Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Counter-protesting at Outfest

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Philadelphia is in the national spotlight this week for arresting fundamentalist Christians who were counter-protesting at a gay pride event.

It is hard to be certain of the facts at this time, because the rhetoric on all sides drowns out any attempt at rationality. The Outfest organizers complain of homophobia while the Christian protesters complain of homofascism. The Christian protestors claim they were charged with hate crimes for reading the Bible, while Outfest organizers claimed they were disrupting the event by shouting hate speech into a bull horn. Outfest organizers claim the Christians were trying to incite a riot while the Christians claim that it was the Outfest organizers who were trying to start a riot. The Christians claim that the arrests were unjustified while the Outfest organizers claim that the Christians went out of their way to get arrested to make themselves martyrs and gain attention for their cause. Several conservative commentators have blasted the "liberal" ACLU for not supporting the Christians, while ACLU representative Larry Frankel, agreed that it sounded like police overreaching but the ACLU was not asked to intervene.

It didn't take long for the whole mess to take an antisemitic turn, because Philadelphia's tough District Attorney Lynne Abraham happens to be Jewish. Her office has been receiving obscene and antisemitic phone calls as a result of her usual vigorous prosecution of this case. See 'Philadelphia Four' drawing nat'l attention.

When I first heard about this story, I couldn't help thinking of another demonstration and counter-protest in the Philadelphia area only two weeks before Outfest. On September 25, 2004, a small neo-Nazi group held a rally in Valley Forge National Historical Park, located about 20 miles from Philadelphia in its northwestern suburbs. It was probably not a coincidence that the rally was held on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar: a day that was both Yom Kippur and Shabbat, a convenient way to cut down on Jewish counter-protestors. There was, nevertheless, a considerable presence of counter-protestors, both Jewish and gentile, in response to the neo-Nazi rally. Security was tight, and there was a substantial police presence, complete with riot gear and pepper spray. The protestors occasionally turned violent, and one of the protestors was arrested, charged with striking a Nazi sympathizer with a stick. The entire incident was quickly forgotten by most in the area.

I want to see an objective difference between these two counter-protests, because frankly I am quite weary of those who are determined to save my soul and won't take "no thank you" for an answer, but I have a hard time finding a difference. Yes, the fundamentalist Christians told the people at Outfest that they were going to Hell; but the counter-protestors at the Nazi rally chanted "Nazi scum go to hell." Yes, there was concern that the protest at Outfest might get violent, but the protest at the Nazi rally did in fact get violent.

However, I disagree with the claim this is a liberal/conservative issue or a sacred/secular issue. The difference between Outfest and the Nazi rally likely has more to do with the difference between Philadelphia and its suburbs. Just look at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, where hundreds of liberal counter-protestors were arrested. The Philadelphia police even infiltrated and later raided a warehouse that created large puppets for street theater protests. Almost all charges (including all charges against the "puppetistas") were later summarily dropped or dismissed and lawsuits for false imprisonment were quietly settled. Does this sound like liberal or secular bias? No, it isn't a liberal/conservative or sacred/secular issue at all, but rather a police department that maintains the peace at an organized events by arresting those who protest, presumably thinking that it is easier to dismiss the charges and pay off lawsuits later than to deal with a full-scale riot.

If you have ever attended a sporting event in Philadelphia, you will understand where the police are coming from. ;^}

* 'Philadelphia Four' drawing nat'l attention
* Nation's eyes on Christian protesters
* Neo-Nazi group rallies at Valley Forge
* Neo-Nazi's protest in Valley Forge Park (an article from the student newspaper of a Catholic college near Valley Forge)


gonebabygone said...

Interesting and rational take on this situation. I attend many anti-war protests and even some vigils with Women in Black. I've never been arrested and I've never seen them get extremely violent. That usually only occurs when people start acting stupid. I think there is a very fine line that law enforcement is aware of between allowing a peaceful protest and keeping the peace. People who protest and counter-protest also need to be aware of this line. While it is ok to gather in large numbers to support a cause, it is not ok to get even remotely violent because someone disagrees with you.

As for the saving your soul bit. I'm sick of people doing the same to me. I've been sick of it for years. I find it rather presumptuous for people to think they know what G-d's eternal plan is for my soul.

JewFAQ said...

UPDATE: In this week's Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia's Jewish newspaper), columnist Jonathan S. Tobin reiterates the false claim against the ACLU. He says, "Ominously, the Local American Civil Liberties Union refused to jump to the right-winger's defense." Let me reiterate: the defendants in this case have made it quite clear to the media that they do not want the ACLU's help, and the ACLU has said that it was not asked to intervene in this case. Please review some of the articles I link to above if you are interested in facts rather than rhetoric.

JewFAQ said...

A Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge has dismissed all charges against the Outfest protesters, finding that the protesters' speech may have been unpopular, but did not incite violence.