The green, green grass of a police state

By Ellen Ratner

I celebrated another birthday this past Saturday. Without giving away my age, let’s just say that I came of age during the turbulent 1970s. It was a time of enormous unrest. Our nation was embattled in an unpopular war. By the time I marched in my first protest, thousands of Americans had been killed in Vietnam. The grief of the brutal assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were still ingrained in our national psyche. The hope for the future seemed to have been buried with these men. There was a sense of despair, unrest and distrust. We were faced with a choice. We could give into the parochial and dangerously inept policies of the Nixon administration, or take to the streets. We took to the streets, and eventually our troops came home.

As I write this on the eve of the beginning of the Republican Convention, I cannot help but draw the similarities in our nation today and then. We are divided now by socio-economic status as much as we were then by race. We are engaged in a foreign war, approaching 1,000 deaths with no clear end in sight. Yet there is a stark difference today. We are not “allowed” to protest the injustice as we were over three decades ago. Why not? The New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled that a protest in Central Park will hurt the grass.

This “save the grass” legal doctrine applied by the court would be a hysterical “Saturday Night Live” skit if it were not so pathetic. I wonder what our Founding Fathers would think if they knew that a court determined that the grass in Central Park was more important than free speech and the right to assemble; rights that they shed their blood to secure.

Suppose the city of Boston had denied a request on the part of pro-life or anti-gay marriage advocates to peaceful protest on the grounds that they might harm the grass? I suppose the Supreme Court would have heard the case faster than you can say, “Miami-Dade County.”

The denial by the City of New York to allow a peaceful protest in Central Park on the eve of the Republican National Convention is another example of the Republican Party’s “situational democracy.” Situational democracy is like situational ethics. It depends on the circumstances. For example, democracy is good; it is a “birth right” according to our president, if you are a citizen of an oil rich nation that we have recently invaded. Unfortunately, however, democracy is a privilege to be earned if you happen to be a Palestinian in the West Bank.

Of course, situational democracy began when the Supremes chose George W. Bush to be our president. Just ask the Black Caucus members. Few even know that the elected U.S. members of Congress attempted to protest the fact that African-American votes were not counted in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. In the name of “unity” we punted the most basic right of these Americans and so began the slippery slope toward the divisive administration of George W. Bush.

What about the other situations that enable the federal government to declare pockets of our nation constitutional free zones? The Patriot Act is being advertised as a necessary tool to fight the war on terrorism. Its evil twin will enable the U.S. government the right to “revoke” a person’s citizenship. The attorney general, John Ashcroft, tells us not to worry. After all, he says, the scariest parts of the Patriot Act have never been used. This line of logic reminds me of the government’s counsel telling Supreme Justice Ginsburg that the United States, while having the authority to use torture, does not do so. The Abu Ghraib scandal broke that evening. Our Constitution was written because our nation’s founders knew that government must not be trusted completely.

The Bush administration, however, needs us to trust them completely in order to survive. It’s an integral part of their campaign strategy. They pander to those who want simple answers to complex problems: “Daddy will take care of everything. Go back to watching your videos, dear.” The problem is we have serious issues facing our nation that require more creativity than a JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) can deliver.

I’m not talking about what country John Kerry was in on Christmas Eve of 1968, especially in light of the fact that we do know what country George W. Bush was in that same Christmas Eve. I’m talking about the fact that we have kids still dying each day in Iraq. I’m talking about a terror threat that is still real, while water reservoirs, chemical plants and cargo containers remain vulnerable. I’m talking about the 45 million Americans who are hoping and praying their families don’t get sick because they have no health insurance. I’m talking about the millions who have lost their jobs, the millions who now can’t make ends meet and those who are facing a retirement with no retirement income because their pensions are no longer part of their company’s business plan. These are issues that deserve attention. And if all our government can manage to talk about is what fits in a compact sound bite, then it is up to the electorate to protest. It is our right. It is our duty.

Yes, the grass may be greener this fall in Central Park, but the spirit of democracy is being ground to dust.