Pooping on Liberty
Democracies are fragile. Maintaining one requires a lot of hard, often invisible work, by a lot of citizens. History is filled with examples of democracies lost.
Today’s meeting at the Board of Supervisors will serve as a great example of how democracies fail.
The Supervisors are not devils. They are basically the sort of decent, civic-minded individuals you’d feel lucky to have as neighbors. They probably pledge allegiance to the flag, and may even get a lump in their throats when they hear America the Beautiful. But four of them (Supervisor Lovelace dissenting) just sold democracy out, and at a pretty cheap price.
There’s a special category of ordinance called an “urgency” ordinance. It’s the sort of thing that is designed to be used to bypass deliberative debate when an urgent matter must be dealt with immediately — a tsunami, say, or perhaps an epidemic. The Supervisors, assisted by County staff and lawyers, just passed an urgency ordinance forbidding anyone to be present at the County Courthouse, the local seat of government, from 9:30 PM to 6 AM. They did things this way, I’d be willing to bet, so that the Sheriff and Eureka police can disrupt Occupy Eureka before any legal challenge can be mounted.
What did the supervisors just do? They told you that you’re subject to arrest for being anywhere on the Courthouse grounds from 9:30 PM to 6 AM. They told you that you’re subject to arrest for attaching a sign to a county building, or running a string from a county building to hang a protest banner or, since they must maintain a facade of content-neutrality, an American flag. They said letting a protest sign touch the ground is a health and safety hazard. They said setting a table out for leaflets is dangerous to our society. They’ve passed the sort of don’t-block-the-sidewalk laws that police can enforce whenever they feel like it, enforcing the letter of the law for “lesser” people while ignoring any violations by those with whom they agree.
The Supervisors or their attorneys worked very hard to pretend that this is not about their distaste for the people engaging in protest at the Courthouse. At least some of the Supervisors are clearly people of honesty and integrity, and yet they’ve managed to convince themselves of this lie.
Why am I confident in calling this entire ordinance one big lie? Because it ignores the issues it supposedly addresses.
You know the NRA slogan, “guns don’t kill people, people do?” Well, “string” doesn’t cause harassment, nor do self-stabilizing structures. Individuals do, with or without string and signs. Not one of the thirty plus speakers opposed to the ordinance favored the harassment of people entering the courthouse. I’d be willing to bet that each and every one of them would like to see assistance offered to a mentally ill person creating problems, and would like to see our government prevent the mentally ill person from interfering with other’s visits to the Courthouse. I’d be willing to bet that we’d all like to see anti-littering laws enforced at the courthouse. If a 24 hour porta-potty were available, I’d certainly want to see that anyone defecating in public was dealt with by mental health or law enforcement services.
None of this has anything to do with the right to protest twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Somewhere in their hearts, the Supervisors must know that.
There were sideshows, of course. The EPD police chief showed his support for the County Sheriff by declaring that he doesn’t do his job, either, not since February. He pointed out that reading the ordinance wasn’t necessary to decide to support it. And the Supervisors’ chambers had a presence from some young, idealistic protesters who, after the vote, shouted a little bit. From the other side of 50, it’s harder to generate that in-the-moment outrage at every injustice, and it’s hard to be surprised when people live down to your sad, sad expectations. Thanks, Supervisor Lovelace, for doing the right thing. One out of five is more than I’d expected.
Sicknesses often grow internally for a long time before they show external symptoms. Our democracy has lasted a long time, but it’s also been showing signs of serious rot for a long time. The rot is now exposed for all to see. Stifling protest will not repair the rot. It’s not clear what will, now that things have progressed as far as they have.
Democracy is closed for business, nightly at 9:30 PM. It’s a crying shame.
(Note to the local newspaper: it’s safe to come back now.)