Charleston jail were there because they insulted the president. The Ranks were issued citations and released on their own recognizancewith instructions to go nowhere near the capitol grounds, where President Bush was speaking. It was a little late. By the time they got back to the hotel, the local TV news was already running a clip of the president’s speechthe passage where he described “free thought, free expression” Nicole and Jeff Rank had been frog-marched from the capitol grounds in handcuffs, jailed, booked, released, and, as they walked from the jail to their hotel, recognized by people on the streets who had seen them on the TV news. “We were sitting in a hotel room rubbing our wrists and he’s talking about freedom of expression,” said Jeff Rank. “Is he kidding?” It would get worse. Monday, July 5, was a holiday for federal workers. On Tuesday morning, Nicole Rank was summoned from a 9:30 meeting by her supervisor’s administrative assistant. FEIVU6 federal coordinating officer and his legal counsel were waiting for her. “They told me that, because of my actions, I had compromised FEMM mission in West Virginia,” she said. They reassured her that she wasn’t fired, then ordered to her clean out her desk, turn in her rental car, and check out of the hotel where she was living on a FEMA per diem account. She would be responsible for any hotel expense incurred after July 6. It felt like fired. That night the Ranks left West Virginia and drove to Philadelphia, where Nicole had worked in FEMA:s offices before being assigned to disaster relief in West Virginia. They spent a couple of days in a Motel 6, cleaning out their storage unit and loading what would fit in their Jeep station wagonalong with their dog and cat. Then they started the three-day drive back home to Texas. Before they drove too far south, they stopped in Virginia to phone the court clerk in Charleston. Their citation specified that fines could be mailed in if the infraction did not involve domestic violence or DUI. The clerk told Jeff Rank they would have to make a court appearance in two weeks: “She said, ‘I don’t care what the ticket says, you have to come in: ” On the drive from Roanoke, Virginia, to Charleston, West Virginia, Jeff and Nicole Rank decided they had been pushed too far. “We were wearing T-shirts,” Jeff said in an interview in the couple’s Houston apartment. “Exercising our freedom of speech in a public square. . . . And they were treating us like criminals:’ “Our costs were mounting, we had to stay in Charleston until the fifteenth, so I picked up the phone and called the ACLU,” said Nicole. ACLU staff attorney Terri Baur began to explain that there was a twoto three-week process that began with submitting a written request for ACLU representation. Then something clicked. “She said, Are you Nicole Rank? We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”‘ Baur said that the West Virginia board members were at a meeting in San Francisco and upon their return would almost certainly vote to represent the Ranks. She even found the couple a cabin to stay in while they awaited trial. Out of work, money, and luck, Nicole Rank had made the right phone call. Harvey Peyton was eager to take the case. The feds had trashed the Ranks’ First Amendment rights and done it in a cowardly way, using local law enforcement as the heavies. “One of them is a capitol policeman:’ Peyton said. “One of them is a conservation officer. Two are Charleston policemen. And one is a West Virginia state trooper. They had no instruction, no training, no training about how to handle a protest. . . . So they give them to the Charleston Police Department, who don’t know what to do with them because they didn’t break the law” Peyton looked at the municipal code and concluded that the trespassing charge wouldn’t stick. “This wasn’t going to be the most difficult case I’d ever tried. It was like trespassing in the public library:’ he said. The Ranks’ trial was scheduled for 7:00 a.m. on July 15 in municipal court. “I walked in the city courthouse that day,” Peyton said. “They got a real smart mayor in Charleston, West Virginia. His name is Danny Jones. Now he’s a Republican, but he’s not a Bush Republican. His knuckles don’t drag the ground. And I’m thinking, Well the mayor’s here. It’s seven o’clock in the morning. It’s municipal court. And the mayor’s here?” So was the press. To get into a courthouse filled with DUI defendants, Jeff and Nicole Rank had to do a perp walk through a gauntlet of TV cameras and radio and newspaper reporters. “I felt like 0.J.,” Jeff said. “And all we had done was exercise our First Amendment right of free speech.” As soon as Peyton entered the courtroom, the assistant city attorney walked over and said the city would move to drop the charges. “The mayor told them to dismiss it,” Peyton said. “Then he went next Monday to the city council and had the council pass a motion apologizing to the Ranks. It took the sting out of it.” But not enough. Jeff Rank is short and stocky. His close-cropped brown beard and gold metal-frame glasses tend to focus an intensity that becomes more evident when he leans forward to listen or talk. Nicole is quieter and more pensive, her longer Byzantine icon face framed by dark hair. “She’s wicked smart,” says Jeff, as he describes his wife passing the written exam and making it through the round of interviews that qualified her for a position as a Foreign Service officeronly to be told that she 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 19, 2008
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