Arrested for being Eric Scheidler on Chicago’s Navy Pier

Eric Scheidler with his father Joe after being released from jail [Photo by Ann Scheidler]

In my travels around the country, I’m often asked by fellow pro-life activists how many times I’ve been arrested. They know about the many times my father has been arrested—thirteen in all—and how he was dragged through the federal courts for over 20 years in the infamous NOW v. Scheidler case. They assume that I must have been arrested quite a few times, too.

I would always answer that, in fact, I have never been arrested in the course of my pro-life work. I’d been threatened with arrest too many times to count, but had always managed to respectfully reason with police and avoid the handcuffs.

But now I’ll have to give a different answer. This past Wednesday, I was arrested for the first time for my pro-life activism.

Protesting Planned Parenthood and Fay Clayton

The arrest happened at Chicago’s Navy Pier, where the Pro-Life Action League was protesting Planned Parenthood’s “Generations Celebration,” a big annual fundraiser which has been held for several years at Navy Pier’s Grand Ballroom.

This year’s gala would be honoring Fay Clayton, the lead attorney in NOW v. Scheidler. Clayton ultimately lost the case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which threw out all the charges against my father. I suppose it’s appropriate that my first pro-life arrest would come at an event honoring my father’s archenemy.

About fifteen minutes after the protest began on public property outside Navy Pier, I decided to visit the pier to check things out. But I was soon stopped by a security guard stationed at Navy Pier’s property line.

Eric and crew setting up the protest [Photo by Ann Scheidler]

People are often surprised—as they should be—to learn that Navy Pier is not considered public property. In fact, it is owned by the City of Chicago, but leased for a dollar a year to a not-for-profit corporation, Navy Pier Inc., which operates the pier free of public scrutiny and without having to honor our constitutional freedoms.

The guard told me that I could not enter the pier. I asked why. He asked me if I was with the protest group, and I said that I was, but why should that matter? I wasn’t going onto the pier to protest anything. I pointed to all the people coming and going—diners, tourists, people just out for a walk—and asked why I can’t freely walk onto the pier, too. I said, “Are you telling me I can’t go to Navy Pier because I’m pro-life?”

He insisted that I couldn’t, and said those were his orders from his supervisor. I asked who the supervisor was and if I could talk to them. He refused to tell me.

But then he seemed to notice the GoPro camera clipped to my belt in plain sight. Maybe he decided he shouldn’t be so unreasonable if he’s being recorded. In any case, he got on his radio and asked if it was okay if the protesters went on the pier. I heard the answer loud and clear: as long as we go one-by-one and don’t carry signs, we can go on the pier.

I thanked the guard, who seemed relieved not to have to block my way anymore, and proceeded to enter Navy Pier. Before walking through the doors, I removed my Choose Life cap, lest it be construed as some kind of “protest sign.”

An innocent walk on Navy Pier

The crowd thinned as I walked farther and farther onto the pier, past all the restaurants and attractions, until I reached the Grand Ballroom at the far end of the pier—over half a mile from the entrance.

As I turned the corner into the hallway outside the Grand Ballroom, a woman asked me, “Are you here for the event?” I said “No,” and continued walking by. She said, “This area is closed for a private event.” As I approached the door to the outside walkway, I could hear the woman following me. Had she recognized me?

As I exited the pier building, two security guards pointed the way back down the pier. I saw the woman from inside talking to the two guards as I walked away.

After a few minutes, I saw a security van with its lights on coming my way up the long drive. It passed me, reached the end of the pier, and turned around. I expected the van to pass me by going the other direction, but then realized it was hanging back and following me at some distance.

When I reached the end of the pier, another security guard said to me, “Can I see your I.D.?” No greeting, not explanation, just a demand for my I.D.  I told him no, and continued walking, eager to get back on public property. He began to follow me so I turned, still walking, and asked why he wanted to see my I.D. He just repeated the demand.

Police falsely demand identification

By this time I was back on the sidewalk along Grand Avenue, and I saw a Chicago police officer approaching. I said, “I’ll talk to you,” at the same time he said, “Come over here, I need to talk to you,” taking my arm and directing me onto the grass beside the sidewalk.

He asked for my I.D. I said, “I’m happy to identify myself, but I don’t want to give you my I.D.” I was reluctant to surrender my I.D. because I’ve seen the police exploit the vulnerability that comes with having your I.D. in someone else’s hands. I also know that state and federal law do not require citizens to carry identification, let alone surrender it. I also knew that if I’m being suspected of a crime, I’m required to identify myself, but that doesn’t mean showing an I.D.

Eric being arrested

Eric being arrested at Navy Pier [Photo by Matt Yonke]

The officer falsely insisted that I’m required to carry an I.D. and said that if I didn’t hand it to him, he would arrest me for trespassing and I’d be taken to jail and would have to go to court. I repeated that I did not have to give up my I.D. but that I was perfectly willing to identify myself. I insisted I was not trespassing, but had been given permission by a security guard to go on the pier. I pointed out that no one had asked me to leave.

I decided I had better call my attorneys at the Thomas More Society and took out my phone, but then the officer suddenly grabbed my shoulder and arm and pulled my hand back to cuff me. I was shocked at how quickly the situation had escalated. This wasn’t the first time I was threatened with arrest, nor the first time a police officer inappropriately demanded an I.D. card. I’d always been able to diffuse the situation in the past, often with help from TMS.

As soon as I realized the officer meant to follow through on his threat of arrest I said, “Okay, you don’t have to arrest me—I’ll give you my I.D.,” and tried to get my wallet from my front pocket, but he said it’s too late for that. The security guard wrenched my cell phone out of my hand, and a female Chicago police officer helped hold my arms back. This was way over the top. It was plain they’d been itching to arrest me all along.

