It was the end of March and the cherry trees were in full bloom around the Tidal Basin. Across the water on the south bank sat the Jefferson Memorial. A fitting memorial for one of our Founding Fathers and the principle author of our Declaration of Independence.
We were preparing to march . . .
While many can recite the most famous sentence in our Declaration, regarding self-evident truths, being created equal, and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I wonder how many have read this document through. For you see, it continues with a petition of grievances against the British government. It is a protest.
And years later, to solidify the right to protest in this newly formed independent country, the First Amendment was added to our Constitution.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The group I was assembling with was a group of nurses, some 25,000 to 35,000 strong. Here in D.C. to protest unsafe hospital staffing conditions and use of unlicensed personnel in place of registered nurses. We were protesting to support every patient’s right to receive the finest health care treatment available.
Yes, protest is a fundamental right in this country. It is one of those many rights that generations of our military have fought to protect. It is not a right to be lightly discarded. It is not a right to be denigrated if any individual group’s cause is not your own. It is not an inconvenience to be suffered should a traditional public forum, such as the sidewalk or roadway, becomes crowded with picketers waving signs. It is a right that should be respected and honored.
We gathered at the west front of the Capitol. The planned march to follow presentations would proceed down Pennsylvania Avenue and end at the White House.
Particularly troubling to me is an all too familiar refrain when petitioners draw light upon an issue, that if you don’t like something, that if you believe something could be changed for the better, that if you see a different way, that you should simply get out. Leave the entrenched and established protocols alone. Leave accepted bigotry and hatred be. Leave injustice unaddressed. Leave the very democracy that supports the right to protest. “Love it or leave it.”
This attitude, of course, if accepted in the late 1700s would have kept this country a slave to the British Crown. There would be no Declaration of Independence, just sheep meandering the pastures, herded by an occupying army.
Now, I’m not saying all causes are good causes. But the right to petition, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to freely speak your mind are rights that should be held in reverence. These rights form the pillars of democracy.
And march we did, united in our cause against corporate profiteering off the ill and suffering.
We, unfortunately, seem to be living in a time of growing intolerance. Where even our leaders act in bigoted fashion. Where those who speak out, or adopt silent protest, are vilified. If you have a different point of view you are told to leave.
But the “love it or leave it” mentality demonstrates a lack of a fundamental understanding of US Government – which was formed by dissenters from authoritarian rule and built upon the liberal principle of humanism. The Constitution built in safeguards for states from federal government, safeguards for both the majority and the minority views. And it allows for freedom of expression and the power to vote. Saying people should leave if they do not conform to your viewpoint is communistic, not American.
And I can’t tell you how exhilarating it is to speak out for a cause you believe in, and to know you live in a country where this right will be protected. I would strongly recommend that everyone in this country take a stand on something they believe in, to become active participants in our government.
Four generations of my family have served in the US military protecting our rights, and I am proud when people exercise those rights and protest. That is what makes this country great.
Photos: I took these during the Nurses’ March on Washington D.C. in 1995.
Post Script 1: In my late teens I also participated in a much smaller local protest regarding voting rights. It seems the 18-year-olds we were drafting into our military were allowed to fight and die for this country in Vietnam, but they didn’t have the right to vote. The voting age was 21 then. Nation-wide protests were organized, and the country changed the law. But even if the law had not changed, I would still have been proud to participate in this established system for redressing grievances. Dissent and protest formed this country. These are honorable traditions.
Post Script 2: The Constitution should be viewed as a contract between the government and its people. The government cannot infringe upon the rights guaranteed in this document. However, private employers, to the extent other laws do not apply, can infringe upon those rights. Thus, we have the current controversy about the NFL requiring their players to stand for the national anthem and not engage in protest. This action is legal because the NFL is a private club and not a government actor. But I don’t believe this action should be condoned by any government official who is bound to follow the Constitution. For a leader of this nation to express intolerance of the people exercising their fundamental rights as citizens, rights that our men and women in uniform have fought for and died to protect, borders on tyranny. And as is expressed in our Declaration of Independence: “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Post Script 3: By the way, health care is still not recognized as a fundamental right in this country. Sad. In fact, the only law I am aware of that requires the administration of health care is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). The law requires that a patient, upon presentation to an emergency room, be stabilized before they are transported to a different facility. The law was designed to curtail the practice of “patient dumping.” Ambulance services and hospitals were redirecting and dumping patients in state-run facilities once they found out they had no insurance. This profit-based practice was endangering lives.