Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Eldorado Incident: Occupy vs ALEC

The protest of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) dinner at the Eldorado apparently turned violent last night after a small group of Occupy Santa Fe protesters went inside the hotel and disrupted the dinner.

According to several legislators who were there, a female guest of Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, was struck in the eye by a piece of cardboard  -- actually a satirical dinner menu and program created by the protesters. According to legislators, her cornea was scratched.

Rehm declined comment, but a spokeswoman for House Republicans who talked to him said Rehm's guest's eye is being monitoring and is improving today.

The incident was denounced by members of both political parties, including some who have expressed agreement with Occupy's positions on issues. Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe said the incident made the protesters look like their opponents' caricature of the Occupy Movement.

Jeff Haas, a spokesman for the protesters, said in an email to The New Mexican, "While Occupy believes that confrontation and civil disobedience are often effective as demonstrated by Dr. King and Rosa Parks, we regret that anyone was injured last night by either flying paper or rough treatment by hotel security or ALEC members. Fortunately the injuries were minor compared to the devastation to people and the environment caused by ALEC legislation"

But Sen. Eric Griego, an Albuquerque Democrat who has been sympathetic to the Occupy movement, said on the Senate floor, this kind of incident "undermines Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez. I stand with my colleagues who say we can't tolerate this behavior."

Haas said photographer Lisa Law, who was with the protesters was "roughed up by hotel security and ALEC members who sought to grab her camera."

Law said in a Youtube posting that she was "attacked from the back" and "ended up with a bloody hand and a very stiff and sore neck, arm and back." She said she made a police report on her injury.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Farmington, who is a state co-chair of ALEC, told reporters that he arrived early to the dinner so he could talk with protesters outside of the hotel. He said the discussion was cordial.

After the main protest outside dispersed some protesters came inside to the hotel bar, Bandy said.

About the time the ALEC guests were eating their salads in the Old House restaurant inside the hotel, a small group of protesters entered, Bandy said. Estimates on the number ranged from three to seven. "At least three of them really carrying on," Bandy said.

A female protester began flinging the cardboard menus. Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell, said they were about the size of a large Christmas card.

Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis said protesters were "hurling the cards like karate stars."

Kintigh, a retired FBI agent, said Rehm stood up to confront the protester when his guest was struck by the envelope. "That's when yours truly stood up." He said he placed his hands on the woman and escorted her out of the door.

In a Santa Fe police report on the incident, no suspects were named.

Several legislators in the House and the Senate blasted the protesters.

Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne, the other ALEC state co-chair, said the incident was the worst thing he's ever seen in Santa Fe. Besides the protesters, Payne also criticized the hotel security, Santa Fe Police and "the tenor of the press" in Santa Fe. He specifically mentioned recent articles of mine about ALEC and lobbyist expenses.

Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, said many groups engage in responsible, peaceful protests, but when any group resorts to violence, "it's our responsibility to call them out."

Egolf, who was quoted in my article criticizing ALEC, agreed with other legislators about the Eldorado incident. "When folks start crossing the line, getting in people's faces and throwing things, it's deplorable," he said.

"And it's extremely counterproductive. Now you can't have a conversation on issues like economic disparity and leveling the playing field." Instead, he said, the issue is personal safety at legislative functions and the behavior of the protesters.

Without naming him, some House Republicans criticized statements about ALEC  made by Egolf  in Monday's story.

"I believe in free speech and individual liberty," Bandy told reporters. But public officials, he said, "need to be awful careful  about inciting people to violence."

Egolf said in the article that ALEC "is the truest embodiment of all the things that people who care about keeping corporate money out of politics, preserving our democracy and keeping our air, land and water clean fear most."

On Thursday Egolf said, "Everything I said about about the organization and issues. ... I didn't make any comment about any members."

Here's a video of the incident by Lisa Law of 40 seconds