Monday, October 18, 2010

Joe Miller's private security team handcuffs journalist

The bizarre Alaska Senate race has gotten even stranger. Tea party candidate Joe Miller is facing mounting criticism after members of his private security team handcuffed a reporter Sunday night at a public town hall event at an Anchorage middle school.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, Tony Hopfinger of Alaska Dispatch was trying to ask Miller about his departure from Fairbanks North Star Borough when he was surrounded by private security personnel who told Hopfinger to leave. As Miller escaped out the side door and a mob enveloped the reporter, Hopfinger said he felt threatened by the men in dark suits and crew cuts and pushed one away. Hopfinger says he was immediately shoved against a wall with his hands behind his back as steel handcuffs were put on his wrists by guards who dragged him into the hallway.
While Hopfinger was still in handcuffs, the guards attempted to prevent other reporters from talking to him and threatened them too with arrest for trespass. A Daily News reporter interviewed Hopfinger anyway. No other reporters were arrested, though a few shoving matches and chest bumps ensued as the guards attempted to cordon off Hopfinger and block photographs and videos from being taken of the bizarre school scene.
When police arrived, officers told security firm owner William Fulton to release Hopfinger. Police took statements from witnesses before leaving, and no charges have been filed.

Fulton claimed Hopfinger was trespassing at a private event, even though the free town hall was publicly advertised, open to the public and held at a public building. He also claimed he had been watching Hopfinger because the reporter had "something in his hand," though he eventually admitted the object was obviously not a gun.
The Miller campaign released a written one-paragraph statement from Fulton, then followed with a statement titled, "Liberal Blogger 'Loses It' at Town Hall Meeting." In that statement, Miller accused Hopfinger of assaulting someone and of taking advantage of the meeting to "create a publicity stunt." He said his personal security detail had to take action to detain "the irrational blogger."
Meanwhile, the criticism and commentary is spreading across the Internet. Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, Miller's Democratic opponent, sent Miller a message on Twitter reading, "in case you were unaware, the Constitution also applies to reporters." Eric Boehlert of Media Matters called the incident "this year's Macaca Moment," referring to former Republican Sen. George Allen's racist on-camera remark that cost him a close 2006 election to Democrat Jim Webb. Slate's Dave Weigel also has some interesting analysis:
First, an entourage of the size captured by the Anchorage Daily News's photographer isn't on every campaign; on the trail, I usually encounter a driver or two accompanying Senate candidates. Second, it's unusual for a security detail to go the extra step of handcuffing someone, especially if that someone isn't armed. Third, read Miller's statement: the campaign's strategy is to recast Hopfinger as a man "obsessed" with Miller, because he... writes about him and attends events.
The Huffington Post also provides some background on Dropzone Security Services, a group which Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore calls "Joe Miller's Alaskan militia":
The DZ bragged to patrons about their security squad being littered with former Blackwater operatives. Not disclosing full names and a preference for cash transactions were commonplace. A poster of President Obama as the Joker hangs in their front window.
Just so everyone is clear: A serious candidate for the United States Senate is surrounding himself with right-wing extremists and former Blackwater operatives who physically detain journalists who ask too many questions. Betcha won't see that on Sarah Palin's Alaska ©.

UPDATE: Miller's press release after the incident stated the school required him to provide security for the event, which explained why the Dropzone team was present in the first place. Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore has confirmed with school district officials that the district does not in fact require security, meaning Miller was lying.
UPDATE 2: The Alaska Daily News now reports that two members of Miller's security team are active-duty military, and may have been moonlighting for Drop Zone without the Army's permission:
The soldiers, Spc. Tyler Ellingboe, 22, and Sgt. Alexander Valdez, 31, are assigned to the 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade at Fort Richardson. Maj. Bill Coppernoll, the public affairs officer for the Army in Alaska, said the two soldiers did not have permission from their current chain of command to work for the Drop Zone, but the Army was still researching whether previous company or brigade commanders authorized their employment.

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