When they got to the park, the city police herded them into a fenced corral. Black vans pulled up and a few hundred armed state police, in full riot gear, jumped out and completely surrounded the group. Then a dozen officers on horseback formed a ring around the riot squad. Then the National Guard arrived with camouflage-painted tanks and took their positions at the corners. Some inside the fence began to cry. They couldn't believe what was happening. This event didn't happen in the Ukraine or Panama or Tiananmen Square. It happened in Hartford, Connecticut on October 6, 1996.
The 700 citizens... young and old, men and women, black and white - had gathered to peacefully protest the exclusion of Ross Perot from the Presidential Debates going on that night in their city. They were detained for two hours, until the debates were over.
Later the group heard from news reporters that the police and security told them there was no one in the park. No one would ever know that these citizens carrying American flags - flashlights their most dangerous weapons - would be considered so dangerous that the Army had to be called out.
How had our country come to this?
First there no party
It started as a normal night. Families surfed the channels on their televisions. If they were lucky enough to be watching "Larry King Live" that night, they would witness history. Ross Perot was the guest on February 20, 1992.
On that now-famous night, Perot declared that he would run for president if citizens would get him on the ballots in all fifty states. The next day his office was deluged with phone calls offering help. As volunteers organized by state, Perot hired a small staff to deal with the ballot access problems in various states.
Just over a month later was the birth of the "800" number. Perot was a guest on the "Phil Donahue Show", and he held the phone number up on a card. That appearance produced over 250,000 calls.
The state of Texas had the earliest petition filing deadline in the nation to get an independent candidate on the ballot. On May 11, over 90 boxes containing over 200,000 signatures were turned in to the Secretary of State. Only 54,000 were required.
Most of the volunteers found it simple to get signatures. Some just held up a sign that said "Perot Petition", and voters would line up. Others set up card tables or ironing boards at intersections. People would just pull up and sign from behind their steering wheels ... the country's first "motor voters!"
In the middle of June, Perot activists shocked the political works by turning in over 1.4 million signatures in California. It was over ten times what they needed, but also represented over 10% of the registered voters. On June 26th reporters asked if Perot would formally announce his candidacy on the next day, which was his birthday. He had a history of doing major things on that day. This time, he didn't.
In the middle of July, Bill Clinton won the nomination of his party and selected Al Gore as his Vice Presidential candidate. On July 16th the Democratic Convention ended. On that same day, Ross Perot stated, "I have decided not to become a candidate...". He explained that with the Democratic Party reinvigorated by Clinton, the election would end up in the House of Representatives. He concluded he could never win in that process.
Since he had never declared his candidacy, he withdrew from a race he was never officially in. The volunteers across the country were shocked. Some broke into tears in front of TV cameras. Many took ridicule from their Republican and Democrat friends, neighbors and business associates. But both parties immediately went after the "Perot voter" and praised their commitment.
The very next night, Perot appeared on "Larry King Live" and stated that he was leaving his name on all state ballots so people could use it as a protest vote. The following day over 40 state leaders flew into Dallas for a meeting. Some were happy to have a "grass roots" voting bloc. Others were still in shock. But some believed that Ross Perot would re-enter the race. After all, Perot was continuing to finish the petition drive.
At the end of July, state leaders from almost every state had another meeting and organized United We Stand America (UWSA). They pledged to finish the petition drive and make the two parties focus on UWSA issues of campaign finance reform and paying down the national debt, which then stood at four trillion dollars. In August, Perot introduced his economic plan and his best-selling book "United We Stand How We Can Take Our Country Back":
Arizona had the last petition-filing deadline. On September 24th, when this state validated the signatures, Perot was now on the ballot in all fifty states. At a press conference, Perot stated that he might be forced to become a candidate. Between February 22nd and September 24th, over five million voters had signed petitions to get Ross Perot on the ballot in every state across the country.