Putting a price tag on the cost of freedom
Those anti-war protesters are so inconsiderate. Don’t they know that lying down in the street, blocking traffic, and getting arrested costs money?
If you’ve ever lain awake at night worrying that your taxes will go up because of overtime paid to cops at peace rallies, Massachusetts Senate Republican leader Brian Lees wants you to know: he cares. How much? Why, enough to endure mockery and ridicule by filing a bill that would require protesters to pay for the cost of their arrest and prosecution.
"There is an inherent irony in the fact that many demonstrators are rallying under the impression that the costs associated with the war in Iraq could be better spent on American soil to provide programs and services for people who are in need and for anti-terrorism efforts on the home front," Lees, of East Longmeadow, said in a press release in April. "But the reality is that the costs of maintaining order during a demonstration that blocks traffic for miles in and around our Commonwealth’s cities actually reduces the availability of resources for such programs."
Obviously the First Amendment does not give protesters an unlimited right to wreak havoc. But there are laws to cover that sort of thing. Break a store window and you’ll be charged with breaking a store window. By proposing to criminalize the blocking of traffic by a pedestrian, Lees would come dangerously close to criminalizing protest itself — all, he claims, in the interest of "a more safe environment while, at the same time, limiting the need for the mobilization of hundreds of additional law enforcement officials."
The reaction was swift and righteous. Former Boston city councilor Tom Keane, no friend of the anti-war movement, noted in his Boston Herald column that Lees’s position would have put him on the side of King George III at the time of the Boston Massacre. "The Founding Fathers weren’t just bewigged gentlemen preening for their chance to grace American currency," Keane wrote. "They were loud, rude revolutionaries, keenly aware of the power of government to suppress dissent and determined not to let it happen again. In comparison to the world back then, the protests over the last few weeks have been mild."
One of Lees’s constituents, Brian Lafferty, an anti-war activist from Longmeadow, told the Springfield Republican: "It’s a disgusting violation of the First Amendment. I’m appalled by that position."
And State Senator Jarrett Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat, told the Boston Globe: "I have a question for Mr. Lees. Why does he aspire to the behavior of dictators like Fidel Castro, who we are looking to unseat, instead of aspiring to the values of freedom and democracy that this country stands for?"
An excellent question — and one Lees had already anticipated in his press release. He began one paragraph with the words, "While I respect and encourage the ability to freely voice opinions" — and then proceeded to explain why his respect and encouragement are limited to opinions that are voiced quietly and politely, and at no cost to the public treasury.
Then again, you generally can figure out what’s coming when someone expresses his deep regard for the First Amendment in a subordinate clause that begins with a qualifier.
A new definition of blaming the victim
What is it about Republican legislators in Massachusetts? There are so few of them that they can’t even force the Democratic leadership to hold a roll-call vote. Yet they certainly know how to get attention. Senate Republican leader Brian Lees garnered a few incredulous headlines this spring when he proposed charging anti-war protesters for the cost of their demonstrations (see above). Somewhat less noted — no doubt because of its sheer wackiness — was a bill filed by his State House counterpart, House Republican leader Bradley Jones.
This spring, Jones, of North Reading, proposed banning students from Massachusetts’s public colleges and universities if they immigrated from any of the seven countries that the State Department lists as sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan. The only way they could get around the ban would be to become US citizens — a long, arduous process that would also make it more difficult for them to return home and work for change. Certainly Iraq could use a few well-educated young men and women right now.
It is, of course, a stupid and offensive idea on its face. But Jones was made to look even more foolish when the Lynn Daily Item reported that Francis Bok — a well-known ex-slave and anti-slavery activist — has enrolled at North Shore Community College. Bok, you see, comes from Sudan, and the brutal civil war in that country was responsible for his becoming a slave in the first place.
"I find it, certainly, troubling," college president Wayne Burton told the Item when asked about Jones’s legislation. "The fact is that students from other countries add to education immeasurably. For example, what better way to learn about slavery than from a person who was actually enslaved rather than from a book? We value the 37 or so different nationalities we have on campus."
The Item went on to report that 42 students across Massachusetts would face expulsion if Jones’s bill became law.
But in an interview with the Boston Herald, Jones made it clear that he was not only unapologetic, he still thought it was a pretty cool idea. "If Saddam wants to send Uday or Qusay over here to go to UMass Amherst, I would like to say we don’t accept them," he said. And when told of state attorney general Tom Reilly’s reaction — "Singling out a whole group of people because of the actions of a few is, frankly, irresponsible" — Jones retorted, "Apparently, things are going well enough in the attorney general’s office that he doesn’t have enough to do. Maybe we should cut his budget some more."
Without question, the most pernicious ongoing problem in Massachusetts government is the lack of a credible Republican opposition in the legislature, 12 and a half years of Republican governors notwithstanding. The antics of Bradley Jones and Brian Lees suggest that the two-party system isn’t coming back anytime soon.
A recent editorial in the Providence Journal lamented Massachusetts’s one-party government and then said this about the Jones bill: "The cause is not helped when leading Republicans carry on like lunatics."
Yes, Representative, they’re talkin’ about you.
Veiled threat succeeds in shutting down show
No one ever said Charles Knipp’s performances weren’t controversial, even offensive. Knipp — a white, gay Southerner — performs in blackface as Shirley Q. Liquor, a welfare mother with 19 children. If you go to one of his shows, you can reportedly purchase, among other trinkets, a coffee mug inscribed with the delightful message AXE YO MAMA HOW SHE DURRIN. Racist? Headed in that direction, certainly.
But Bostonians looking to judge for themselves never got the chance. Last fall Jerome Smith — Mayor Tom Menino’s just-hired liaison to the gay-and-lesbian community — called Machine, a club that had booked Knipp for October 18. According to a report in the Phoenix by contributor Michael Bronski (see "Blackout," News and Features, October 18), Smith told a manager at Machine that he was concerned about public safety if the show were allowed to go on. Smith pointedly added that, when Knipp had been scheduled to perform in New York, members of the gay community picketed and the club was shut down by police.
Machine took the hint. Knipp was canceled.
Smith, in explaining his actions, told Bronski that Menino "didn’t want to see the show happen" and that Smith had been told to "see if there was a way to talk to the club’s management" about canceling the show. Menino’s then-spokeswoman, Carole Brennan, countered that her boss had never discussed the matter with Smith or anyone else in the administration, adding, "The mayor was unaware of the whole controversy."
No doubt Smith believed he was doing the right thing. Knipp’s show was creating a genuine stir within gay and lesbian circles. Imani Henry, an artist and activist, sent a mass e-mail imploring Bostonians to do whatever they could to prevent Shirley Q. Liquor from appearing here. The e-mail began: "This is not about freedom of speech. This is a white supremacist that is being allowed to perform at local gay clubs, do benefits for AIDS organizations, in an attempt to divide our movement." (An aside: whenever someone says it’s "not about freedom of speech," you can be sure that it’s about freedom of speech.)
But as an employee of City Hall, Smith was not an activist protesting against Knipp. He was acting as a government official, with his cautions about public safety and what the police did in New York functioning as effectively, Bronski noted, as the old "banned in Boston" edicts from the city’s Watch and Ward Society.
"If this isn’t censorship, it’s mighty close," the Phoenix said in an editorial, adding: "When government officials exercise prior restraint, which is what happened here, they are committing an egregious act — perhaps the most egregious act a civil servant can commit in our country."