It’s impossible not to be struck by the irony of the plaza in front of the Supreme Court being one of those spaces where free speech is prohibited. Yet, that’s what the Court says, and that makes it so.
We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.
The protesters obviously knew that when they came up with their plan.
More than 100 anti-death-penalty activists assembled first at the Methodist Building across the street from the court. They prayed and discussed strategy, then walked to the court, with some carrying signs that listed, year by year, the names of the more than 1,400 people executed in the 40 years since Gilmore.
They stood right in front of the marble plaza of the court, the point at which “freedom of speech stops,” as protest leader Bill Pelke said to the crowd. After singing protest songs, the protesters quietly made room for the 18 who planned to get arrested.
On the steps in front of the Supreme Court, the eighteen held a banner.
It’s not that their issue isn’t serious, or that they weren’t willing to be arrested in furtherance of their cause. To their credit, they knew going in that they would be arrested and peacefully accepted the fate of civil disobedience.
But why? No, this isn’t a question about the merit of being against the death penalty. It’s a question of what holding a banner that said “Stop Executions” was going to do to further their cause.
Do they think the Supreme Court isn’t aware of the controversy? Do they think a group of about 100 people would prove so overwhelming that, with everything else that’s happened, this would be the straw that would break the Supreme Court camel’s back? Perhaps the words on the banner, “Stop Executions,” would be so forceful as to persuade the justices to change their positions?
Yet, to 100 people at least, this seemed like a worthwhile idea. And no doubt, there are many others who weren’t involved who will cheer these protesters on.
Among the 18 were death-row exonerees, family members of murder victims, as well as survivors of those who were executed. Sam Reese Sheppard, whose father was the convicted murderer — ultimately acquitted — in Sheppard v. Maxwell, the 1966 Supreme Court case, also got himself arrested.
These were very serious people, who had suffered enormously from the failures of the system. And there is no failure more permanent than executing an innocent person. Well, perhaps the slow death penalty as well, but that’s an argument already had.
The capital police did their job without incident, largely because the protesters accepted their fate as anticipated.
As court police looked on, the group marched across the forbidden marble plaza and then up the marble steps. They strewed roses on the steps, then unfurled the illegal banner. Police stood mute for the first 15 minutes or so, until an officer warned them with a bullhorn that arrests were imminent. Protesters were peacefully handcuffed one by one, and the banner sagged as fewer people were left to hold it up.
Finally the banner was left on the stairs to be folded up by police as evidence. Officers also picked up the yellow and red roses, meant to signify that the protesters mourned not only those who were executed, but their victims as well.
The description is moving, emotional, visceral. No one was saved.
All of this is a microcosm of the times. A zone of censorship on the steps of the Court with the ultimate responsibility of defending the First Amendment’s promise of free speech. The civil disobedience of committed activists knowing they will be arrested for their speech. The dubious purpose served by their decision to do so nonetheless.
We have hashtags on the twitters. We have petitions at Change dot org. We have fake news and faker news. We have people banned from social media and books that don’t exist yet reaching number one at Amazon. We have people choosing to be arrested to hold a banner that reads, “Stop Executions.”
What’s next, the elimination of all thought, reduction to posting tiny images that convey some vague yet incomprehensible sense as a means of reducing the vast effort of thinking to its lowest possible thought? We could call them “emojis,” as in a reflection of our feelings since we’ve abandoned all rational thought?
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate.
Update: It turns out, jail wasn’t nearly as much fun as they thought it would be:
Though the action was beautiful, we paid for it dearly. The police put the cuffs on as tight as possible, and we heard the commander say, “Put them through the system.” For me, the officer pulled my right hand back and pinched the nerve on my thumb deliberately; I was sure he was going to break my hand. We thought another friend did have his hand and shoulder broken, so he was hospitalized. We were chained by the ankles, waists and behind our backs most of the time, and it was very painful. During our two horrific days in chains and jail, we had very little water, and for me, two pieces of wonder bread.
On Tuesday night, we were put into very tiny cells with steel metal to lie on and bright lights on us. Once you lay down, you were covered in cockroaches. Not one person in the group slept and we each went through an unexpected, terrible ordeal. (Several of us, for example, were nauseous the entire time.)
Jail is never as much fun as it looks on TV.