Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
July 1999 #1

Protests and the Flag

To dress up as an Indian, and dump a load of tea!
But why'd they act like Indians? Can't I just go as me?
If I must dress for dumping, Sam Adams I shall be,
And then I'll join real Indians to protest at Wounded Knee.

Along with freedom of speech and religion, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives us the right to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The political rally has never been my favorite use of this Amendment. My weapon of choice has been a ballpoint pen for signature collecting, or a letter-to-the-editor, which is now a column. Something about crowds of agitated people makes me uneasy, though I recognize their value to the freedom I hold dear.

I would probably not have been at the Boston Massacre and I wasn't at Kent State, throwing snowballs or flowers at armed troops. Thomas Payne with his pamphlets makes more sense to me than Sam Adams and his tea-dumpers. As a Navy wife I argued the about the military draft with military officers instead of taking to the streets.

Free speech as entertainment can gently teach and inspire. If I could have been a player in the ivil rights movement, I'd like to have been the person who created "Roots" for television. My admiration for the courage of Martin Luther King and the people who marched with him, however, knows no bounds.

As long as they too remember the "peaceable" in "peaceably assemble", the abortion protestors have the same right to stand for the passion of their conviction.

"States' rights" was an enthusiastic rallying cry during the early years of our nation, perhaps inspiring the Supreme Court justices who recently reaffirmed this concept.

Somewhere above the free speech, rallies, petitions and court rulings flies the American flag, symbol of the right to protest. If the American people want to make it a crime to violate this flag, they have to amend the constitution again, making the flag's right to respectful treatment a legitimate exception to the first amendment. What's wrong with that?

Ignore the people who protest mindlessly or for political gain, and look for those who are there because they deeply care about the issue: because they want representation in their government, or the end of a war, or the same rights as other-colored people, or to save the life of a child or a woman's freedom of choice. If their government will not care about their caring, then to them the flag can as easily symbolize oppression as glory, just as the Union Jack lost its moral authority at Lexington and Concord.

One of the few rallies I've attended was a recent gathering to support the constitutional right to bear arms. If we lose that right, we have no protection against abuse of government power, and the flag really does lose its meaning. Dictatorships have flags too; big deal.

Since reading that George Papadopoulos died last month, I've been thinking about Greece. He was the former leader of the Greek junta, the military dictatorship that ruled between 1967-74, when I lived there. I never saw an anti-government protest, though back home in the U.S. there seemed to be a rally a day.

Since our tradition of individual rights began in Greece, I had the perfect opportunity to get over the typical American assumption that "it can't happen here." We should all know it can happen anywhere. Our country was populated by many of the people to whom it was happening when they fled their original homelands.

Through years of German occupation, civil war, and military dictatorship, the Greek people kept their love of freedom alive, and it eventually prevailed. It remains to be seen whether the traditional American love of freedom can survive years of economic prosperity, liberty-become-license, and an education system that doesn't always teach the perspective of history.

We have to hope that in the midst of a self-absorbed, frenetically consuming population, those few activists who care enough to exercise their right to speak out, peaceably assemble, and petition for redress of grievances will preserve our constitutional rights until the rest of the country decides to care about them again.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.  Her syndicated columns appear in the Salem Evening News, the Lowell Sun, the Tinytown Gazette and MediaNews Group newspapers around the state.

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