Battle for workplace freedom becomes struggle for transparency
On December 11, 2012, a few hundred citizens gathered in the shadow of the Michigan State Capitol building to participate in a watershed moment in the fight for economic freedom—the passage of right-to-work legislation. Now, almost exactly three months later, this successful grassroots effort for workplace freedom has become a struggle for government transparency.
Mayhem at the workplace freedom tent
But first…let’s take a trip back to the events of that day.
Surrounded by a mob of thousands of angry union members and other allies of the Left, a group of staunch right-to-work supporters huddled under the Americans for Prosperity-Michigan Workplace Freedom tent. Their goal: To stand in solidarity with the Michigan state legislature as it prepared to pass historic right-to-work legislation.
Even as the mayhem outside the tent began to grow, two masked men pushed their way into the tent. After chowing down on hot dogs and snacks, they began to ransack. The men flipped over tables, looted snacks and equipment, tipped over urns of boiling coffee (which steamed up from the frozen ground), and finally took box cutters to the canvas tethers that secured the tent to the ground.
As the tent began to sag and collapse, the angry crowd saw an opportunity to cause more trouble. They began to push the sides of the tent down to the ground, even as AFP activists propped the tent up with their arms so those underneath could make their escape. Men and women; young and old; the able and the disabled…walked, rolled, and even crawled out from under the tent.
The protestors stomped over the tent—slicing off pieces for souvenirs, looting equipment (the tent heaters and propane tanks were eventually recovered miles away), and subjecting those who had fled the tent to taunts and verbal and physical assaults.
In the end, the mob of protestors ran peacefully assembled citizens who were exercising their right to free speech…right off of the Capitol lawn.
Supporters of right-to-work won a victory for which we can be proud, but many of AFP’s activists expressed shock, dismay, and disgust at those who perpetrated this viscous assault. It wasn’t the physical assault found to be most offensive; it was the assault on one of our nation’s most cherished rights—the right to express one’s opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation.
AFP activists who had been wronged filed reports with the Michigan State Police post in the Capitol. All told, Americans for Prosperity estimates the destruction of private property at more than $60,000.
Battle for transparency
The vitriol and rhetoric surrounding the right-to-work issue undoubtedly clouded some perceptions of what transpired at the AFP Workplace Freedom tent that day. And certainly, transparency is in the public’s best interests. For this reason, AFP filed a FOIA request with the Michigan State Police for video footage taken on the Capitol grounds during December 11, 2012. From our own observation of video cameras placed around, and even on, the Capitol building, it was clear that significant video footage had been captured. Further, sources close to the State Police indicated that there were mobile camera units in the crowd as well.
In response to our FOIA request, a statutory extension of time was taken on January 4, 2013. Much to our dismay, another letter quickly followed—this time notifying AFP that any response to our FOIA request would cost an estimated total processing fee of $19,602.52. The bulk of this cost ($19,573.92) comprised “labor costs to search for, retrieve, review and examine records and to separate exempt material, if any ”based on the “hourly wage of the lowest paid MSP employees capable“ of performing the job.
On Monday, March 11, Americans for Prosperity mailed a request for fee waiver. AFP Legal Counsel Christian Berg wrote:
“On December 11, 2012 AFP activists assembled to peaceably demonstrate in support of the passage of House Bill 4003 and Senate Bill 116. These activists travelled to the Capitol with the understanding that they would be able to make their voices heard in a safe public setting.
Unfortunately the Capitol grounds did not provide a safe haven for civil public discourse. AFP activists were intimidated and many fear that any future attempts to stand up for what they believe in may be met with violence. We must not allow their speech to be chilled.
While the public has been made aware that violence, property damage, and destruction took place they do not have a complete understanding of the events that transpired. The videotaped material in possession of the Michigan State Police would significantly add to the public’s understanding of the events of December 11, 2012.
What is next in our battle for transparency and accountability surrounding the events of December 11, 2012? The obvious answer is continued pressure from citizens and a commitment from our state legislators to shining sunshine—the best disinfectant—on all aspects of government activities. This is our best means to stem corruption and boost public confidence in those government officials who took an oath to serve and protect the interests of its citizenry.
Scott Hagerstrom is State Director and Annie Patnaude is Deputy State Director for Americans for Prosperity-Michigan. You can follow them on Twitter at @followscott and @pressgal