President Obama’s visit to the Piedmont Triad earlier this week to highlight his efforts to create jobs coincided with the emergence of a populist movement here called Occupy Greensboro that is protesting the continuing economic difficulties experienced by a broad segment of the American population, corporate greed and rising wealth inequality.
Among a handful of activities launched this week by the group, which maintains an encampment in the parking lot of the YWCA, was OccupyObama. The group solicited letters on its website, inviting people “to tell the president your story about how the economy/healthcare system is hurting you.
“Please send us a 1-2 page letter (polite and respectful, please) and we will carry it to his hotel and do our best to present them to him personally,” it reads.
They might have expected a welcome reception: The White House website states that “President Obama is committed to creating the most open and accessible administration in American history.”
David Allen, a 50-year-old participant in Occupy Greensboro who is employed by a local tool and die company, volunteered to deliver a stack of 17 letters during Obama’s stay at the Proximity Hotel on Green Valley Road.
“The Occupy Greensboro group basically agreed to send a delegation,” Allen said, who emphasized that he speaks only for himself. “We wanted to invite the president to come down and listen to the people in the park. We were pragmatic. We understood that that would be a logistical nightmare. So we invited people to write letters about troubles they were running into, and we would act as the messenger. We weren’t there to express Occupy Greensboro’s position. I was there to convey individual messages from citizens.”
Allen spent almost 12 hours on the sidewalk outside of the hotel, and was not able to meet with a member of the president’s staff or hand off the letters to anyone. He did get to pass the time with in “convivial conversation” with two Greensboro police officers posted overnight outside the hotel.
“We discussed everything from one officer’s wife’s diabetes to my wife’s multiple sclerosis to Kennedy’s assassination to physics,” Allen said.
The police officers passed along Allen’s request to a Secret Service agent posted nearby. Allen was able to speak with the agent. Here, the citizen’s encounter with civil authority was not so congenial.
“After the agent departed, about a half an hour later, several other agents came out and questioned my intentions,” Allen recounted. “I repeated my request, that I was only there to pass on letters to the president. They said, ‘We don’t pass on requests to the president.’ I said I would speak to an aide. They said, ‘You don’t have any intention of leaping in front of the motorcade, do you?’ They said, ‘You do realize we may impose a 75-foot exclusion zone because of handguns?’ I said, ‘I’m perfectly willing to waive my 4th Amendment right to be secure against search and seizure, but I will exercise my 1st Amendment right to stand on a public street corner.’ I told the officers I would not resist arrest if it came to that point.”
That was the closest Allen came to the president.
If that were all, Allen said he would have come away from the experience praising the professionalism of the Greensboro Police Department.
At about 7:30 a.m., a couple hours before the presidential motorcade departed for Jamestown Allen spotted two men whose furtive glances struck him as suspicious. The two uniformed officers on the scene didn’t seem that concerned, and he would later understand why.
Allen said one of the men, who wore a beard, got up in his face and said, “Don’t move. Don’t look at me.” Allen said the other man stood behind him, and he was concerned that he might get pushed. Allen called for assistance to the uniformed officers, but they were both preoccupied with directing traffic at the moment.
Allen said as soon as the traffic cleared the two unidentified men quickly left and got into an SUV. He thought about chasing them down and taking a picture of the vehicle's license plate with his camera phone, but then reconsidered when he thought about how Secret Service might view someone breaking into a run and reaching into his pocket. Instead, he walked. Allen said a security guard employed by Lorillard stopped him and asked him what he was doing. When he explained his objective, Allen said the security guard told him that the two men had shown him a Greensboro Police Department badge.
To Allen, who tries to evaluate evidence empirically without speculating about unknowns, the incident raises questions about whether an undercover police officer attempted to provoke him into a response that would justify his arrest so they could remove him from the sidewalk in advance of the president’s motorcade. He is considering filing a complaint with the department.
“I can certainly let the folks out there know that there is a dissatisfied citizen,” said Susan Danielsen, the department’s public information officer, “but I have no way of getting back with him. He needs to contact the police department. We can work through his concerns through police channels.”
Allen said he is angry about his encounter with the two men he identified as undercover police officers, and disappointed with his inability to reach anyone in the presidential entourage.
When asked about Occupy Greensboro's efforts to meet with the president, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard the motorcade en route to Virginia on Tuesday afternoon: "There was no communication with any of the traveling White House staff that I'm aware of."
A representative of the White House referred questions to the Secret Service. As to receiving letters, the White House website notes that citizens can mail letters to the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.
“When I was trying to get people to write letters, the most common response was, ‘Why bother?’” Allen said. “They said, ‘You’re never going to see the president. You’re never going to see an aide.’ Unfortunately, they turned out to be correct.”