The right to remain silent
By Jolene Pohl
I am not a law student or a lawyer but I am a citizen of the United States with a nifty pocket book Constitution from the ACLU. According to that book, the First Amendment protects my right to say what I want in the form of press, speech and assembly if I have a grievance with the government. I have seen many people exercise this right regularly in Kettering in front of a women’s clinic where some have continually protested the work of the doctors at the clinic. I have seen many billboards along the highway telling the world about personal religious beliefs. I have been approached several times on a public sidewalk regarding my political and religious stance. I am not a lawyer so I don’t usually get into a discussion about the rights of the individuals who choose to dedicate their time and energy to airing their grievances. But now my community wants to discuss the rights of a group of citizens who have joined together to occupy their space on public grounds so I begin my reply with another question: What right do the people have not to address their grievances in the way they see fit?
The Occupy Wall Street movement is indeed interfering with the holiday celebration in Dayton this year. This is a year that has seen an awakening of citizens who are legitimately concerned about the sustainability of the global economic future. The supporters of the movement are camping out and demonstrating continually until they see real progress from our global leaders to address their concerns. Campers are an inconvenience that some of the people of Dayton would like to avoid over the holiday season. Although sharing public space can be problematic for a community, it is not impossible. The Dayton community is known for peaceful agreements on some of the world’s most difficult issues, so sharing Courthouse Square for the holidays is probably not going to be the final dividing issue of our city.
There is no good time or place for a redress of grievances in the eyes of the people voicing their right to freedom of speech and assembly. Occupy Wall Street is a continuation of generations of citizen action. The occupied camps are symbolic of the current economic devastation that many Americans are experiencing. The significance is similar to the nickname for shanty camps established in the 1930s which were referred to as “Hoovervilles” as a political jab at President Herbert Hoover. Dayton residents who disagree with this exercise are not in danger of being forced to participate so there should be no problem in sharing public property with fellow citizens.
Groups not normally accepted in the mainstream rely on the First Amendment to express their views and have traditionally been protected by state and federal government. For example, the Westboro Baptist Church continues to protest at military funerals in the name of the First Amendment without public approval or involvement of tear gas and police riot gear. The Occupy Wall Street movement has had no such treatment since it began which is why any camp asked to move is suspicious about the motives. Even the KKK, which does not hesitate to brag about its history of killing Americans based on the color of their skin, had police protection at Ole Miss in 2009 when its members were upset about the absence of a song from the school band lineup. The public was infuriated by the appearance of the group and it disrupted the entire town for days. The occupation of Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton is not a threat, yet the campers are being portrayed with as much disdain.
Just like any public space, the community should expect they will be safe to express themselves in a peaceful manner without incident. Authorities should not treat a family visiting a holiday tree lighting any differently than a student holding a cardboard sign next to a tent unless one of them happens to be illegally armed and threatening violence. The protection of the First Amendment is integral to the democratic process and it is the heart of the power of the American citizenry. Those who do not respect this right are simply acting without regard for the fabric of the nation. Not everyone can afford to go to Washington D.C., but everyone can speak out in one form or another to let their voice be known. It is essential to our freedom.
A compromise is not an unreasonable request by both the downtown patronage of Dayton and the Occupiers. If the city is hosting an event for over 30,000 people from the surrounding communities, then all should be welcome including the Occupiers because it is their city too. Each time a camp is threatened by their city or removed from a public space, the message of the Occupy Wall Street movement grows stronger. The recent events are just the beginning of a new era of politics worldwide. No longer will my generation refuse to question the intentions of the leaders of our nations, of our cities or our neighborhoods because it is not only our right to do so, it is our duty. You are not immune from the effects the global market has on our lives whether you choose to participate or not.
The official statement from the Occupy Dayton camp may not register with those who are still unsure about the OWS movement but it surely is a perspective every American shares: “Regardless of what the city of Dayton can do, may do, or is intending to do, they cannot stop an idea, they cannot stop principles, and they cannot stop a group of people willing to work together for the things we believe to be right.”
Jolene Pohl is a dedicated Dayton democrat volunteer/activist and a WSU grad student. Her favorite past-times include banter, debate and laughing out loud. She can be reached at JolenePohl@DaytonCityPaper.com.