As the cuffs went on, I began to call out for my assistant Matt Yonke, who was down the block coordinating the protest. I yelled to him that I was being arrested. Matt was only able to shoot a few moments of the arrest before security guards forced him back. But at least my friends now knew what was happening.

Banned from Navy Pier for life

Once I was tightly handcuffed the police officer escorted me to a small room inside the Navy Pier building and told me to sit on a bench. He took my GoPro camera, still recording, off of my belt. I asked him if I could turn the camera off, since I had the entire incident recorded, including the security guard giving me permission to enter the pier and the fact that I hadn’t entered any restricted area.

Joe Scheidler attempts to get info from police after Eric’s arrest [Photo by Ann Scheidler]

At this the officer said, “If Navy Pier wants it erased, it will be erased.” I told him that would be destroying evidence.

I tried to explain that I had done nothing wrong, that I had been told I could go into the Navy Pier building if I was alone and did not have a protest sign. I pointed out that I’d even removed my pro-life cap!

Eventually John Graeber, the head of security at Navy Pier, came to the doorway. I was glad to see him because I’d had positive interactions with him in past years when the Pro-Life Action League protested Planned Parenthood’s Navy Pier gala. I tried to explain that I was told by one of his security guards that I could go into Navy Pier, that I was just walking around like anyone might do, that I had done nothing wrong, had not entered any private area, and had left when I was told the Grand Ballroom was closed for a private event.

He replied, “Do you think I’m stupid?” and walked away. Graeber’s demeanor convinced me that I would have been arrested even if I had undermined my own rights and given my I.D. to the security guard who first asked for it.

Shortly thereafter, I was given a document entitled “Navy Pier Trespass Notice,” informing me that I’m banned from Navy Pier for life. The “violation” listed on this notice is “protesting”—though all I did was take a walk through the building.

Four hours in police custody

Two Chicago police officers arrived to take me to the 18th Division police headquarters. As we were leaving, I asked what would happen to my iPhone and GoPro. The officers said that the other officer, who had arrested me, would be bringing them in separately. This seemed strange to me.

After the fifteen minute drive to the police station, I was placed in a holding cell and all my remaining belongings were taken, including my belt and shoelaces. You hear that this is to prevent prisoners from hanging themselves, but I think it has more to do with making them—us—feel powerless.

Pro-lifers pray for Eric at the close of the protest [Photo by Ann Scheidler]

It was hard to keep track of time in jail. I had prayed nearly an entire Rosary—all four decades—before a police officer came with my phone. I turned it on and called my mother Ann. I was glad to learn that they had found out where I was being held and were trying to get the police to give them keys to my van, still parked near Navy Pier. I was also pleased to hear that a group of teens from the Crusaders for Life pro-life group had joined the protest.

I asked my mother to call my wife April and my brother Pete, with whom I had plans later that evening to watch the U.S. versus Mexico international friendly soccer match.

I was eventually taken to another large holding cell, where I was searched, photographed and fingerprinted. An officer came for my keys and explained that my parents were going to drive my van over and leave it for me. I thanked him and said I was relieved to know my parents wouldn’t have to wait for me, since I’d been told it could be up to six hours before I was released.

In all I was in police custody for a little over four hours, the last two in a small holding cell while my fingerprints were checked against criminal databases and the charge against me was processed. I occupied that time praying and singing various chants from the liturgies I cantor at St. George Byzantine Catholic Church in Aurora.

Police remove GoPro memory card

As time wore on—how much time I had no idea—I became aware of how exhausted I was. I hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours, and I didn’t know how many more hours I might be held. I began to pray fervently to the Mother of God to intercede with her son and get me out of jail.

I must have spent about two hours in that tiny cell before I was finally escorted to the front desk top be signed out. My parents were there waiting for me after all. As much as I had hoped they wouldn’t have to, I was very glad to see them.

I was released on an “I Bond”—a promise to appear in court without paying a cash bond. The sergeant behind the desk informed me that if I commit any more crimes before my court date, I’ll be arrested and jailed. I assured him I wouldn’t and resisted the urge to point out that I hadn’t committed this crime either.

The sergeant told me I was free to go and given two bags with all my belongings—or nearly all. The next morning, I discovered that the memory card of my GoPro camera had been removed.

The footage on that camera would have shown me being given permission to go onto Navy Pier. It would have shown me innocently walking through the building. It would have shown me being followed by security and then falsely arrested. But as the Chicago police officer who arrested me said, “If Navy Pier wants it erased, it will be erased.”

My attorneys are now trying to recover that memory card. If it was destroyed, that would constitute the crime of spoliation—the deliberate destruction of evidence.

Grateful for prayers—and good lawyers

I’m grateful that I have such dedicated attorneys to turn to on the occasion of my first pro-life arrest. Public interest pro-life law firms like the Thomas More Society didn’t exist back when my father was first arrested. In fact, TMS was founded to pursue the appeal of my father’s conviction in the 1997 NOW v. Scheidler trial.

I’m also grateful for the thousands of pro-lifers who promised to pray for the League’s protest at Navy Pier. I had asked them to pray for a successful event, including police cooperation. Instead, their prayers served to buoy my spirits during my time in jail.

Wednesday was one of the rare cases in which Chicago police have been less than cooperative and professional. I have never had an interaction with a police officer turn so sour so quickly, especially not in Chicago, where we have come to expect professionalism, and where the Pro-Life Action League is known to be peaceful and cooperative.

I intend to maintain that reputation by beating this false trespassing charge when I go before the judge on June 10.

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