A successful protest, where several dozen people rallied in favor of free speech, was marred on Saturday, when a belligerent group of counter protesters, including two from what appeared to be a motorcycle gang, crashed the demonstration and threatened those in attendance, including a 14-year old boy arrested for “desecrating” a Jesus statue and Truth Wins Out’s Executive Director Wayne Besen. Incredibly, there was not a single police officer on-hand to prevent potential violence and this left the protesters vulnerable to thugs and forced them to fend for themselves.
“The Bedford police placed us directly in harms way and their inaction nearly caused a full-blown melee,” said Truth Wins Out’s Executive Director Wayne Besen. “This is the first time in two decades of protesting that I’ve been put directly in harm’s way by town officials. We call on Bedford to immediately review its policies for protecting the free speech rights of those who demonstrate in their town.”
From the moment event organizers –Truth Wins Out, American Atheists, and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers – arrived in Bedford, PA, they were greeted by hostile counterdemonstrators. This included homophobic epithets lobbed at American Atheists President David Silverman. (9:12 and 9:25 on a You Tube video). A military veteran who was participating in our protest was called a “disgrace” to his country. (9:40)
Unfortunately, the local media covered a sanitized version of our protest – without highlighting the harassment. Check out a television report HERE and a newspaper report HERE. Given how menacing the bikers were, it is possible that media representatives were cowed by their glowering presence.
The fourteen year-old teenager, at the center of the controversy, joined our event with his mother. There was an attempt to accost him by the counterdemonstrator’s lead instigator. To protect the young man, Truth Wins Out’s Executive Director, Wayne Besen, stood between one of the black-clad motor bikers and the teenager. This led to a near fistfight, where Besen and the thug were standing toe to toe with the biker repeatedly challenging Besen to “take your best shot ‘slick,'” which was an apparent reference to the fact Besen was from Chicago. Pennsylvania Nonbelievers President Brian Fields soon joined and helped Besen block the hooligan from bullying the teen and his mother.
This entire episode was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube at roughly 2:25 PM (EST) on Saturday. Within 10 minutes the video was taken down. A new video that omits this incident was placed online later that evening — in what appears to be a deliberate effort to conceal and cover-up the confrontational words, clear threats, and near violence that occurred as we stood up to protect the teen.
The police were called and they arrived shortly to disperse the escalating confrontation. However, the question remains why they were not at the event from the beginning to keep the protest free of intimidation and violence?
“I am still greatly worried for the safety of the teenage boy and his family,” said Truth Wins Out’s Executive Director Wayne Besen. “The young man was portrayed by the hooligans as a troublemaker, and they made it crystal clear that they intended to harass him or do harm. Additionally, the District Attorney, Bill Higgins, has stigmatized the teen as a ‘troubled young man’ and appears to have a vendetta against him. Make no mistake: If anything happens to this teenager or his family the town of Bedford is to blame and should be held legally accountable.”
Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins decided to prosecute the child under an obscure Pennsylvania law which states that “desecration” includes “physically mistreating [objects] in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.”
While Higgins maintains that he is simply an upstanding district attorney who wishes to uphold Pennsylvania law, his own statements on the case undermine that claim. In an interview with local media, Higgins stated:
“This troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of our community. His actions constitute a violation of the law, and he will be prosecuted accordingly. If that tends to upset the ‘anti-Christian, ban-school-prayer, war-on-Christmas, oppose-display-of-Ten-Commandments’ crowd, I make no apologies.”
“By making this incendiary statement, it is clear that Higgins is more of a frustrated right-wing ideologue than a responsible district attorney,” said TWO’s Wayne Besen. “Instead of fighting real crime, Higgins is fighting a culture war at the expense of an innocent teenager.”
The youth’s actions may have been in poor taste, but religious freedom does not include the right never to be offended by a teenager’s prank. Moreover, prosecution of this action is a clear violation of the teen’s own First Amendment rights. Additionally, the teenager acknowledged to TWO’s Besen at the event that he “regretted” his actions.