Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Politics of Protest - a personal account

As September approaches and the Jewish High Holidays near, a time of reckoning will come not only for Jews, but for every citizen of America, as it is in this month when General Petraeus will deliver his report to Congress on the state of the war in Iraq, and some hard decisions about when and how to begin bringing our troops home may finally be made. As we make our way into our fifth year at war in Iraq, American troops continue to die (over 3700 to date), and they continue to be injured at an average rate of well over 100 a week (25,000 injuries since the war began).

The bleak reality of this cycle of death and despair was made all the more poignant for me today at a MoveOn political protest I attended this evening with my roommate, Josh, and our friend Tomer, two fellow Jews from Miami. It was a day of striking juxtapositions. In the morning, I arrived on a Capital Hill shrouded in intrigue and scandal, the impact of a freshly retired attorney general nearly outweighed by news of Republican Senator Craig's gay bathroom sex scandal. It was a sour day for Republicans, and as I gave a tour of the Capital to my roommate later that afternoon, I swaggered with a certain sense of ownership and pride. My guys were winning. Perhaps, for once, justice was being done.

After work, we walked down Pennsylvania Avenue for happy hour at Hawk and Dove, where Tomer met us for a few beers and a ripe political discussion. As usual, it was about the war - specifically, the incredible waste of resources and live squandered so recklessly (even criminally) by this Administration. By 6:30, I was excitedly leading the way to the political protest planned for 7 o'clock this evening, where we would have the opportunity to stand in the shadow of the Capital and demand our troops be returned safely home soon.

The protest was situated at the foot of the reflecting pool that glimmers before the imposing dome of the Capital's Western Terrace. On a strip of grass made lush by the summer's humid breath stood dozens of citizens with red and yellow signs calling for our troop's return home. A makeshift staging area with four large speakers stood facing the Washington Monument, while on the opposing street, a handful of overweight white men flew American flags, waved angry placards and screamed right-wing vitriol at the peacefully assembled crowd. The weather turned a gorgeous summer dusk, the warm breeze and clear August sky a gentle contrast to the abrasive conservatives howling at the other end of the field. By 7:15, the crowd had swelled to well over 100 people, who respectfully listened to a young woman state the purpose of the rally: to send a clear message to Congress that Iraq is a militarilly unwinnable religious civil war from which our troops should be extracted with deliberate safety and haste.

we were arranged in small groups, in circles of ten to fifteen a peice, and handed pamphlets listing, in chronological order beginning on January 1st of this year, the amount of American servicemen and women killed in Iraq, day by day, with the names of their hometowns and states listed after each date. The number of Americans injured each week, a number that averages well over a hundred for the last six nine months, was listed at the end of each seven day period. Our task allowed us a simple way to recognize the sacrifice who have so valiantly given their lives for this terrible war: read the numbers and cities, and grasp the enormity of the loss to our nation. I stood next to Tomer and Josh, and began reading the first two-week period.

As the pamphlet made its way around the circle, and others I do not know took their turns at the page, I was particularly moved by the sincere anguish in their voices, and the simple drama of their simplest actions: the trembling tenor of a woman in her fifties, whose continuous efforts to light the candle extinguishing in the wind seemed akin to the efforts of a heartbroken generation, who have tried to light the flame of peace only to see it snuffed out again and again; a wise old white-haired man, moved to speak out by the repeated mention of his hometown of Santa Fe, whose straining eyes turned to tears at the thought of the poor, young Hispanics dying in disproportionately large numbers intensified his feelings of injustice. It took us nearly 25 minutes to read all the names, in a solemn ceremony that drove home the real cost of this losing war.

After finishing our task, the group reassembled for a final moment, to gather our resolve and observe a moment of silence for the fallen. As we took our leave from the Capital, I felt sad, yet resolute - still cynical about our prospects for getting this callous Adminstration to fulfill the will of the American people and effect a change in our Iraq policy, yet strangely renewed in my faith in our democracy. Together, Tomer, Josh and I made our way back towards Pennsylvania Avenue, and a subway ride home. What I didn't know is that in minutes, I would be involved in a confrontation that would once again shake my faith in the security of the liberties we take for granted - to assemble and speak freely without fear.

