Make no mistake about it, the Democratic Convention and related activist events have put a jolt of political energy into Boston over the past five days. Over the weekend, the Boston Social Forum on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Boston exemplified the best of the teach-in tradition, as thousands of activists gathered to attend or take part in hundreds of lectures, discussions, performances, and workshops, addressing dozens of issues (the war in Iraq and corporate power prominent among them). Classroom buildings Saturday afternoon were packed to and beyond capacity by an impressively diverse group of attendees, some anxious to soak up as much knowledge and information as possible, others anxious to speak their minds.
Some of that conversation has continued around the city now that the official convention is under way, as mainstream liberal groups sponsor events with prominent Democratic leaders, while prominent political authors sign their latest works at local bookstores. A quick walk around the Boston Common Tuesday afternoon would reveal an eclectic gathering of anarchist groups showing their wares and listening to blistering anti-corporate folk music, while a few blocks away labor leaders and allies spoke at a public forum sponsored by the Citizens Trade Campaign.
It's all enough to make a progressive's heart flutter–until and unless one dares to keep walking all the way to the Fleet Center, home of the Orwell-esque "Free Speech Zone."
The zone–actually a holding pen–is every bit as awful as charged by the ACLU. The space is located beneath hideous rail scaffolding, enclosed on three sides by cement and other barriers. The fourth side, facing out to where Convention delegates enter the Fleet Center, is surrounded by fencing about 15-20 feet high.
No delegate entering the convention can see what might be happening behind the wire fence, even if they wanted to. And if the smattering of speakers taking the microphone Tuesday afternoon is a fair indication, few delegates will have had reason to break stride and take the slightest note of is being said this week. Credible activist groups making credible claims have abandoned the holding pen, leaving the field to self-appointed soapbox preachers and outright hate groups like GodhatesAmerica.com, speaking to an audience of perhaps fifty gathered people as well as a stream of curiosity-seekers.
Under such ridiculous circumstances, few if any serious people with something important to say about a substantive issue will be willing to use the pen as a public forum. The holding pen deprives potential speakers of a fundamental aspect of free speech: the right to be taken seriously.
The larger effect is not only to deprive serious activist groups of a legitimate and respectable forum to attempt to communicate to delegates and the broader public, but also to label protesters and activists in general as bizarre, crazy, perhaps mentally unstable people saying bizarre, crazy things.
Just as spineless U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock admitted last week (before approving the arrangement), the holding pen is an "affront to free expression." Indeed, the only redeeming feature of the holding pen are the many handmade signs and the chalk graffiti expressing utter revulsion at this mockery of the First Amendment: "Give Us Our Freedom Back," "Pens Are for Cattle," " John Kerry, Take Down This Wall."
Anyone thinking that this breach of free speech is somehow offset by the wide variety of partisan political events now taking place across Boston is badly mistaken. Such events have their usefulness in allowing the like-minded to trade ideas and gather forces, but by their very nature they tend to be limited to self-selected audiences.
In short, free speech is not simply about like-minded persons talking to one another. It is also about being able to dramatize one's issues, to express resistance and opposition, in a way that attracts concern from a broader public and compels a larger audience to pay attention (and perhaps, occasionally, change their minds).
This aspect of free speech is being flagrantly violated in the most alarming way this week in Boston. For those worried not just about upcoming elections but the long-term prospects for keeping the United States a free society, the holding pen casts a pall over the coronation of the Kerry-Edwards ticket this week.
As the truth-telling graffiti within Boston's pen of shame puts it, "Patriots died for this?"
Thad Williamson, co-author of Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era (Routledge, 2002), is a doctoral student in Government at Harvard University and a member of the editorial collective of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org