Free speech zones

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

Consider how weird it’s getting.

Recently in La Crosse, Wis., ticket holders in line to hear the president speak had to unbutton their shirts before they could get inside, baring any secret opinions lurking next to their hearts. Good thing, too. A mom and three boys who harbored antiwar sentiments almost got into the rally.

“I was wearing a white T-shirt (with an antiwar message) underneath a black button down shirt,” Sandra McAnany writes on the Madison Independent Media Center Web site, “and when the lady who was checking IDs saw the white collar, she asked me to unbutton my shirt. … As she saw the writing on (it), she hollered for security.”

Some guy in a green jacket “came over and grabbed the tickets from my hand. … He said, ‘We don’t want people like you here’ and ripped my tickets in half.” McAnany, her three sons and one of their friends (who was, in fact, pro-Bush) were shooed off to the free speech zone, behind the concrete barriers and the 12-foot-high Waste Management trucks.

Free speech zones! Yeah, they’re over there by the Dumpsters, well out of presidential and, perhaps even more importantly, media eyeshot. Everywhere this reviled president goes, the Secret Service gets there first, sweeping protesters out of the way, hustling them off in handcuffs (if necessary).

On the Fourth of July, in Charleston, W.Va., Nicole and Jeff Rank were arrested, cuffed and charged with trespassing for the crime of wearing “Love America, Hate Bush” T-shirts on the grounds of the state capitol, where the president was scheduled to make a speech. That day, only pro-Bush T-shirts were allowed on the grounds. (Nicole, an employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed to West Virginia to do flood-relief work, was deported back to Texas after the incident.)

“Those who applied for tickets” — for Bush’s speech in Charleston — “were required to supply their names, addresses, birth dates, birthplaces and Social Security numbers,” according to the Charleston Gazette.

Social Security numbers?

Who else here is starting to feel queasy and a little shell-shocked? We’ve wound up with a president who can only govern a rump state of smiling, cheering, right-thinking, right-T-shirt-wearing true believers.

And even the true believers haven’t been doing enough for him lately. The Rev. James L. Evans, a Baptist minister, recently wrote in the University of Chicago publication Sightings that campaign strategists for the notoriously born-again president have handed evangelical leaders a list of “22 duties” they need to perform during election season.

The list includes praying for the country and the troops, but then gets down to the secular nitty-gritty of keeping Bush in office, obviously a task too important simply to leave to God. Thus the evangelical ministers have been told to surrender copies of their church membership lists to the Bush campaign and badger other evangelical congregations in their area to stump for the prez.

“The net effect of this strategy will essentially turn local congregations into party precinct houses,” Evans writes. Even ardent supporters, he says, are “appalled.”

For sheer brass, wow, this scheme gets an Obie. It goes way beyond “eroding the wall between church and state,” that is, allowing a particular religion to pull the strings of government. Bush turns that no-no inside out, giving government leave to pull the strings of religion. This presupposes an Iran-style merger of church and state, with George W. as the nation’s first ayatollah-in-chief.

The arm of the state, the arm of God — Ayatollah Bush isn’t shy about employing both to maximize his grip on the national rudder. Last fall the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the president’s personal police force, the Secret Service, for its widespread pattern of violating the civil rights of protesters.

And, like God (or the Ayatollah Khomeini), the president’s power to control dissent knows no borders. For instance, Italy’s largest electric company cut off power to two radio stations, Radio Citta Aperta and Radio Onda Rossa, as they were about to broadcast coverage of the protests against Bush’s visit in June, Democracy Now reported.

You know the only good news about all this? Those free speech zones are getting awfully crowded.