WASHINGTON -- Police strapped the wrists of tennis champion Arthur Ashe behind his back and arrested him and other leading black activists in front of the White House Wednesday in an orderly but enthusiastic protest of U.S. immigration policy towards Haiti.
Ashe was among the first of the protesters standing on the hot asphalt of Pennsylvania Avenue to be led from behind a large banner stating 'Haitians Locked Out Because They're Black' to be arrested, his wrists strapped with a plastic band.
Moments before, dance artist Katherine Dunham emerged in her wheelchair from behind the yellow police boundary tape at Lafayette Park and rolled down the avenue to greet the protesters that included William Gibson, chairman of the board of the NAACP, motion picture director Jonathan Demme and Wesley Sutton, owner of the Apollo Theatre in New York.
A police spokesman said Ashe was one of 95 people arrested on a charge of failing to move and blocking traffic. There was a $50 fine.
The protest was organized by TransAfrica, a Washington-based human rights group active in U.S. policy towards South Africa and Haiti, and the NAACP. Although President Bush's name was often and loudly condemned through loudspeakers -- including heavily French accented English -- the president was away campaigning and not in the White House.
Thousands of poor Haitians have sought to flee the military rule of their impoverished island, risking their lives and often drowning in overcrowded, flimsy boats and rafts that sink before reaching the U.S. coast.
The administration says the Haitians are more often economic refugees than people with a true basis of fearing political persecution. Its policy of having the Coast Guard stop the crafts and return the refugees to Haiti with instructions to apply at the U.S. embassy for asylum is under appeal to the Supreme Court.
'We have sealed these people into the death chamber of their own island,'TransAfrica leader Randall Robinson said.
Ashe, the former Wimbledon champion, said he knows discrimination by 'having grown up black in the segregationist system of Virginia.'
He said he had a Haitian roommate in college, spent his honeymoon in Haiti, and believes Haitians should be admitted to the United States as political refugees as millions of Asian and European refugees who have come to America for years.
'If our present policy of interdicting and turning back Haitian political refugees in the middle of the ocean is an example of the 'New World Order,'' Ashe said of Bush's characterization of his post Cold War policy, 'then we are going to have a lot more of these protests here.'
'Just obey our own laws,' Ashe said. 'They are entitled to a hearing to see if they are indeed political refugees.'
Ashe wore a red arm band, designating that he was one of the protesters to line up on Pennsylvania Avenue to be arrested in an orderly demonstration that police handled quietly.
There were many signs equating the Justice Department policy with racism, but Ashe did not.
'I am loathe to use the word racism, but it is certainly discriminatory,' he said. 'It (Haitian policy) is bordering on racism, but I don't want to go that far yet. For me it is a very powerfully, emotionally-charged word. Our policy is wrong. It is legally indefensible. We have got to stop this, we are making a mockery of our own laws.'
Gibson said the problem is not just with the administration.
'We stand marching, really going to jail, because we face the circumstance of a vacillating and weak president, a Congress that is hesistant, and a Supreme Court that is equivocating on the lives of people who are dying every day,' Gibson said.
'These folks seek the same right as people have chosen in past years, but who are denied the opportunity of a hearing. We say to this president, if you continue to deny thes people an opportunity for freedom, we are going to deny you four more years in that house.'
Protesters received support from several quarters.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., issued a statement after the rally urging Congress to amend immigration laws to halt repatriation of 'persecuted refugees.'
'The Bush administration's misguided and illegal policy must be reversed,' he said. 'At a time when refugee needs are greater than ever before, the United States is setting an unconscionable example for the world.'