Protesting the protest zones

Last summer, I was standing in the withering heat, dripping withsweat and feigning a smile. I was listening to friends shout, chantand sing of lamentation and frustration. There were many othersdancing, singing, angry, exultant, crying, shaking, bellowingbloated epithets that snagged on the barbed wire bordering us, andthen seemed to deflate into nothing.

This was a protest, and we were exercising our “right” toprotest. That day, my mood swung from self-righteous indignation tothe dullest of moods accented by swaying and soporific handgestures.

If this was my right, my duty, my charge then why did it allfeel so outrageously ineffectual and outright ridiculous?

We were protesting miles from the actual event and surrounded bya surreal quantity of police.

Let me clarify: I continually revere all those who protest, andargue, and wind through the streets with others no longer able tojust sit at home passively. And in the United States the impulse tococoon oneself in the car, in the cubicle, in the drive-throughrestaurant and on the couch is as strong a tradition as beingpissed-off and marching in circles.

Something is amiss in this country when those with differentpolitical ideas are not revered, but corralled.

Something is amiss when there are more riot police thanprotestors, as a recent Cheney protest at the Portland airportillustrated.

Something is amiss when barbed wire and pepper spray delineatethe “zone” of free speech, like at the recent Democratic Conventionin Boston.

I do not consider myself na�ve (though many readers havesuggested to the contrary). I understand protesting is a valuabletradition that has never been well-received by any number of socialfactions, whether by those who vehemently disagree with theagitated, businesses worried about cleaning up the mess, or electedofficials who fear their own political stature will be dented by agathering storm of screams in the street.

I am slowly becoming convinced that something has shifted: theimpulse to gather is being discouraged, the “zones” of protest arebeing pushed farther from the people protested and, thus, fartherfrom the purpose and farther from the point.

Much of this, I am told by political pundits and citizenadvocates, began after the peppered miasma of the 1999 WTO protestsin Seattle. In the guise of cooperating with protesters, citiesfrom coast to coast prepared battle plans for quelling protests.The city and state governments were convinced that the “people”needed protections from their own undoing.

Now, municipalities have taken the funds, the plans, thepropaganda and the morality of post-9/11 Homeland Security andensured that people in the United States will be safe from otherpeople in the United States arguing about their uniquely Americanfates.

“Free speech zones” ringed by barbed wire, held in place bymenacingly masked riot police and made unintentionally ironic byboth George W. Bush and John F. Kerry’s comments that these zonesare “what’s great about America” and demonstrative of “democracy.”The difficulty of accepting such pronouncements should not be loston any American. It is even more disturbing when considering thatin the roiling turmoil of the Middle East – the same place we aimto “democratize” – protestors still march the streets, decidedlyabsent of “free speech zones,” and are looked upon not warily, butrather innocuously, by local soldiers. This should give us greatpause.

What have we traded in our unending quest for safety? What havewe made ourselves safe from: our own ideas, our own arguments, andthe difficult but necessary debate with each other?

When we look to bully other nations from the pulpit of humanrights, and we take the first steps to the microphone to preach thepromises of the United States, in the far distance there will beother people behind chain link and razor wire, compelled to stay intheir zones, with the only relief from the heat and the dust foundin the tyrannical shadow of the majority.