Banned in Kalamazoo

Shouldn’t college students seeking knowledge — especially knowledge that might challenge their own biases — be encouraged? Not so, it seems, according to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and the College Republicans of Kalamazoo College. When seven sophomores at the school showed up at Wings Stadium in downtown Kalamazoo to see George W. Bush at a campaign rally on May 3 and presented the tickets they had obtained for the event, security officers would not allow them in. The problem, according to these students, was that College Republicans volunteering at the event fingered them as liberals who did not support Bush. And such citizens were not welcome at the rally.

According to Ted Hufstader and Julia VanAusdall — two of the Kalamazoo Seven — here’s what happened: Last week, the students heard that Bush would be appearing at Kalamazoo during a bus tour through the swing states of Ohio and Michigan. Hufstader maintains that this group of friends, which was made up mostly of Bush detractors (some of whom have engaged in protests in the past), only wanted the chance to see and hear the president. They were, he says, not interested in waging any anti-Bush action. “We wanted to get a better idea of what he’s like,” Hufstader notes. “All we get are little sound bites on the news.” And he points to the fact that one of the seven was an international student as evidence of their sincerity: “We would not have done anything to jeopardize this student’s standing in the country.”

So Hufstader hit the Internet and discovered that tickets for the Bush rally would be handed out at a local Chamber of Commerce office. (“The tickets are free and will be distributed on a first come first serve basis,” the chamber’s Web site reported.) He and Lisa Dallacqua went to that office at 7 a.m. and waited — in the rain — for two hours. Inside, they were asked to show a photo ID and to provide their addresses — and the addresses of several friends for whom they were obtaining tickets. “We later heard that some people who wouldn’t declare they were Republicans were denied tickets,” Hufstader says. “But we didn’t see that happen.”

Hufstader and Dallacqua were given seven tickets, and their names and the names of their friends were placed on a list that would be checked at the rally.

When the gang arrived at Wings Stadium — home of the Kalamazoo Wings, a minor league hockey team — they had to pass through a series of checkpoints. Hufstader maintains they were each dressed conservatively — “you know, khakis and sweaters” — and sported no political buttons or any other accoutrements of dissent. At one of the checkpoints, they were spotted by a member of the College Republicans. He was familiar with the political predilections of several of these students and asked how they had received tickets.

“We stood in line,” Hufstader says he replied.

At another checkpoint, Hufstader and his friends saw several College Republicans talking to the volunteers working security. The security people then told Hufstader, Dallacqua, VanAusdall and the others (Laura Lonneman, Leah Busch, Shanna Barkume, and the international student whose identity Hufstader and the others are protecting) that they could not enter.

“They told us,” Hufstader says, “that we failed a background check, that we had been identified by volunteers as a potential threat, and that if we didn’t leave we would be arrested.”

Hufstader and the others insisted they simply wanted to hear Bush and demanded to see what list — if any — indicated that they had failed a background check. They argued their point until local police showed up and said they would be arrested unless they departed. The police officers explained the rally was a private event and the organizers could pick and choose who would attend. The police took their tickets and escorted them seven blocks away from the stadium.

“Several things anger us,” says Hufstader. “It may have been a private event, but the tickets didn’t say that and we were never told that. We felt misled. But we felt worse about the College Republicans. We were very disappointed that our peers singled us out for what they thought we might do. And we later heard they had been trained to find potential threats at the event. But we were not a threat. We’re even friends with some of these College Republicans. This was a sad commentary about the bitter divide of American politics. Look how hard it was for us to hear a contrary view. We wanted to see the president and then talk about what he said afterward. We felt like we were being blacklisted by our campus peers, and this is a campus that is supposed to be open to different political views.”

Did the College Republicans put the kibosh on the Kalamazooans? I e-mailed the head of the group at Kalamazoo College and have not yet heard back from him. (Metro Times phoned the head of the group, who declined to comment.) Is it standard practice for the Bush campaign to ban from its rallies citizens who do not pledge allegiance to the candidate? I called the Bush campaign and was passed to Merrill Smith, a regional spokesperson. No word back from her either.

But it’s no surprise that the Bush campaign — like other campaigns — stage-manages its public events to the fullest extent possible and tells non-supporters to keep out (or be locked up). Bush did not engage in drive-by campaigning in Kalamazoo to provide local citizens the opportunity to see him in action. He hit the town in search of a middle-of-America backdrop, a screaming throng and upbeat footage on the local news shows. After all, campaigns are about candidates, not voters. So while Hufstader and his pals did not get to see Bush in person wax about the glories of freedom they did at least receive a lesson in modern politics.

Reprinted with permission from The Nation. Send comments to [email protected]
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