June 06, 2006

On protests and propriety

Last week our group was accosted by a bunch of motorcycle guys, as I wrote about here. The story was printed in a Register-Mail article and condemned in an editorial; then my letter was printed, followed by another letter, and a supportive batch of "man on the street" interviews that appeared in Saturday's paper.

Thursday's paper included a report that the "God hates fags" jackasses were going to be back again (they were last here in November), to protest at the funeral of Knoxville's Pfc. Caleb Lufkin. The article mentioned that our friends the Patriot Guard Riders would be there to "shield the mourning family and friends"; much as several Knox students did last time. I hadn't been able to go last time due to teaching a class, but I decided to join whoever was standing with their backs to the "protestors", not least because with classes over, most of the Knox students were gone by this point.

Actually going up there was among the harder things I've done, somewhat to my own surprise. Partly I was nervous about how the motorcycle guys would react to me being there. Partly I was uncertain of how many people would be there, where I could stand, what I could do. And I was actually pretty worried about the Phelps group themselves—they pretty much fund themselves through lawsuits, and they can play the law a lot better than me or anyone on our side. And it seemed likely that they'd at least try to use the new "no protests at funerals" law (which is a stupid and unconstitutional law, but nobody listens to me about that) against us. Could I get arrested? Would it be considered a protest to stand inside the 200ft boundary in front of them? Would it be worth it?

When I got there, I parked on Academy a couple blocks away and walked up to the corner. On the northeast corner were two people with a painted sign that said "We honor Pfc. Caleb Lufkin!" or somesuch, and the Westboro vans hadn't arrived yet. I walked up to stand next to the sign people, and as I walked up the Westboro van arrived—about a dozen people, mostly children. They were directed to the sidewalk on the north side of Fremont, between Academy and West (presumably 200 feet from the church). Traffic was blocked off between West and Clark. We moved into the intersection to more effectively be in front of the protestors, who were starting to sing their parodies of American patriotic songs.

Predictably, Shirley (their leader, Fred being unavailable, I guess) started yelling that we were breaking the law with our "protest signs", and demanding that we be removed. A very apologetic cop talked to us, and his explanation jibed with my understanding: the law hasn't been tested yet, nobody really knows whether it would apply to us or not, probably not, but could we maybe just stand there without the sign instead? He promised to check with his superiors to get their legal opinion on whether we could bring the sign back out. Note, by the way, that this sign would not have been at all out of place at a regular military funeral—so it seems doubtful that it would count as a "protest" in any meaningful sense. (Strangely, we also got a hard time from the CNN correspondent, who kept accusing us of breaking the law with our sign; we just said we didn't think so and ignored him. I have no idea what he was trying to achieve.)

Meanwhile, the motorcycle guys had arrived. Hurray! We three people were feeling kind of exposed and ineffective by ourselves. But the motorcycles were all massed over in the Fremont/Clark intersection. It turns out they'd decided that they were there to honour the dead soldier, but not to protect anyone from seeing the protest (which is not what they said to the reporters, and not what it says on their website). Let me say that I'm not impressed. Fortunately, the local emergency services stepped into the void, with a fire truck, several police cruisers, and the converted R/V from Homeland Security (!) occupying most of Fremont between Clark and Academy.

As the protest wore on, a group was gathering on the southwest corner of the intersection, many of them with enormous US flags (ha! good idea.) that, together with the crowd, formed a nice wall blocking what remained of the view of the protestors. I joined them, both in standing there and in singing assorted songs in an attempt to drown out, or at least muddle the sound of, the awful revised versions that Westboro were singing. We sang a lot of first verses of things, because few people knew more than that, but this continued until 11:00, when the protest ended and the funeral began. I headed back to campus to participate in Senior Pumphandle. The protest got a relatively anticlimactic article, and life moved on.

The whole situation brings up some interesting questions about the conflict between what is legal and what is proper. The law in question, written specifically to target this group, is just bad law, and of course they were able to do their usual schtick without breaking it; but their actions were unquestionably improper (even if their message had been a good one). What we were trying to do was more proper, but of less certain legality—I think it was legal, but with the law untested, nobody's really sure. Of course, I think it's a bad law, so if it had been used against us, I was willing to pay a price, since that's what civil disobedience is about. They weren't willing to do civil disobedience, apparently, which is just as well because the ACLU really doesn't need a case like this for the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world to point at.

In retrospect, I'm not sure my own actions were of maximum propriety either, though. The big sign, the big flags, blocking the protest completely from view: that seems somewhat equivalent to the hidden-away "free speech zones" that I so abhor, right? Same goes for the singing to drown them out—I do think they have the right to display and sing their awful message; at what point does my own right to display and sing a message infringe theirs? Not to mention that, on a purely pragmatic note, I think our singing was just egging them on anyway. I think that if this happens again (let's hope not), the better strategy would be to do as the Knox kids did last time around: just stand silently in front of them. It doesn't completely block their message, but it very effectively conveys that we're not interested, that their words have no effect on us.

Of course, that requires a bit of organisation in advance, which is tricky when your group is composed of Knox people, Bethel people, and random other Galesburg folks that had just been out for a walk. But it's worth filing away for reference.

"[Blagojevich] acts like an ordinary, impulsive person: He wants what he wants, he wants it now, and he doesn't let worries about the future or the Constitution trouble him too deeply." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 10:10pm on 6 Jun 2006
It is only the government that is obligated not to abridge free speech. Private citizens may engage in obstructing free speech, and doing so is itself protected speech (at least at the level you are talking about; obstruction by violence is, of course, not protected). Posted by Greg at 6:54am on 28 Jun 2006
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