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ACLU to sue over Bush fracas in Jacksonville

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has announced plans to file suit against law enforcement agencies for actions taken against protesters during President Bush's Oct. 14 campaign visit to Jacksonville.

Members of a committee that reviewed the incident say the Oregon State Police, Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Jacksonville Police Department and other unnamed police agencies became unnecessarily violent after they had ordered approximately 300 people off a section of California Street.

The order to disperse the crowd came after several hours of demonstrations by both presidential supporters and detractors, they say.

Retired ACLU attorney Ralph Temple ' a Southern Oregon University teacher and former director of litigation for the ACLU's Washington, D.C., chapter ' has litigated many cases of police abuse, he said.

Temple characterized the anti-Bush demonstrators as a small nonthreatening crowd of mostly middle-aged, peaceful demonstrators. He said the officers' sweep of the street was a precedent-setting incident of police overreaction.

— Dozens of officers in full riot gear used batons to push the crowd two blocks to the east.

Richard Swaney, 65, of Central Point was among those caught up in the sweep. He said he was walking in the direction police had indicated when he was shoved to the ground and shot in the back by pepper balls by officers.

I was trying to walk away, said Swaney. When I was knocked down the second time, I got up and said, 'Shame! Shame on you! This is America, not Russia.'Jacksonville resident and demonstrator Michael Moss, 29, was struck in the back seven times by pepper spray balls while trying to help Swaney back to his feet. Moss sought medical attention for his wounds.

Temple said the decision to call out riot police set the stage for the episode. They were armed to the gills with all this equipment and no chance to use it, he said.

Oregon State Police Captain Eric Rodriguez declined to comment on police procedure because of pending litigation. He did verify the pepper ball rounds were fired by an OSP officer, but would not identify the officer.

He said the weapon used on the Jacksonville crowd was not the same make or model used in a Boston incident in which a female college student was killed.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters could not be reached for comment Thursday. Jacksonville City Administrator Paul Wyntergreen said earlier this week that neither he nor Police Chief David Towe would comment.

Temple said the use of pepper-ball guns to move crowds was a violation of both police procedure and the protesters' civil rights.

They are supposed to use (those weapons) as an alternative to lethal weapons, he said. Don't use them just to move people around.Paul Copeland, Southern Oregon ACLU Chapter leader, says police did not give demonstrators a reason why they were being moved or adequate time to do so. Also, he said, while Bush supporters were asked to move, they were not subjected to violence if they refused.

This was a form of group punishment and is an impermissible use of force, he said.

Demonstration coordinator Shelley Elkovich says the event became frightening, disturbing and chaotic solely because of police action.

Committee members said they have reviewed hundreds of hours of video tapes, taken statements from dozens of witnesses and reviewed media accounts before making their announcement.

At least six demonstrators were struck with batons and five shot by pepper balls, while only two male protesters were arrested for staging impromptu sit-ins, they said.

Grady Boyd, co-director of Peace House in Ashland, said she remains concerned about demonstrator safety in the Rogue Valley. Preparing for a Jan. 20 anti-Bush counter-inaugural rally in downtown Medford's Vogel Plaza, Boyd said she has previewed the upcoming event with Medford police.

We hope police won't repeat what they did in Jacksonville, she said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail .