeks of planned demonstrations around the State House in the works, Alpert confirmed. Each demonstration follows a theme; last week centered on a voting bill working its way to the governor’s desk that left-leaning demonstrators argue could suppress the college student vote.

On Tuesday, demonstrators gathered to protest “militarism and the war economy,” Alpert said. The group staged a “teach-in” in the Hall of Flags, chosen for its resonance as a military memorial.

Will Thomas of Auburn, head of the group New Hampshire Veterans for Peace, lectured on the U.S. Army School of the Americas, currently known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in Columbus, Ga. Through the Cold War, the facility helped train counterinsurgents to fight Communism in South America but has been criticized after some graduates were accused of war crimes and human rights violations.

Others addressed what they saw as overspending on the American military, and the need to denuclearize the country’s arsenal. And one speaker, Vietnam war veteran Bob Ehlers, discussed to his own experiences.

At 5 p.m., midway through Ehler’s speech, State House Chief of Protective Services Joseph Burke approached to tell participants that the building was closing and that they would have to leave. Ehler refused.

“He said, ‘I’m a veteran and this is the Hall of Flags, and I’m going to keep talking,’ ” Alpert said. “And Joe said, ‘Alright then.’ ”

And out came the handcuffs.