Tuesday, January 22, 2008

New Jersey, the Jackboot State?

Maybe there’s some job requirement in New Jersey that requires cops or other government people with authority to be uninformed, uneducated, unacquainted and totally in the dark on the Freedom of Speech in our country.

“So you want to work for the government. Have you ever heard of the First Amendment?


“OK, you’re hired.”

How else do you rationalize seven cops arresting a couple citizens from a town hall meeting on Saturday, Jan. 19, in Middle Township, for protesting toll hikes?

Gov. Jon Corzine was scheduled to appear at the last of his four “town hall” meetings to pitch his plan to up tolls on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike in order to pay down state debt and repair roads.

Prior to Corzine’s arrival, some 10 toll increase opponents began passing out flyers and displaying signs that read “No toll hikes.” Mind you, the signs did not say “F... the Gov” or anything like that, just “No toll hikes.”

Two of these protesters were arrested for exercising their freedom of speech privileges. Steven Lonegan of Bogota, NJ, and Seth Grossman of Middle Township, were cuffed and charged with trespassing.

Were they endangering anyone? Acting rude in public? Disturbing the peace? Were they wild-eyed thugs chanting, “We’ll die before we pay higher tolls!” Well, no.

Lonegan was mayor for 12 years. Grossman is an attorney and former Atlantic City councilman. They were just there to protest a bad plan, a plan that they say will hurt people, including truckers.

When “Land Line Now” news anchor Reed Black pitched the story in yesterday morning’s news staff meeting, you could hear the collective clunk of jaws hitting the table.

By noon, Reed had contacted both Lonegan and Grossman and had recorded interviews with both.

As an editor here, one of the perks is that I get to read the unedited copy and hear the complete sound file on the interviews. While you get to read the cleaned-up, tightened-up version, I hear the whole thing. I even watched a tape of the arrest, posted on the Internet by someone who was there. Watch for yourself here.

Lonegan and Grossman told “Land Line Now” News Anchor Reed Black how they were told it was a “private” meeting. Private? Has the government reinvented vocabulary? A town meeting, scheduled by the state’s governor, paid for by taxpayers, is a public meeting. Period.

So here’s this guy, in a suit and long black winter coat, surrounded by seven officers. They asked what he was doing, and he said passing out flyers. They told him “the governor did not want” him handing out flyers.

Lonegan explained to the officers it was actually a “public” meeting, paid for by taxpayers. Lonegan told them it was his right to pass out flyers protesting the toll increases.

To cut to the chase, they cuffed him and put him in the patrol car, along with Seth Grossman. Both were detained for about an hour and charged with trespassing. A statement from the cops said the two men had been attempting to enter the school, where there were signs posted “no signs.”

The tape shows Lonegan quietly standing on the sidewalk when someone said “arrest him” and then someone cuffed him. I didn’t see him or Grossman “attempting” to get into the school.

A retired superior court judge who witnessed the arrests said it was “very scary.” Various media sources quoted him as saying it reminded him of movies he’d seen about Russia and Germany.

“My run-in with freedom of speech in New Jersey was a chilling, oppressive experience,” Lonegan told Reed.

The real chill here is that this kind of stuff happens all the time. Sometimes, it gets some press. I remembered a similar story from a meeting in Fargo, ND, that got attention so I googled it. Three years ago, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post reported that a city commissioner, liberal radio producer, a deputy Democratic campaign manager and a number of university professors were among 40 people in Fargo who were barred from a town hall meeting where President Bush spoke.

Tom Athans, chief executive of Democracy Radio, issued a statement after learning that a producer for a liberal show was among those booted. Athans was quoted as saying “to blacklist a local citizen because he produces a radio program at odds with the political agenda of the White House is dangerous for democracy.”

OK, so let me get this straight. We are fighting for freedom and democracy in other countries, but at home you feel the jackboot when you speak out?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Don’t let the dream die

As an elementary school student in the 1960s I lived through turbulent times, watching local, state, national and world events from the wide-eyed perspective of childhood but also with the curiosity of a born reporter.

My natural curiosity and never-ending thirst for information, coupled with the fact that I hung out more with adults than my age group, often resulted in my being over-prepared for current events discussions in second and third grade.

Every single evening I had a front row seat for the 6 o’clock news: assassinations, riots, peace demonstrations, battlefield footage from Vietnam, tanks in the Middle East. And every evening there was lively discussion around our dinner table as the dramatic images flickered on the black and white screen across the room. I still remember the red blood even though it showed up in black on our TV.

In April 1968 I was stunned when the local news anchor said Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.

I understood immediately that this man who had been working for peace and equal rights for all Americans had been gunned down because of his beliefs. The next day at school I was horrified when some of the kids made jokes about it (obviously repeating racial slurs that they had heard in their homes), and my heart ached when I saw the tears in the eyes of the only two black children in my class of 30.

Fast forward to 2008. It’s been 40 years since the assassination, and I’m a staff editor for a national magazine that just happened to sponsor a poetry contest for readers in recent months. Of the more than 500 entries we received, a handful did not meet the criteria of being on the topic of trucking. All of those poems except one went into the reject pile.

The one poem I saved from the reject pile came from retired trucker Scotty Foster of Troup, TX. It tells a story that I thought should be shared as our nation remembers and honors the work of Dr. King on Monday, Jan. 21.

“I Had a Dream”

by Scotty Foster

Words from Dr. King,

made so many hearts sing.

It was all such a shame,

the disrespect is the same.

Thirty plus years,

has eased a few tears,

yet the problem has steadily grown.

I’ve witnessed the birth,

of more of that kind,

knowing they’ll be reared,

with that same state of mind.

We’re all to blame,

for the notoriety and fame,

it’s as though we make ourselves blind.

No candid reflection,

can begin the dissection,

of this wizard presented to thee.

Such pain and deceit,

for the Nazi defeat,

yet it was there for all who could see.

Many summers have passed,

yet the spell he has cast,

lingers in those true of heart.

Few of us show,

that we still know.

Fewer pray for change to begin.

They still cull those unfit,

in consensus they sit,

a thoroughbred, deception, its guise.

They pander your smile,

as we swallow this guile,

re-election is seen as the prize.

Should there come a time,

when the church bells won’t chime,

most will freeze in dismay.

There’s no need for alarm,

your convictions can’t harm,

we’ll see you there someday.

Don’t dare raise your voice,

it’s a matter of choice,

they say you’re letting off steam.

That corrupt point of view,

has now slipped into you,

But once, I had a dream.