Senate Protests More Likely to End in Handcuffs
Planning to protest a hearing on Capitol Hill? One warning is all you get under Frank J. Larkin, the Senate’s 40th sergeant-at-arms.
A few weeks after he was sworn in as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s choice for the chamber’s chief law enforcement officer, Larkin got together with the new Republican-controlled committees, his staff and Capitol Police to ensure everybody was “in sync” on how to deal with disruptions.
Facing heat from one of the Hill’s hottest-tempered senators over a security snafu involving former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Larkin wanted to clarify what kind of conduct would be tolerated from the demonstrators who crowd the front rows of high-profile hearings or “show up unannounced to voice their opinion” in a member’s office.
“There was significant focus on not obstructing their free speech,” Larkin said during a March 12 appearance before Senate appropriators to present his agency’s nearly $206 million budget request. “However, as you alluded to,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., there’s been effort to talk to protest groups in advance of high-profile hearings, “clearly outlining what was appropriate behavior and what wasn’t appropriate behavior, and then informing them as to what the consequences will be.”
Larkin, current chairman of the Capitol Police Board, said he personally directed the department “that anyone that is to be removed from a hearing room for inappropriate behavior — whether it presented a safety issue or a security issue — would be arrested.”
The policy isn’t new, explained Larkin, an ex-Navy Seal who spent 22 years in the Secret Service, but it needed to be clarified “so there would be no misinterpretation as to which would be enforced.”
Things didn’t go according to plan on Jan. 29, when roughly 10 protesters from CodePink approached witnesses during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Two protesters were detained by police, according to an organizer, but none were arrested. This outraged Arizona Republican John McCain, the panel’s chairman, who called one protester “low-life scum” and later vowed he would be “raising hell” over the incident.
“From no presence whatsoever, yeah, I think they’ve improved,” McCain told CQ Roll Call when asked if Capitol Police have done a better job in the wake of the incident. “They’ve assured me that they’ll keep order, so we’ll see. We haven’t had any problems in Armed Services since then.”
McCain speculated “the reason why there really wasn’t much concern” on that day is because normally protesters stand, yell and leave. “In this particular case they rushed forward and actually threatened physical harm to Henry Kissinger, a 91-year-old man. That’s why it was so different and so that’s why we’ve taken additional measures.”
Larkin and McCain had a face-to-face meeting shortly after the Kissinger debacle. “Oh, yeah, it was a spirited conversation,” McCain said, winking.
Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine, whose leadership was called into question by Congress for the second time during the March 12 Senate hearing, echoed Larkin.
“Our response that day was not acceptable [and] not up to our high standards,” Dine said. “It did allow us to work with the sergeant-at-arms and his staff and all of the committees to highlight the communication, number one, between us, the sergeant-at-arms staff, and the committees, so we know ahead of time the expectations of all parties.”
Dine emphasized the department takes the First Amendment “and the people’s right to be heard up here,” very seriously. Capitol Police have formulated some better, “scenario-based training” as a result of the incident.
Other Republican senators agreed with McCain that the Capitol Police have stepped up their game at recent hearings.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said officers “did a fine job” controlling protesters at a March 11 hearing on the president’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force. “It was over quickly. … It worked out just fine. Perfect.”
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune said there haven’t been any issues at his committee, but he attended a Finance Committee hearing “a few weeks ago where there was a fairly substantial disruption.”
The South Dakota Republican said Capitol Police “do a really good job of making sure that everybody can proceed with their daily activities in a safe and uninterrupted way, but does that mean we can’t do it better? There’s always room for improvement.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told CQ Roll Call his Democratic colleague Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont was “strong” in maintaining order when he held the gavel. “We had a number of instances where people stood up and shouted out like that,” the Alabama senator said. “The chairman has to be strong and has to be backed, unfortunately, at some point, by the law enforcement.”
Seven-term Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran had a different take from his vantage point as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“The chairman, you know, has the power with the gavel to bring order to the room in which the hearing is held,” he told CQ Roll Call. “I’ve never seen anyone try to go against the wishes of the chairman. [I have] been very fortunate there’s never been any disturbance, at least in any room I’ve been in.
“If there is a problem, there’s a policeman right outside the door just near the hearing room and he or she could take a look, escort that person out of the room,” Cochran continued. “I think we’re safe and secure. I haven’t seen any disruptions of our proceedings by people trying to create disturbances.”
Niels Lesniewski and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.