Our struggles in St. Petersburg are not unusual. Anti-war demonstrators all across the country – from college students to Ragin’ Grannies – are being locked up and locked out of public spaces in record numbers. But now, after last evening’s weekly St. Pete for Peace vigil, the ranks of those who have been arrested for dissent includes a 14 year old boy carrying a maraca who unwittingly stepped across the invisible line between public sidewalk and private sidewalk while participating in the protest. Thanks to the newly erected “safety barricades” erected in the protest area, his only other alternative would have been to walk into oncoming traffic.
Now take just a moment to think about this:
A middle school student, who is no doubt taking some form of American government or civics class this year, who is no doubt learning about the American revolution, who no doubt will be taught about the principles upon which this country was allegedly founded, and who may even have to memorize the pre-amble to the Constitution at some point during his scholastic career, just received a lesson in how this little democracy of ours works when you don’t agree with it – and that would be, not very well.
For some background on the current situation in St. Petersburg where powerful developer, Mel Sembler, is attempting to purchase the public sidewalk in front of his multiplex entertainment center, Bay Walk, please read Mr. Sembler’s Neighborhood or visit St. Pete for Peace’s website. The attempt to purchase this sidewalk is a thinly veiled attempt to take control of an area that has been the location of weekly anti-war vigils for the past two and a half years. In recent weeks, the transition from public space to private space has escalated, with the city erecting metal barricades to impede demonstrators attempting to leaflet Bay Walk patrons as they exit the complex.
At first, the barricades lined the curb and posed no impediment to protest activity, but with each passing week, the barricades have been rearranged to become progressively more restrictive. The current configuration resembles a cattle pen and effectively prevents protesters on the east side of the crosswalk from reaching protesters on the west side without either trespassing on Bay Walk’s property or risking a stroll through traffic. Last week, a St. Pete for Peace woman attempting to throw a coffee cup away in a west side trash can was issued a warning citation for trespassing and told that the next time she strayed on the property, she would be arrested.
In the meanwhile, protests which were previously rather innocuous events marked by sign-waving, the flashing of peace signs and only an occasional heated debate with pro-war patrons have become a little more energetic in response to the free speech issue. The barricades have become useful places to hang signs, tie yellow ribbons around and hold impromptu percussion-accompanied chanting sessions. The addition of a few noisemakers has helped to keep group members feeling empowered under very restrictive circumstances.
It was during one of these drumming and chanting sessions that 14 year old Joe, who had been pacing up and down in front of the barricades shaking a maraca either strayed too far to the left or too far to the right. It is difficult to tell because, while the barricades steer patrons away from protesters bearing flyers, the area in front of the barriers is not strictly off limits. And there is no line on the ground that marks the end of public space and the beginning of private property. The “line” is invisible and possibly arbitrary depending on lighting, time of day and who is enforcing it.
At some point, Joe stepped over the line.
Unlike last week, no warning was given. Joe was simply handcuffed and dragged off, along with an adult who was attempting to film the event from the public part of the sidewalk. In the case of the adult, he was not directly confronted about the camera but was, instead, asked for his ID. He said he would be happy to comply once he was given a reason for it, but no reason for it was forthcoming. The answer to his final “Why?” was handcuffs.
When it became clear that the two were being put in a police van parked down the block, the majority of the protest group followed them down the street in support. Eight or ten protesters linked arms and stood in the intersection in front of the police van. Others lined the curbs on both sides of the street chanting, “Shame!” and “Let them go!” Please note that, mainstream media reports to the contrary, at no time was the van “surrounded by angry protesters.” This is a fallacy being propagated by the mainstream media who received a press release from the police department late Saturday night containing the "surrounded" phrase – it is not clear, at this time, what the police might have been smoking when they perceived that they were “surrounded” but it must have been something which caused a handful of people to appear really large and/or to possess unusually long appendages and supernatural powers. Where are the drug-sniffing dogs when you need them?
The stand-off resulted in four more arrests. Only two of the six arrested were read their rights. The man with the camera still doesn’t know why he was arrested, although the official charge is “trespassing.” Three of those arrested were 16 and under.
The arrests were followed by a second protest at Bay Walk where St. Pete for Peace members gathered at the barricades for an old-fashioned sing-a-long, parodying songs like “This Land is Your Land” (transformed into “This Sidewalk’s Your Sidewalk”) and “A Bicycle Built for Two” (which became “A Barricade Built for Two”).
All six protesters were released on bail by five this morning. Court dates are pending.
It should be noted that I am really proud to know these principled people. It is a privilege to stand with them each week. It is an honor to work side-by-side with them in this never-ending struggle for peace and social justice. And it is inspiring to see teenagers, united with parents and grandparents, who care enough about the direction this country is headed to fight for it…not on foreign soil under the pretext of fictitious threats to national security, but here at home, in our community, in our streets.
And they still are our streets…for the time being anyway.
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