It was a fine day for protesting at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., where folks were enjoying their right to free speech in a productive and peaceable manner. Lafayette Square sits directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The park was packed with a variety of people the Saturday morning I visited nearly a decade ago. A large group of Hispanic protesters was demanding “living wages,” acceptance of bilingual education and amnesty for illegal immigrants. A dozen other protesters stood on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. They called themselves “Freepers,” for “freedom protesters.” Each became a Freeper through freerepublic.com, an online forum for independent grassroots conservatives working to roll back decades of government overreach and to root out fraud and corruption. “It’s not like we don’t have other things to do with our time,” said one woman, who told me she drove three hours every Saturday to voice her beliefs. “But someone has to speak up to defend our Constitution.” Crossing back over Pennsylvania Avenue to talk with anti-nuclear-bomb activists, I was almost knocked over by a roller-hockey player. Two games were going on amid tourists and protesters, but the Park Police didn’t care; hockey players have as much right to the park area as any other American citizens do. Between two anti-nuclear-bomb signs sat an elderly woman with a sunburned face. According to her handout, she came from Spain in the late 1960s, married, had a daughter, got divorced and lost custody of her daughter. She essentially lived across from the White House, protesting nuclear bombs 24 hours a day. As I chatted with her, two women dressed as ninja warriors approached. They carried a white sheet with a message written in Spanish. “What does that say?” I asked one of the ninja warriors. “No hablo Ingles,” she said to me. The Spanish anti-nuclear-bomb woman read the ninjas’ sign. She told me they were protesting the evils of capitalism. Suddenly, the protesters who had been demanding amnesty, living wages and bilingual education began marching toward me on their way to the White House. They were blowing whistles and cheering, while reiterating their demands through a megaphone. Suddenly, Pennsylvania Avenue was a sea of tourists, protesters of every stripe and hockey players in the heat of competition. The energy, noise and enthusiasm were astounding. Nobody brought clubs. Nobody fought. Nobody tried to silence anyone else on that Saturday morning. Everyone freely exercised his or her right to speak freely. One of my history professors at Penn State marveled over the magnificence of our political system. America, at its best, is organized chaos — in which different opinions continually collide and work themselves out in a peaceful and constructive manner. Every citizen has the right to peaceably assemble and protest. We can criticize our political leaders with megaphones or in print or on YouTube. We have the right to stage revolutions. All we have to do is vote. Every citizen has the right to speak freely — even the right to say things that, to the majority of us, are hateful and ill-informed. Of course, that is the challenge with freedom. It opens the floodgates to everything that is good in the human heart — justice and integrity and generosity — but it also opens the floodgates to everything that is bad in the human heart. In any event, the First Amendment, when properly respected and practiced, is a wonderful thing. I witnessed it in all its glory in Lafayette Square one sunny Saturday morning not so long ago.
Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com.