On Free Speech, the Blue Wall and How to Stop Shooting People

aaaBillyPancaked.jpgSince last summer, we have lived through this remarkable movement called Black Lives Matter.

So much is revealed in this movement's beginnings. How did this little township in St. Louis do this? How can it be that a patch of sidewalk in front of a police station in Ferguson, Missouri, would become the stage for the world's conscience? Is it only because local black youth refused to stop shouting there? This is the exhilarating return to the actual magic of free speech.

And now, the future. The outlines of the difficult challenge that we face in the future is shown by the legal (or illegal) end-game of this movement. The police are watching us go back to consumer society, putting wires back in our ears, withdrawing from the streets and parks – and they are attacking the remaining protesters, who now have less protection.

In November we received the disheartening news from Ferguson. Protest leaders were now being taken into custody, assigned a crime, and issued a bail level that was so high that they could not leave prison. It was a Machiavellian tactic to separate the most effective activists from their work out in public space. The human rights advocate Joan Baez helped us send them money.

At times like these, the law enforcement community is a cultural force and not a legal one. The police consider protesters to be their "enemy," and that is the right word in this era of militarization. When the police are on the defensive, as we saw in New York so dramatically, they resemble Scientologists. They imitate the anguish of a minority group. They are "disrespected." This leaves them free to talk themselves into unjustified – even bizarre, in my case - arrests of those of us who publically criticized them.

The police believe that "free speech" is an alien privilege used by protesters in the manner of head bobbing hip-hop or organic arugula. They oppose it when they see it, but mostly, they are not aware of it. The 1st Amendment is not a concept in their culture. It isn't easy to imagine that police would ever feel the importance of building trust and community by way of free speech in public space. But we do need the long-range safety that comes from free speech and assembly, not the more short-term safety of arresting anything that moves. Talking politics loudly in parks? Performing for each other "on the corner." That makes us safe and secure? Yes! Yes it does!

Impossible as it may seem, we need to bring the police back to the nurturing arts of the five freedoms of the 1st Amendment, worship, speech, press, gathering and protest. Since 9/11 such freedom has been called illegal anarchy. We have to find how the Bill of Rights can be non-threatening. Freedom can be more than a spacey slogan, it can be active cooperation.

I live in a cop neighborhood in Brooklyn. My best conversations with police men and women take place when we are shepherding our children to school at the same time, or watching sports in one of the famous Irish bars like Ferrell's on Prospect Street. I will feel them drop their guard, talking frankly, without the supervision of their racist leaders. I can hear "Well, Reverend... you know... these protests can't go on forever. What are we supposed to do?" And then I try to find the translation of the phrase, "Stop shooting people."

Amazingly, I have very good talks during the process of arrest. When they hold my hand and press my inked fingerprints against the computerized glass, we can speak in low tones. We don't feel surveilled. That's when I need to remember not to be angry. I can quietly talk about what the 1st Amendment is in Grand Central Station recently, while I was getting printed down there in their jail. Something like this:

"Next time, I want you to protect my free speech rights. You cuffed me in mid-sentence. Now you'll put me in the can for a day or two and I'll see the judge and I'll get offered credit for time served if I plead guilty. That's not right."

I do believe that they are listening. They are mostly silent. But I feel that when I'm talking in that setting, with the cop being gentle with my hands, that I am softly saying something that is heard deeply. For a few minutes, in that unlikely intimacy, free speech still works.

Photo credit: Fred Askew