The ACLU is accusing police of overreacting in their arrests of 31 people at the Virginia Capitol on Saturday during a peaceful protest over passage of a controversial bill requiring pregnant women to undergo an ultrasound before being allowed to have an abortion.
"We do not know yet if anyone's free speech rights were violated," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. "We do know, however, that from all appearances the police overreacted to a situation in which peaceful demonstrators gathered at a public place to exercise their First Amendment right to protest the government."
About 1,000 people took part in the March 3 protest. While organizers had a permit to gather on the Capitol grounds, some protesters sat on the steps of the Capitol Building, locked arms and refused to move. They were arrested and dragged away by the Virginia State Police Tactical Team, which arrived in riot gear and accompanied by police dogs.
Willis accused the officers of using "completely unnecessary military-style force." The ACLU is asking people who witnessed the arrests or who were themselves arrested to contact the organization.
The police officers' tactics have also come under criticism from other organizations including the Virginia State Conference NAACP and some state lawmakers.
State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) likened the police response to the treatment of civil rights protesters a half-century ago.
"Not since the Massive Resistance days of the 1960s have I seen such a disgraceful display of excessive police presence," she said on the Senate floor. "Massive Resistance" refers to the effort spearheaded by Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. to prevent integration of Virginia's public schools a half-century ago.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) lashed out at lawmakers who criticized the police.
"I would hope that they realize how far out of line they are when they say things like that about our police officers," he said.
McDonnell, who serves as chair of the Republican Governors Association, opposes abortion and has used his veto power to restrict state funding for the legal procedure. During his gubernatorial campaign, McDonnell came under fire for his 1989 thesis for Regent University in which he expressed opposition to birth control as well as abortion and described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family.
McDonnell has denied having anything to do with the police response to Saturday's protest. He was at the men's basketball tournament at the Richmond Coliseum at the time of the arrests.
The protesters made their first court appearances on Monday. They face misdemeanor charges of trespassing and unlawful assembly.