As we approached the Metro stop near the National Archives, the robust sounds of symphonic band filled the air with a majestic luster. Sure enough, it was the Navy band, giving a free concert to what must have been at least 500 people standing in a semi-circle in the large rotunda directly in front of the stone columns of the National Archives. As we approached the area to catch a glance of the action, the signs in my hands seemed to raise themselves high up over my head. As I passed a homeless black man sitting off to the side of the show, he called out "that's right! It's Vietnam all over again - I fought there ya know..." He must have been responding to my signs, the first a simple message written in block white letters against a bright red background: "SUPPORT OUR TROOPS. BRING THEM HOME." The second, more complex poster features a yield sign reading "IRAQ WAR ------- WRONG WAY." Around this red dot, in blue letters against a yellow background, reads the slogan "Keep 'em safe. Bring 'em home."

With these signs in my hand, I hopped atop a marble structure upon which many people were sitting, and defiantly raised my signs up over the heads of the crowd. I held them above the tops of the white flags held in neat rows by the members of the Navy, and kept them proudly displayed for the duration of our National Anthem, which accompanied the presentation of the American flag by naval officers in crisp white uniforms before the attentive masses. Nearly all the people there had their heads forward, watching the pomp of the band at play, and payed no notice to my quiet presence at the back of the crowd. Yet within a minute and a half, three burly federal officers in plainclothes were standing behind me, and though I tried to avoid their presence, I could not ignore the largest gentleman say in a quiet, yet firm tone, "Sir, you have the right to protest, but not here."

I stepped down from the platform, taking the signs into my hands, and respectfully approach the three men in gray suits seeming to tower above me.

"What seems to be the problem, officers?"

The black man who initially spoke to me took a step back, and a more aggressive, hostile white man standing in the middle (the other mens' superior) took a step forward to declare "you can either roll that up and stay here to enjoy the concert, or leave."

"I don't understand," I replied, being careful to speak in a friendly, calm tone, "I'm just standing here quietly holding my sign. I'm not disturbing anyone. Don't I have a constitutional right to assemble?"

"You have rights," the black officer interjected, seemingly sympathetic to my cause, "but you can't do protest here. This is federal property."

The increasing ridiculousness brought an awkward smile to my face, "but sir, then shouldn't that allow me to stand here all the more? This is public land. I wish I had a copy of the constitution, so I could show it to you right here. I have a right to assemble, to free speech!"

"Not without a permit" was the reply. "You can't do that here."

"What if I was wearing a t-shirt that had this slogan on it. Would you throw me out then?"

"I'm not going to explain it to you anymore," the man in the center snapped, his blood pressure rising visibly.

"Sir," I replied, "this just doesn't seem right. I'm simply asking you why I, a citizen of this country, am not aloud to peaceably demonstrate my right to free speech on public land."

"I'm not going to argue with you, I'm not explaining it to you" he repeated.

I, too, was becoming increasingly incensed. "I suppose if this sign just said 'Support the Troops,' but not 'Bring Them Home,' then that would be acceptable here, right?"

"Yes," the black man replied.

"I see. So I just can't do this in front of them," I said, gesturing to the members of our armed forces lined up before us, the music swelling in the background; "they're the ones I want to protect! I want them safe. I want them home."

"I'm not going to tell you again," the man in the middle almost shouted, "I'm not going to argue with you. Either roll up those signs or go."

"Come on guys," I said to Tomer and Josh, who had stood quietly to the side observing the events as they unfolded, "this isn't right. Let's go home."

As we made our way deep into the subway, I seethed with anger and disappointment. This is our country, a place where a citizen cannot peaceably express in public a view shared by more than 2/3 of the American people? A place where a law abiding patriot is threatened and nearly arrested for merely holding a sign? I berated myself for not being braver and sticking up for my principles; "I should have been arrested tonight. All I had to do was refuse to roll up my signs, and I would be sitting in the back of a cop car right now, on my way to get booked in the local DC jail. It would have been awful; it would take hours to process me, and then you guys would have had to have bailed me out," I said to Josh, "and then I would have had to call my lawyer, and fight this charge. And for what? A gesture, however meaningful, that would have caused me great discomfort and expense, that would go entirely unnoticed."

Well, it is my hope that by telling this story on my blog, it will not go unnoticed. Citizens of America: we must demand our rights and continuously renew our commitment to retaining them, or they will be taken from us. We must be ever vigilant. Real patriots, regardless of political affiliation, should know this much is true.

I am attaching a copy of the First Amendment for your reading pleasure. I'd love to hear your comments on how you think that actions these officers took that night in any way reflect the values enshrined in this sacred text.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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