Unless you've been hanging out on Mars, over the past 24 hours, you've no doubt heard that Cindy Sheehan was arrested for wearing a tee-shirt proclaiming the exact number of American casualties as a result of the American occupation of Iraq. You've probably also heard that Ms. Sheehan was released today, and all charges were dropped. Washington, D.C. police are to be lauded for their conscientousness in making amends to an American citizen who was merely exercising her First Amendment rights.
Fewer of us recall an op-ed piece written by Congressman Barney Frank about the arrest, on charges of trespassing, of a South Carolina man who attended a Bush press conference at an airport back in May, 2003. When he refused to surrender his sign protesting the exchange of blood for oil, Brett Bursey was taken into custody by South Carolina police. The trespassing charge was quickly dropped, but Mr. Bursey was instead indicted on a federal charge of violating rules of restricted access to the president. By refusing to stay within what Barney Frank calls "a free speech zone," this South Carolina man faced 6 months behind bars, as well as a $5,000 fine. Several members of Congress came to his aid, and wrote a compelling letter to then attorney-generalJohn Ashcroft, demanding that the federal charges against Mr. Bursey be dropped. Despite congressional protests, and high profile reporting, he has since been convicted of federal charges, and ordered to pay a $500 fine.
The Bursey case happened nearly three years ago, and attracted a great deal of attention from NPR's Democracy Now, and other alternative news media. While the analogy between the two cases is compelling, as well as disturbing, in that the same kind of arrest is taking place nearly 3 years later and in our nation's capitol, at a presidential state-of-the-union address, with all due respect to Ms. Sheehan, and with admiration for her efforts, one wonders if the reaction of the feds with respect to not indicting her, and with the D.C. police in making a quick, if perfunctory, apology has anything to do with how much of a celebrity she has become. Is there anything wrong with being high profile--especially when the cause for which one stands is, without question, a just one? Arguably not. That said, the underlying question, for dedicated activists, is one posed by Herbert Marcuse half a century ago; how can we have a "revolution" if it quickly disintegrates into a blueprint for a made for TV movie?
My intent is not to challenge, denigrate, or in any way deride Ms. Sheehan, but to question the media who have been scrupulously avoiding the real civil liberties issue while hungrily competing for ratings, and human interest story of the month. There is nothing that can compare with the loss of a child, especially the loss of a child to a futile, and unjust war, but an effront to our constitutional rights deserves our attention in every case, and not just those that receive more hype. It is only when this admininistration is called to task for each and every transgression against freedom of expression that we, as citizens, may anticipate progressive social change.
Importantly, one must ask whether Cindy Sheehan will ultimately become co-opted, and neutralized by her fifteen minutes of fame, and why wasn't Brett Bursey, who had an equally plausible case, given the same attention, from the media, as she was? In both cases, the executive branch showed its prowess in the exercise of testasterone over reason. Yet, one case is dropped almost instantly, in light of hyperfocus, while the other transforms from state to federal, indictment to conviction, with hardly a guffaw from the press corps. Does one have to sleep in a tent outside the president's Texas ranch in order to get CNN, ABC, and FOX to cover the fact that we have a constitutional right to freedom of assembly whether we have lost children in an illegal war or not.