by Len Lear
The U.S. Constitution was the first document in human history to accord basic human rights to the great majority of the citizens of a nation. Much to their eternal shame, the framers of the Constitution made a devil’s bargain with Southern slaveowners to deny all human rights to black slaves in order to get the votes of slaveowners to approve the Constitution. We all know how that turned out.
Even in the first democracy in history of a significant political entity, the Athenian democracy, approximately one-quarter to one-third of the people of Athens were slaves, most of them captured in the course of military conquests, according to historians of antiquity. Remember that even in this much-vaunted democracy, one of its greatest citizens, Socrates, was put to death after a trial before 500 of his supposed peers for the “crime” of “corrupting youth,” in other words, for expressing opinions in lectures and discussions that ran contrary to the views of those in power.
Author of the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson (or at least his better angels), was often quoted as saying that he put the First Amendment first because it was the most important and that without it, the others would not have an anchor to support them. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
But freedom is a rare and fragile flower that must be monitored and watered constantly by every generation and in every corner of the country to keep it alive. Take, for example, the peaceful protest on Dec. 4 by eight elderly members of the Chestnut Hill-based Philadelphia Advocates for Deer (P.A.D.) outside Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive. In the story above by Mary Ann Baron, a Chestnut Hill resident and co-founder of the group, you will read that six police cruisers and a paddy wagon descended on them, although they were standing quietly with their anti-deer-killing signs. (See above photo.) Short of the presence of Osama bin Laden, I can’t imagine what would bring out six police cruisers and a paddy wagon. To say that the protesters were intimidated would be an understatement.
Those present told the Local that a police officer ordered them to disperse because they “did not have a permit” to protest. They did disperse, although Ron Recko, president of Chestnut Hill Residents Association, told us later, “I wish they had refused this order, which was obviously illegal. If they had actually been arrested for not having a permit, they would have had quite a lawsuit.”
The eight placard-holders DID have a permit, of course. Their “permit” was the U.S. Constitution. MaryCatherine Roper, an attorney for the Philadelphia office of the American Civil Liberties Union, told us last Friday, “Anywhere within the city limits, you do not need a permit to protest peacefully in a public area unless you have 75 people or more. Obviously, with just eight people, this group did not need a permit. Of course you are not allowed to obstruct traffic. (Ed. Note: It would be rather difficult to obstruct traffic on Forbidden Drive since automobiles are, uh, forbidden.) I cannot imagine any proper basis for a police officer saying that. It’s a clear violation of their rights, as far as I can tell.”
When asked her opinion of the protest being squelched, apparently illegally, Maura McCarthy, Executive Director of Friends of the Wissahickon, stated: “FOW staff became aware of the quiet, peaceful protest in front of the inn when the police arrived to ask the group to move on, as the protest group had no Parks & Recreation-issued permit for the activity. (Ed. Note: As stated before, no such permit is needed.) When staff became aware of the protest group, we went outside to offer both the protesters and officers hot cider, because it was quite cold outside. This was the only interaction that staff had with the group. FOW respects the right of all citizens to express their opinions, even if we disagree with them. In the case of the deer management issue, many of the assertions of the group are verifiably wrong…”
When contacted for his version on the incident, Valley Green Inn owner Jack Ott said, “Let me first state first and foremost, I respect their opinions and in no way wanted to interfere with their beliefs and their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. I applaud them for getting out and actually doing something! Too many people in this world bang away at their keyboards expressing their outrage about the cause du jour. This group puts actions behind their words and beliefs. For that, they had my utmost respect.
“However, I wish they would have some inkling of respect for my livelihood. This group listed my business name, address and phone number as the protest location on meetup.com. I had to do a little research after the fact to find out why they seemingly targeted the Valley Green Inn. Since this group claimed they were protesting the deer cull, I’m curious why they didn’t stage it at the Friends of the Wissahickon headquarters at 8708 Germantown Ave. or Fairmount Park executive offices or City Hall. Instead, they chose a privately owned business to target.”
(Mary Ann Baron’s reply: “We chose the Inn because members of FOW and board members were at the inn having a winter festival, and I felt this was an ideal place to protest. We have a right to be on park property wherever we choose without having the police called.”)
“As I tried to relay to them, I am not the enemy,” Ott added. “If anything, I have a more sympathetic ear than most. Why? After over a decade here at the Valley Green, I’ve seen too many family pets discarded down here. From cats, birds, dogs (even a freshwater alligator on one occasion!), it pains me to know that too many individuals in this world have such little concern for our furry and feathered friends. Perhaps if more people realized that their pets don’t stand a chance in the wild, they might reconsider abandoning them.”
To find out the reason for the overwhelming police presence against eight elderly, peaceful protesters, I contacted the Police Civil Affairs Department last Friday and spoke to Lt. Ray Evers, who said, “I’ll have to call the 5th and 14th District Captains (covering Northwest Philadelphia on both sides of Wissahickon Park) and find out why this happened. We’ll get it resolved. We will make sure the officers in both districts know the law regarding protests. We will tell them that the First Amendment still applies.”
For those who would insist on “permission” of police anywhere on earth to express one’s opinions about anything, I would cite the words of Liu Xiaobo, this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for the “crime” of criticizing the Communist dictatorship running China. Liu has written: “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth.”