Our Right to Freely Assemble and Our Duty as Patriots

[Speech given at a First Amendment Rally in Brevard County, Florida]

Despite our First Amendment guaranteed Constitutional right to assemble, the US government is moving in the dangerous direction of undermining those rights. I am a father, a husband, and a suspect. My peaceful, law-abiding protesting over the last three years, my petitioning of the government, has earned me an FBI number and, in 2004, also the label of ‘suspect’ by Florida’s Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.

The much talked about case, which had to do with the Melbourne Police dept. and the Sheriff’s office videotaping, infiltrating and spying on peaceful demonstrations such as the Counter-inauguration event I was a part of, has, as many of you now know, been rectified. Both the MPD and the BCSO have pledged to respect the First Amendment. This is a victory. But this is just the first step. The time has come to reclaim Constitutional Values, to remind the people in our nation that no matter how much the flag is waved, one can not be a patriot if he or she does not first honor the First Amendment.

The problem of government infringement on the right to assemble and petition is far from solved. During the counter-inauguration demonstration which caused such a stir, the Sheriff’s Office gave personal information about participants, such as their social security number, date of birth, and address to someone at Patrick Air Force Base–the Pentagon. So I joined the ACLU in filling a freedom of information act request. And since they silently refused to tell us about their monitoring of people like me and the Quakers in south Florida, in June, I joined the ACLU in attempting to sue the Pentagon for the release of information it has been gathering on peace activists.

Now, whether you’re for or against the Iraq war; whether you’re pro-choice or anti-choice; whether you are a liberal or a conservative, a socialist or a neo-liberal, we must realize this is a problem that robs us all of our rights as Americans.

The Patriot Act, the government’s disregard for our Constitutional rights call us to ask this most important question: has freedom finally fallen to the fatalistic tandem of fear and security? Will we let it?

We know for a fact that the FBI continues to target groups and individuals because of their politics. And I can tell you from personal experience, that I stand before you as a full-time student, freelance writer, and full-time father of a 3-year-old daughter, that I am not a terrorist. Yet the FBI has seen fit to lump me up with such persons because I disagree with my government.

So maybe you can understand why I am afraid that the brilliant blues of American pride are fading into the dull bruises of a nation that has lost its Constitutional soul.

With so many clamoring for the idol of security and its ominous but protective embrace against fear, the US may travel a path not unlike that prophesied by an 80 year old dystopian novel, We. Written by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, We tells the story of a society, the One State, that decides the "only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom." To achieve its utopian society of perfect peace, the One State eradicates individuality, privacy, and freedom; and the citizens exalt the secret police) who monitor their every action, for "lovingly protecting" them.

As America flees the open skies of liberty for the patriarchal shelter of authoritarianism, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we turn to the transparent walls of the One State: "At all other times we live behind our transparent walls that seem woven of gleaming air–we are always visible, always washed in light. We have nothing to conceal from one another. Besides, this makes much easier the difficult and noble task of the Guardians. For who knows what might happen otherwise?"

But there is a bright side, something to remember. Our simple 36-person demonstration led to dramatic, arguably, groundbreaking changes in surveillance policy at two different policing agencies — in October 2005 the sheriffs office’s agreed established that so long a rally is non-violent, information about peaceful demonstrators will no longer be kept; monitoring of such protests will henceforth require approval of senior command staff; and agents are to "avoid indiscriminate collection of information on protesters, regardless of political or other affiliation." And, importantly, we sparked a community-wide discussion on the importance of protecting the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

Ironically, during the planning stages, I remember hearing many complain that our demonstration would be futile. Some questioned the effectiveness of protesting. But I’ve come to realize that futility is very often the mantra of the defeated, the spiritless. To wail of a noble action’s futility is to forget that every action, regardless of its direct result, lives beyond the simple boundaries of immediate success or failure. The real objective in taking a stand should never be to merely win but rather to heed the call to live and act justly, no matter the outcome.

We must protest to remind our representatives that we, the people, rule this nation. We must protest because we must waken our slumbering fellow citizens to stand up and speak out. We must protest to say the things that the evening news will not say. We must protest because to do so is to exemplify the patriot.

With our rights under such assault, there is no room for pessimism, silence, and inaction, and our impetus to act cannot rely on the likelihood our actions will procure immediately tangible results. Without erecting a powerful spirit of unification, courage and defiance, we will never catch even a glimpse of victory. Every action we take in the name of justice is a step toward defeating injustice.

Now is the time to remind people what a real patriot is; that words and peaceful actions have achieved more than all the wars of human history; that words are as powerful if not more powerful than guns; and that everyone here is a soldier for democracy if she remembers her duty to take to the streets in dissent. If she refuses to be silenced or intimidated; if she laughs into the microphones and the wire-taps, and stares directly into the eyes of the undercover agents who seek to undercut our civil liberties. Long live Constitutional values, dissent, and the spirit of true American patriotism.