We hear the call to “get involved” all the time. From the 1970s-era summons to “Think globally, act locally,” to MTV’s Rock the Vote, we are told that it is our civic duty to educate ourselves about political issues and become more active citizens.
Public officials bemoan the insuperable apathy of the electorate. But they don’t really mean it. The greatest burr in an official’s side is when a citizen becomes truly informed and starts challenging the status quo. “Gadfly” is pejorative for a reason.
Protesters are greeted with this same contempt. Citizen activists who actually care about an issue enough to stand in a public place, exposed to the elements, with nothing fancier than words on a placard expressing their views, are usually considered rabble-rousing troublemakers, if not a little nutty.
This is how a group of anti-war activists in St. Petersburg has been treated. The group, St. Pete for Peace, has been showing up on most Saturday nights for the past two and a half years to protest on a public sidewalk outside BayWalk, St. Petersburg’s popular dining, shopping and entertainment venue.
They hold signs denouncing the Iraq war and hand out leaflets to passers-by. These few dozen of our neighbors understand and embody the role of citizen and should be applauded for “acting locally.” But the city has reacted as if they are an infestation.
Because BayWalk businesses have complained that the protesters affect their walk-in traffic, all kinds of ideas have been floated to drive away the menace. Under the excuse that pedestrians are endangered by the protesters’ presence – the city says there are no traffic-accident statistics to back this up – city officials first considered designating the sidewalk as a “no-protest” zone.
After that idea was dropped because it was blatantly unconstitutional, an equally noxious one took its place. Craig Sher, president and CEO of the Sembler Co., the company that owns and manages BayWalk, would like the city to transfer the sidewalk to his group. Once it was put under private control, the protesters could be run off as trespassers.
So far, to the credit of City Council members, the city has let the sidewalk remain a place of public protest. In the meantime, metal barricades have been erected at the site to direct pedestrian traffic.
The barricades have antagonized the protesters, but I’m less concerned about the steel dividers than the harassing arrests. On Aug. 6, a 13-year-old protester was arrested for “obstructing a sidewalk,” and Michael O’Neill, 33, was arrested for “trespass” while videotaping the scene.
I asked St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon why a 13-year-old should be taken away in handcuffs for such a petty transgression as sidewalk blocking. Harmon defended the arrest by saying that when confronted by an officer and told to move along, the young man “let loose this string of profanities at the officer.”
As troubling as this boy’s potty mouth might be, the use of profane language is not a crime. Right?
Wrong, asserted Harmon, who said that the disorderly conduct statute gives police the power to arrest anyone using offensive language.
“Police officers can’t be the ones offended,” Harmon said, “but if an officer notices that a mother is covering her child’s ears, then there is a violation of the statute.”
I relayed to the chief the seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision of Cohen v. California, in which a man prosecuted for wearing a jacket with a profanity on it had his criminal conviction set aside because his speech was deemed constitutionally protected.
“One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric,” the court famously held. But Harmon had no interest in First Amendment jurisprudence.
Later, Harmon called to clarify that the 13-year-old “was charged with obstructing (a sidewalk), having nothing to do with disorderly conduct or his language.” But he didn’t back away from the view that one’s manner of speech could land one in the pokey.
In St. Petersburg at least, police officers are apparently not schooled in the finer points of the First Amendment. According to Sam Walker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, police typically receive “pretty spotty” training in free-speech issues.
Public protests can be inconvenient, annoying and noisy affairs. But our Constitution has chosen the mess of freedom and democracy over the order that comes with repression.
When police address protesters in an aggressive manner and resort to hypertechnical arrests for minor offenses, they are creating an intimidating environment in an effort to discourage future demonstrations. Our community’s priorities are clear: It’s commerce over conversation at BayWalk, where our area’s most active and engaged citizens are decidedly not welcome.
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