After watching the coverage of the Portland, Oregon, anti-war protests last night, I've come up with another idea worth sharing. Every city that considers itself to be part of a democracy needs to have designated places where a substantial proportion of that city's population can gather to exercise their rights to free assembly and free speech without fear of being in a confrontation with armored and armed law enforcement officers. These places might be existing parks or plazas that would be declared off limits to police incursion during the course of spontaneous or planned demonstrations, rallies or vigils. They would be designated Freedom Squares.
Law enforcement agencies would be welcome to encircle such a Freedom Square in order to contain the citizens gathered there and could politely search backpacks, packages and so on to ensure that no weapons would be taken into the Freedom Square. They could also detain any individuals or groups who leave the square to vandalize or loot nearby properties. However, they could not require citizens gathered in the Freedom Square to be silent or to disperse, and they could not enter the Freedom Square for any reason other than to assist in a medical emergency.
I realize that some protesters are committed to civil disobedience and would not feel they had been effective unless they had blocked traffic or public access and been arrested. However, most people who gather in demonstrations merely want to be seen and heard as standing for or against some action taken by their elected and supposedly representative government. They need a place where they can do that without getting pepper-sprayed, hit with batons, arrested or injured in a stampede away from police action.
Our police officers need to remember that they are guardians of the peace and that peace in a democracy is not always quiet. Peace in a democracy must provide space for diversity and for dissent, however noisy or unruly that may get in highly emotional times.
Protesters need to realize that being louder or more aggressive does not necessarily mean being heard better or having more influence. It is very frustrating to feel unheard and powerless over events carried out with our tax money and in our name. At the same time, we must govern our actions by their likelihood of achieving our ends, rather than their ability to express our feelings publicly or relieve our guilt.
I would like to commend MoveOn.org for their creative and peaceful approach to educating Americans about the Iraq War and organizing protesters to insist on peaceful and effective means being used to resolve our differences with Iraq, our allies, and the international community. I hope they will continue to exercise wise and effective leadership now that the U.S. government has commenced its attack on Iraq.
Now, more than ever, we need to have Freedom Squares in every city across this land and in every democracy in the Free World.
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