About two hours before President Donald Trump held a free-wheeling press conference at Trump Tower during which he controversially blamed both white supremacists and anti-racist protesters for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month, a liberal activist was detained and interrogated for unfurling a banner in the building’s atrium that read, “Women Resist White Supremacy.”
Seconds after Melissa Byrne unveiled the sign over a second story balcony, it was snatched out of her hands by a security officer and Byrne, a former organiser for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, found herself in handcuffs.
In a Washington Post column published Tuesday, Byrne said she was detained and interrogated by several NYPD officers and Secret Service agents, who asked her questions about her political motivations, feelings towards the president, and her mental health.
“It felt like an interrogation on ‘Homeland,'” she wrote, referring to the popular television show about the CIA’s war on terror.
During the questioning, Byrne was asked to sign Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act waivers that would allow law enforcement to access her medical records. Byrne, who organised the protest action with the help of the progressive political activism group Ultraviolet and the Working Families Party, said she didn’t want to sign the waivers, but felt pressured by the officers, one of whom said she could be charged with a felony for her protest.
“Being in a room with that many enforcement agents hurt my ability to reason dispassionately, and I was now looking at a criminal record from a basic, even banal, nonviolent protest,” Byrne wrote. “I signed the forms.”
Byrne said that she was not informed of her legal rights at any point during the interrogation.
“They never asked me whether I understood my rights, and I wasn’t actually sure at that moment what rights, if any, I had,” Byrne said. “I was focused on not getting put in a car and being whisked away.”
Byrne said she was ultimately released from law enforcement custody and banned from Trump Tower. But a few days later, she was contacted by a neighbour — a woman she had never met — who told her that the Secret Service was making rounds in their West Philadelphia neighbourhood, asking people whether Byrne poses a threat to the president.
Byrne said her neighbour told the agents that the president was, in fact, the real threat.
Still, Byrne claims her treatment was abnormal and perhaps a violation of her rights to peacefully protest.
“I was treated as a national security threat when all I’d done was exercise my First Amendment right to free expression,” Byrne wrote in the Post. “This isn’t normal, and it shouldn’t be how nonviolent protesters are treated by armed agents of the government.”
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, told Business Insider that while the Secret Service is obliged to investigate threats to the president, their treatment of Byrne may have been an overreaction.
“If they started investigating every person who carried a banner with this much intensity, they would be spending a lot of time chasing loose ends, rather than focusing on real threats,” Patel said.
Patel added that while the police and Secret Service’s conduct during Byre’s interrogation didn’t seem out of bounds or abnormal, she noted that the NYPD has a history of monitoring protesters and civil rights activists are concerned that some of their conduct may have a chilling effect on free speech.
“When you are questioning many protesters about their views and using questioning to intimidate them, that’s a fact-pattern that can be very troubling,” she said.
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