Brush Fires for Freedom
By John W. Whitehead
All around us are signs of gloom and doom.
Perpetual war. A massive deficit and erratic economy. Shadowy enemies bent on terrorizing us and destroying our way of life. The Constitution—and in particular the Bill of Rights—undermined on virtually every front. Increasingly aggressive government agencies that threaten the very foundations of freedom. A literacy rate that is embarrassing. A populace lacking in any true moral standards and one that has little understanding of history or the Constitution.
As professor Morris Berman observed, “We have entered the Dark Ages in earnest, pursuing a short-sighted path that can only accelerate our decline. For what we are now seeing are the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome.”
But is all really lost? Can it be that we are merely waiting for the hammer to fall?
I refuse to believe it. Clearly, there is no quick fix or easy answer. The road before us is uphill and arduous. And the battles will be hard-won. Ultimately, it will come down to “we the people” taking responsibility for our freedoms. The point is that anyone, anywhere, can begin this process of change. In fact, it has already begun.
Americans are finally starting to decide that enough is enough. Across the nation, small sparks are beginning to illumine the darkness. Increasingly, we are hearing reports of individuals, groups of individuals and whole cities taking a stand for their constitutional freedoms.
Street performer William Talen, aka Reverend Billy, took to the streets of New York to protest a law requiring permits for rallies and proposed restrictions on photographers and filmmakers in public places. To make his point that the law was at odds with Americans’ right to free speech, Talen faced off with police officers, using a megaphone to recite the words of the First Amendment over and over again. He was arrested on bogus charges of harassing a police officer. But his stand for free speech made national headlines.
Armed with walkers, canes and wheelchairs, the Granny Peace Brigade holds a vigil every Wednesday in front of New York City’s Rockefeller Center to protest the war. They have also attempted to enlist in the military and have staged sit-ins in front of the recruiting booth at Times Square. For their pains, they have been handcuffed and jailed, but they succeeded in raising a media firestorm.
Since October 2001, more than 400 communities and eight states covering 85 million people have passed resolutions affirming their commitment to civil liberties and condemning the 342-page USA Patriot Act as a threat to those rights. And their numbers are growing.
These examples show what one person can do when he knows his rights. These otherwise ordinary individuals know what the Constitution guarantees, and they are standing up for it. They also recognize that it’s not necessary—or even possible—to win every battle. Sometimes it’s enough just to show up and take a stand.
Don Bird knows what I’m talking about. A 72-year-old former Marine, Bird is on a mission to save the U.S. Constitution from those who would ignore or dismiss it.
Bird’s personal quest started over a speeding ticket. Rather than pay a $192 fine and avoid the hassle of a court appearance, as most people would do, this resident of Rancho Tehama, Calif., requested a trial by a jury of his peers. He based his request on the Seventh Amendment, which reads, “At suits of common law, where the value shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of a trial by jury shall be preserved.”
Despite the fact that the judge refused his request, Bird was undeterred. Insisting that “the Bill of Rights is not amendable,” Bird turned his attention to the California state law that took the right to a jury trial away from people who contested traffic violations. But he found little support among the state legislators he approached about restoring the right.
Yet despite these continued failures, Bird has not given up hope. “My passion keeps growing from being ignored on an important constitutional issue,” he insisted. He now spends his days advocating for the Constitution and challenging lawmakers who undermine the Constitution. “I am hopeful, even if I fail in my endeavor, it might plant the seed for other citizens to stand up for their rights,” proclaimed Bird.
And that’s what freedom is all about—ordinary individuals, armed with the Constitution, doing something extraordinary like fighting back when their rights are threatened or violated. This is the starting point.
We forget that it was a ragtag band of rebels who, although greatly outnumbered, stood against the mighty British Empire and won. They were not only raising their voices for freedom, they were also willing to risk jail, even death, to do so.
Thus, in the words of that revolutionary firebrand Samuel Adams, “Go out and start a brush fire.”