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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A patriotic picnic: Freedom at the Arboretum celebrates freedom, leaves out the partisanship

Thousands of people throughout the Inland Northwest celebrated the Fourth of July on Sunday as they always have.

They cracked open ice-cold beers and fired up grills. Some played country music or hung out on a boat while wearing American flag T-shirts. A few might have taken a moment to talk about key moments in American history, like the Boston Tea Party or D-Day.

At the John A. Finch Arboretum in Spokane, dozens of people gathered to picnic and celebrate in a different way.

Guests listened to songs, poems and speeches focused less on allegiance to the flag or military victories and more on fundamental American tenets such as democracy, freedom, inclusiveness, love and equality.

Tom Westbrook started Freedom at the Arboretum in 1962. The annual event eschews party-line politics – although politicians attend – and military-centric Fourth of July traditions.

Instead, attendees celebrate America’s birthday by reading the Declaration of Independence in turns. The arboretum was full of flags, but rather than talking about George Washington or Donald Trump, attendees sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Mark Westbrook, Tom Westbrook’s son, runs the annual event with his wife, Nancy. Westbrook said he hopes the event inspires patriotism.

“I think it’s important for all of us to work on our patriotism, especially on the left,” he said.

Westbrook said this year’s gathering felt especially meaningful, in part because last year’s event was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in part because of America’s increasingly polarized politics.

“Democracy is precious,” Westbrook told the crowd of visitors sitting in folding chairs in the shade. “I’m a little nervous about the way things are going.”

Political diversity is a strength, Westbrook said, adding that America works best when people from all over the political spectrum get along. Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, need to work together once again to help the country move forward.

“Democracy is much more than just bullying,” Westbrook said.

Rusty Nelson gave this year’s “Stir the Pot” speech.

Nelson, a self-described pacifist and a Vietnam veteran, emphasized the importance of personal independence.

“You don’t have to kiss anyone’s ring to prove you’re loyal to this country,” Nelson said.

Freedom isn’t the sound of machine-gun fire or the roar of fighter jets overhead, Nelson said. True freedom cannot be rooted in hatred of others.

“War is not the price of freedom,” Nelson said. “War is the price of fear.”

Freedom isn’t blind faith to a flag or refusing to get vaccinated, Nelson said. It’s not polluting the air and water or not wearing a mask to slow the spread of a virus.

Instead, Nelson said, freedom is when you stand with the oppressed. It’s when you protest the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, or when whistleblowers shed light on government atrocities.

Americans need to get back to working together and loving one another again, Westbrook said.

“I get angry too,” he said, “but at some point we have to believe in the system and in each other and that’s going to save us.”