In the Name of Love and Free Speech

The cover photo for Champion Communication, my writer’s page on Facebook, is a picture I took a few years ago of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field. I use the same image on my LinkedIn profile page. I chose the view from Crissy Field for these cover photos because it is an iconic image of San Francisco, where I live; a city known for its values and ideals of embracing diversity and inclusiveness.

Crissy Fireld Cover Photo

In Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, opposing groups clashed over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. A young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed, and a couple dozen counter-protesters were injured in hate crimes that are being described as acts of domestic terror. In the wake of this violence, right-wing groups espousing white nationalism are applying for permits to hold rallies in cities throughout the United States, on the basis of First Amendment rights protecting free speech.

As I write this, the National Park Service is considering whether to grant or deny a permit for an anti-government, right-wing group calling themselves Patriot Prayer to hold a rally at Crissy Field on Aug. 26. The group deliberately chose Crissy Field because it’s on national parkland, part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. Thus, the City and County of San Francisco has no authority to grant or deny the permit. This is a devious move on their part. They know that the National Park Service’s Park Police will not be able to enforce public safety at a rally that is bound to draw large numbers of counter-demonstrators. The group applying for the permit has attracted a militia group called Oath Keepers that is planning to join them at the rally.

Champion Communication is a name I adopted years ago while I was earning a living as a freelance journalist who also got regular gigs as a television production assistant for Thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious events. A champion is a winner, but champion can also mean a defender, a supporter, of a cause or an ideal. Communication is the act of conveying intended meanings from one person, group or entity to another through the use of mutually understood rules. The message can be expressed via verbal, nonverbal, written or visual format.

Here in the United States of America, free speech protected under the First Amendment of our Constitution is a basic cornerstone of communication. Yet, there are certain limitations to free speech that are designed to protect public safety. You cannot, for example, legally incite violence or a riot.

So how do I feel about this particular request for a permit to hold a “free speech” rally at Crissy Field?

My sense tells me this request for a permit is a calculated gambit to stir up shit, provoke trouble, and incite violence.

Public safety is a sound reason to deny the permit. I hope the National Park Service will not issue the permit on that basis.

I say this recognizing that it takes two to tango. If there were to be violence at a rally organized by a group like this, it would take an “other side” to be present that perhaps came looking for a fight. What contributes to the potential for direct engagement to turn ugly is that some people who oppose white nationalism and white supremacy are passionately against “normalizing” such a rally by letting it take place without a challenge. They will turn out to oppose the very presence of a group that requested such a permit before the dust had settled in the streets of Charlottesville. And make no mistake; though San Francisco embraces diversity and inclusiveness, the nearby environs in California are rapidly turning into a hotbed of white supremacy. Whatever claims are made to the contrary, at this point in time, this rally will serve as a lightning rod for groups that espouse racial hatred.

It is surreal, like watching as the date and location for a battle is scheduled.

But if this group is granted their permit, are there not better ways to oppose such speech than to go to the battlefield?

Lately, like many of us, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the scars this country bears from the enslavement of one race by another. I’ve thought a whole lot about the people I’ve known who shaped my thinking, and my own experiences that informed me.

My earliest memories include events and conversations connected to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when I was in second grade. My second grade teacher gave us 6- and 7-year-olds a homework assignment to write an essay about Dr. King. We then were asked to read our essays aloud to the class. We discussed Dr. King’s life and tragic death, race and racial relations and what the Civil Rights Movement was about. Yes, young children can handle that conversation, and even though I do not remember each word of it, I remember feeling awed by having witnessed a moment in history that was larger than my innocent awareness of the world could comprehend at the moment, and it made a lasting impression. A man had been murdered in cold blood, giving his life so that black people in America could sit on buses and at lunch counters, because there was segregation in America, and it was based on discrimination, and this was something that needed to be changed because our country was founded on principles of equality.

Another life experience which took years for me to study and grasp became the theme of my first novel (currently in the editing phase), about a teenage girl who goes to work in a racing stable during the late 1970s and finds herself smack in the middle of a grassroots union organizing campaign on the part of her co-workers. Little did I know that workers on the backstretch are not protected under the federal National Labor Relations Act when, in real life, I took their side in organizing for a backstretch workers’ union. When I chose Labor Studies as my major in college, I read in the labor law textbook that was assigned for one of my classes that the NLRA does not protect either domestic or agricultural workers, the latter category applying to the men and women who took care of racehorses. The textbook did not offer any explanation as to why not.

Not until after I graduated from college did I learn the story behind that exclusion. How, in order to get the 1935 law passed that would allow the majority of American workers to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, a compromise was made. A concession to Southern Congressmen who would not have voted for the NLRA if it had extended protection to their domestic servants and farmhands, the majority of whom were black. Decades later, this exclusion extended to me, as a backstretch worker.

As I write this on Aug. 19, one week after Heather Heyer was killed and a couple of dozen more injured on the streets of Charlottesville, a permitted rally in Boston by a right-wing group under the guise of free speech was cut short when a relatively small number was met by tens of thousands of counter-protestors in the streets of Boston. Reportedly there were only about 100 of the right-wing free speech demonstrators, outnumbered by 40,000 who marched against them. Nobody seems to have been reported injured, however there were a few minor skirmishes that suggest it could have turned bloody.

I believe there are better ways to bring change in America than shouting one’s lungs out one day in protest of people who hold different points of view than your own. If you don’t want to “normalize” such viewpoints when their rally takes place, rally somewhere else in San Francisco on Aug. 26. Make speeches, sing songs, and say prayers dedicated to truly seeking to achieve the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, and to the values of diversity and inclusiveness.

Better still, commit to taking on the work of enacting change one day at a time, one on one, in book discussions, in community organizing, in running for office in order to change laws, in any way that is peaceful and that makes sense.

I want Aug. 26 and 27 to come and go without violence and bloodshed on Crissy Field or anywhere else in San Francisco or the Bay Area, since this same right-wing group is scheduled to rally in Berkeley the very next day. The real work to be done to bring about change is more tedious than counter-demonstrating over a particular weekend, then thinking we’ve done enough. It’s a matter of influencing thought and attitudes to make a real difference. The moment is upon us to continue the conversation that started long ago.



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Bettina Cohen

I've watched the little corner of San Francisco where I live get "built out" and the neighborhood grow by leaps and bounds to its current near-completion status. I am the author of hundreds of published articles, two book chapters, and an unpublished novel.

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