Saturday, October 21, 2006

A Constant American Who Took on Dick Cheney

Steven Howards talks to his 11-year-old son, Koby, at their Lookout Mountain home in Golden. Howards was arrested for allegedly assaulting Vice President Dick Cheney on June 16, 2006

The Rocky Mountain News reports:
When he was 12 years old, the boy who would grow up to be the man who took on the U.S. vice president was walking in San Francisco with his family. They turned the corner and came upon a civil rights demonstration - concerned citizens waving signs, chanting their disagreement, indignant over some current injustice.
Before his parents knew what was happening, the boy grabbed a sign and began marching intently, joining the protest as enthusiastically as if it were a pickup baseball game.

"I was raised to have a social conscience," says a matter-of-fact Steven Howards.

He is sitting in his foothills home, an airy, sunlit house where you will find no bombs, no terrorist ideology, not even a dartboard bearing the likeness of George Bush or Dick Cheney. What you will find is a lingering wisp of incredulity and a percolating sense of outrage.

Which is why Steven Howards is suing the Secret Service. Or, at least, one of its agents.

Although the suit - filed in U.S. District Court on Oct. 3 - asks for unspecified damages, the real crux of the matter touches upon the contention that Howards' First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated with "deliberate indifference."

"Yes, I want to make a point with the suit," he says, mindful that this extracurricular activity has caught the attention of a gaggle of media, including The New York Times, U.S. News and World Report and National Public Radio.

"What happened to me was absolute, transparent harassment," he insists. "There's a pattern of people being arrested for protesting administration policies in Iraq, and I find this suppression of free speech a greater threat to the future of this country than Osama bin Laden will ever be.

"We felt this situation was laid at our feet, and we had a social obligation to not let it pass."

The situation laid at Howards's feet began with his wrists being tightly clenched by handcuffs June 16. On that day, this 52-year-old father of two - a mild-mannered environmental consultant and former executive director of the Denver Metropolitan Air Quality Council - was arrested for allegedly assaulting the vice president of the United States in that hotbed of political turmoil, Beaver Creek.

Howards was in Beaver Creek because his kids were at piano camp. He arose that morning to the latest reports of U.S. and Iraqi casualties, prompting him to muse, "What a catastrophe this is."

While walking his older son, Koby, to a piano class, he noticed a small crowd on the mall. At its epicenter was Vice President Dick Cheney. At the time, Howards didn't know that Cheney was in town to attend a conference sponsored by former President Gerald Ford. Most of the people in the crowd seemed awed.

Howards was not. During his tenure as a lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C., he had seen a lot of big-shot politicos close up.

"There's this reverence accorded to elected officials, like they somehow have this brilliance that we all lack," he would say later. "I'm not saying you shouldn't respect these guys, but there's a big difference between respect and reverence."

As he watched Cheney "floating around, shaking hands," something inside Howards was detonated. "I simply couldn't, in good conscience, let this opportunity pass."

He approached the vice president and when the number-two man in the U.S. government turned to him, Howards said, "Your policies in Iraq are reprehensible."

Later, he would recall that he may have lightly touched Cheney on the arm or shoulder because, "I remember thinking, 'He's wearing silk.' "

The encounter was brief. In fact, according to Howards, his six words and one touch were the encounter. He kept walking with his son to rendezvous with his wife, Deborah, and younger son, Jonah. He'd done it. He'd made a statement.

Just like he and his family had made a statement during that long-ago drive to Florida, a drive that took them through the deep South. Every time they encountered a pair of water fountains marked "White" and "Colored," the Howards drank at the latter. A quiet protest from a family with a social conscience.

Irving Howards was a professor of political science, and as he moved his wife and kids around the Midwest, one constant theme around the dinner table was that this is a free country; make your voice heard.

Which is what Steven, the middle child, was doing while coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s. He'd taken advantage of his right to free speech to protest the Vietnam War.

