Johnny Law passed the word on to my lawyer Tuesday evening: The charges of disorderly conduct lodged against me at the Republican National Convention are being dismissed. After considerable cost and hassle to myself and the Spectator, the State of New York has decided that a credentialed journalist standing on the sidewalk and obeying all police orders is not a criminal. Grateful as I am, I sincerely hope no one over at NYPD headquarters is holding their breath waiting for a thank-you card. It reminds me of something my mother used to say to me when I’d get cheeky and self-righteous after fessing up to something I’d done wrong: “Do you think you deserve a medal for finally doing the right thing?”
So ends an unpleasant, but ultimately harmless episode. Short though it was, it has left some lasting impressions on me. First and foremost is that state power does indeed need to be restrained, and not simply when it comes to journalists. There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the sort of mass arrests I witnessed in New York City a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the second thing I learned is that such grievous misuses of power will never be adequately addressed in the current political climate, because everybody is too self-interested in how such criticism will reflect on their political team.
This may not be grist for the party rah-rah squads, but let’s labor through it for a moment anyway, shall we? On September 2 the New York Times detailed the scene of my arrest with 200 other folks, mostly lefty protesters: “The group was not blocking the sidewalk. But some had strayed from the rules by walking three-by-three or more.” Later in the same article, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said a factor in the arrest decision was that protesters planned to block a street later on closer to the convention. But, Kelly, added diplomatically, “You can’t arrest people for what they intend to do,” thus, everyone was arrested for blocking the sidewalk that wasn’t blocked. “The fact is that they were breaking the law,” Kelly said.
But that is clearly not a fact. Yes, those walking more than three abreast may have been breaking some draconian pedestrian law, but anyone to the left of those hardened criminals was actually adhering to the letter of the law, and indeed arrested for something they may or may not have intended to do. Ostensibly, this sort of thing is still frowned upon in America.
Perhaps it’s gauche to admit, but the first person I called when I stepped out of jail was the AmSpec publicist. I felt an injustice had been done, and that people should be aware of that. As I reeled off the facts of the event in more than 40 radio interviews, I found the response to be completely and utterly baffling.
Liberals calling into these shows railed at me over and over again gleefully with the mantra, “Now you know what it feels like.” Now I know what what feels like? I’ve never arrested a throng of dirty hippies. What exactly is the quid pro quo here? This sort of self-righteousness from a political ideology that has brought us “free speech zones” and routinely pickets conservative speakers to quash their supposedly beloved “dissent” was frankly galling. I could more accurately say that now they know what it feels like to be a pro-life protester. I don’t see any liberals standing up for those folks’ right to stand where they want to.
On the other side, I’ve had more conservatives than I’d like to admit scolding me for speaking out at all. It was bad for “police morale,” one man gruffly lectured me. Yeah, well, spending 15 hours in jail without having my rights read to me or being informed of what the charges were against me was bad for “Shawn morale.” Dozens of others basically told me I got what I deserve for getting that close to the action.
“If you don’t like what falls on your head, maybe you should avoid elephant stampedes,” another caller said.
“Look, I was there and all I saw were donkeys, no elephants,” I said.
“Whatever,” he said. “Quit yer bitchin’.”
My hunch is that if I had been arrested at the Democratic National Convention the talk-radio reaction would have been considerably different.
AND THAT IS THE CORE PROBLEM we face right now vis-à-vis civil liberties in America. Only half the population is ever interested in protecting our rights at a given time. Remember Waco? The Democrats acted as if shooting tank rounds and incendiary devices into a compound full of children was a brilliant defense of the Constitution. Ditto on sending a paramilitary unit armed with machine guns to seize little Elian Gonzalez and shooting a young mother dead on Ruby Ridge. Janet Reno, who happily presided over or defended these crimes, is a hero to them. But the idea that John Ashcroft might one day find out what bomb-making books some terrorist took out of the library is a bridge too far.
Nevertheless, as principled people and defenders of the Constitution we are required to put aside whether we agree or not with the protesters, and ask ourselves whether what happened was right or wrong. No one has said more vocally or more often that these protesters are, by and large, poorly informed and overly emotional. But I hardly believe it is a cause for joy when some dolt I disagree with is left sitting on a concrete floor in a makeshift cage for 60 hours. Even if that same dolt would happily restrict my rights on political grounds, I cannot be party to the same, because there is something, I hope and believe, bigger than the both of us, or which party wins the next election at stake here.
I’ve been in situations before where I was tear-gassed and suffered, yet accepted it as just, because the event I was covering got violent and out of control. I would not begrudge the NYPD any legitimate action necessary to protect the public order. But the fact is, they were given far too much power in advance of this convention and they wielded it all too gladly. This has been the conservative/libertarian argument against the unfettered expansion of government all along, has it not? Such a government takes on a life of its own and spirals out of control with unpleasant results for all.
Proclamations from the left that we live in a fascist police state are, of course, completely absurd and showcase what can only be termed a pathetic understanding of modern history, insulting to everyone who ever lived and died under true fascism. But the call for vigilance must nevertheless be answered, here as it is elsewhere. The true measure of our freedom in the near future may be whether we are strong enough as a people to stand above partisan schism on the things that really matter.