Office Space: Renegade Finds a Home on the Hill

Filner Flaunts His Activist Record

Posted October 6, 2009 at 4:21pm

Rep. Bob Filner is not shy about sharing his rap sheet with the public. The California Democrat has been cuffed and booked a few times, and he advertises this fact in his Rayburn Building office.

[IMGCAP(1)]“If I haven’t been arrested every two or three years, then I’ve sold out,— Filner says with a smile.

The proof is prominently on display: The first thing one sees upon entering Filner’s office is a large 1997 photo of him being handcuffed by two police officers in front of the White House.

Filner was protesting alongside Filipino veterans who claimed they weren’t given proper benefits after fighting on America’s behalf in World War II. He was one of the sponsors of the World War II Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 1997, which aimed to award these men U.S. veteran status and the accompanying benefits.

At the rally, the Congressman says he spoke to police about his concern that the veterans, who were in their 80s, were going to be put into a police vehicle without air conditioning. He was then arrested for interfering with the arrest of the other protesters.

“Unlike the other guys, I saw TV cameras so I started maneuvering to get in the picture and I started screaming about fascist cops and First Amendment rights,— he says.

[IMGCAP(2)]For someone so publicity-hungry, this was hardly Filner’s first arrest — and not all were for civil activism. He was arrested in 2007 at Dulles airport and accused of shoving a United Airlines employee.

But Filner, 67, is a lifelong activist. His first arrest was in 1961 when the 18-year-old was demonstrating in Mississippi as a part of the Freedom Riders protest. Freedom Riders boarded buses and rode into the segregated parts of the South to test the Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which abolished segregation on public transportation. During this time, Filner was convicted of inciting a riot and served two months in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

“We were on death row because that was the only place they had to keep us,— he says.

Though his time in prison was trying, the Congressman, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s, (and displays King’s picture on the wall of his office) is proud of his actions with the Freedom Riders.

“I was the biggest nerd of all time … but I got involved in something and we changed American history,— he says. Filner keeps a book with his mug shot in it on his desk.

Upon arriving in Congress in 1993, Filner came face to face with the man who arrested him back in ’61, Rep. Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.). Montgomery was a major general in the Mississippi National Guard before being elected to Congress in 1967. After meeting Filner, Montgomery asked him the date of his arrest and the two soon realized their connection. Luckily, there were no hard feelings and the Congressmen were able to joke about it.

“I once came over to the Black Caucus and said, ‘This son of a bitch arrested me!’ And he would take me over to the conservatives and say, ‘I arrested this SOB. We should have kept him in jail,’— Filner says with a chuckle. “We had fun with that.—

In keeping with the civil rights theme, Filner also has large photos of John F. and Bobby Kennedy. Filner describes all of these men as heroes. He also counts as a hero his father, who inspired him to become involved in civil activism.

His father was stationed in Italy and North Africa during World War II. On the wall in his office, Filner displays several of his father’s military medals including the Bronze Star, which is awarded for bravery and merit.

“He never talked about it at all,— Filner says of his father’s service. “They were just doing their jobs.—

His father wrote letters from the front to Filner, who at the time was only 2.

The letters said, “We as Jews have to be on the side of everyone affected by racism because we’re next. Racism is the worst thing ever.—

This belief and his experience with the Freedom Riders is what caused Filner to run for office.

“If you get involved in electoral politics,— you can make a difference, he says. “You can do so much in office if you have some goals.—