But the anonymity provided by a campus protest was not a luxury he would enjoy in Beaver Creek.

As Howard recalls, "about 10 minutes" after he had registered his protest to Cheney, he was walking back across the mall to his rented condo, this time with 8-year-old Jonah in tow. A Secret Service agent (later identified as Virgil D. "Gus" Reichle Jr.) "popped out of the shadows, flicked his badge and asked me, 'Did you assault the vice president?' "

A little shaken, Howards explained what had happened, throwing in his editorial that, "If Mr. Cheney wants to be shielded from public criticism, he should avoid public places."

He also remembers saying, "If free speech is against the law, then arrest me."

Which is just what Reichle did.

Promptly handcuffed and being urged along by the agent, Howard says he told the agent that he couldn't abandon his young son. He says the agent responded, "We'll call Social Services."

By then, however, Jonah had reached his mother. Deborah Andrews was able to locate her husband as he was being lowered into a black sport utility vehicle. But when she asked where he was being taken, she says she got no reply.

Where he was going was Eagle County jail - to be charged with assaulting the vice president. He spent three hours in a sealed conference room, in handcuffs, buffeted among emotions of being "astonished . . . bored . . . ticked-off . . . anxious. Look, the whole thing - I gotta admit - was kind of scary."

By the time Deb paid his $500 bail, charges had been reduced from federal assault to state "harassment."

He woke up the next morning to find his photo displayed in the Vail Daily, along with a story detailing how Secret Service agents had arrested a man "who wasn't acting like the other folks in the area." Spokesman Eric Zahren was quoted as saying, "His behavior and demeanor wasn't quite right. The agents tried to question him, and he was argumentative and combative."

Neither the local office of the Secret Service nor agent Reichle returned calls seeking comment for this story.

After his release, Howards realized, "This wasn't going to be a funny story I could tell my friends."

But it was a story he shared.

Says Margery Stegman, a friend of 30 years: "To me, it was scary but also crazy. Steve is . . . very thoughtful. Who in their right mind would do something crazy like that. I mean, assault the vice president?"

The idea that her brother would assault Cheney was equally astonishing to Marsha Semuels. Dangerous? Not her brother.

Apparently, the authorities came to the same conclusion. A month after the incident, Howards received a letter from the Eagle County District Attorney informing him all charges had been dropped, in part because the vice president didn't want to pursue the matter, and in part because, well, there was nothing to pursue.

District Attorney Mark Hulbert would later explain the original information his office had was that Howards had "pushed the vice president," but that was not the case.

"Later on, it appeared it was just essentially his disagreeing with the vice president's policies," Hulbert explained. "That's not harassment."

Over the summer, the longer Howards thought about what had happened, the more upset he became. He thought about suing.

He talked with friends like Stegman. He talked with family members like his wife and his sister.

"He knew my parents would be upset (by a lawsuit)," says Semuels, a dean at the Tufts University Medical School in Boston. "But he felt serious freedoms were involved."

In his living room, Howards cites other instances where he claims free speech was abridged by the Bush administration.

"It's like they're saying, 'If you question our administration's policies in Iraq, you pose a threat to national security. Therefore, you are subject to arrest," he says. "I find this convoluted logic terrifying."

One of the aims of suing Reichle is to "to find out if there's some unwritten code that provides these agents with the freedom to arrest people who are expressing free speech . . . We know that my arrest had nothing to do with what I did and everything to do with what I said."

What about the fact that the suit could take years before it comes to trial - if it ever does come to trial?

"I'm a patient man."

What about the the possibility that the vice president might be called as a witness? Or perhaps added on as a defendant?

Howards says nothing. Instead, he lets his eyes do his talking. They are bright, almost sparkling. The eyes of someone committed to a cause. The eyes of a 12-year-old boy ready to grab a protest sign and begin marching, eager for a chance to have his voice heard.

To Steven Howard, a Constant American, goes the first 'Golden Picket' award.

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