America is a nation born of revolution. Most of the individual rights and protections laid out in the Constitution were put there, not as part of some abstract philosophy of just governance, but rather in direct reaction to the harsh treatment the American colonists had endured at the hands of the despotic British monarchy and the soldiers it sent from overseas to enforce its decrees. Articles such as Amendment IV, which states;
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…
were enacted expressly to prevent the kinds of arbitrary and malicious acts perpetrated by the “Redcoats” or “Lobsterbacks” (as British soldiers were mockingly called) against colonial citizens in the course of trying to stifle dissent against the King’s rule. The same goes for Amendment V;
No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed… and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense,
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,
the famous Amendment I;
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 hotly contested Amendment II;
… the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,
And lastly, as a catch-all, Amendment IX;
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Each and every one of these rights was deemed so important by the founders of our democracy that they were enshrined in the supreme law of the land in the hopes that the example they set and the freedoms they guaranteed would continue to serve and protect the American citizens to perpetuity. That said, no document, no matter how well-intentioned, can possibly anticipate every future situation that might arise. Recognizing this fact, and acknowledging that changing times sometimes call for changing regulations in the ongoing pursuit of forming “a more perfect union”, the framers of the Constitution had the foresight to put in place a method for further amending this important piece of paper as needed. But, (and this is an important “but”) they purposely made it rather difficult. To change the Constitution requires a bill to first pass both the Senate and the House of Representatives, by a two-thirds majority in each, and then the amendment must be ratified, or approved, by the legislatures of three-fourths of states – a process that, with the exception of the Volstead Act which launched Prohibition, has worked remarkably well for over two hundred years. (Even that folly was eventually righted by this process, for alcohol at least.)
It should be noted as an aside that compared to the Ten Commandments, which are repeatedly and erroneously claimed by Christian conservatives as forming the basis of American jurisprudence, the Bill of Rights is really the exact opposite. Nowhere does it say, “Thou shalt not…” or impose demands about what you must do. Instead, it makes the novel, positive assertion that, “These are things you’re allowed to do by virtue of being human, and no one with a gun, Taser, nightstick, or pepper spray gets to tell you otherwise.” (paraphrasing my own) Not since Solon of Athens or the Twelve Tablets of Rome have rights been so clearly spelled out for all to see.
Now, my point in enumerating these facts about the Constitution is as follows:
First – to show just how ridiculous are the current attempts by Republicans to modify this document solely for the purpose of violating its spirit of liberty, and conversely, how important are some of the proposed changes now being put forth by a handful of forward-thinking progressives in Congress. And second – to lay out for the readers’ judgment the innumerable instances in which these rights are being trampled by the fascist exercise of increasingly militant police powers upon citizens wishing only to exercise their fundamental rights. The word “exercise” is particularly apt too, for if not actively put into practice, rights have a nasty habit of withering away under the Nazi jack boot of oppression.
Let’s look at some of the verbal feces that has emerged recently from the mouths of the leading Republican presidential contenders. Rick Perry is almost too nonsensical to even acknowledge but for the fact that his proposals are so frightening in their implications. His latest is a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to pray in public schools. Even ignoring the blatant contradiction it presents to the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”), one has to wonder how deeply these Evangelicals have thought through the full repercussions of this sophomoric idea – an idea which somehow managed to be overlooked by the reasoned deliberations of much wiser men in previous eras. I rather doubt that Perry’s vision of it includes scenes of Muslim schoolchildren interrupting class several times a day to get down on their knees facing Mecca, or Hindu children lighting up incense in portable shrines to Ganesh, or even little atheists walking out of class whenever they feel like to sit in the sun and contemplate nature. Yet in fair application of the law, these and any number of equally useless distractions would all have to be admitted into the halls of learning, along with the idealized Norman Rockwell scenes of Jesus-praising envisioned by this bill’s proponents.
The other proposed amendment put forth by Republicans, one which has support from nearly that entire circus act, is to establish once and for all that marriage (in America at least) is between one man and one woman only, biology and natural inclinations be damned. The ignorance and hypocrisy underlying any such narrow-minded proposal are beyond description. Keyword: Bill of Rights, not Bill of Restrictions. As stated above, the essence of that noble list of freedoms is that of “Yes we can”, not “Thou shall not.” These zealots are perfectly entitled to espouse bigotry and mental slavery to their hearts’ content every Sunday from behind a pew, but leave the love life of the citizens to the citizens, thank you very much.
If we’re going to go to the trouble and risk of changing the Constitution, it had better be because some fundamental liberty is being endangered, or some inviolable right being compromised. Like, say, if powerful, unelected corporations and banking cabals were working to undermine democracy. On that note, of the various proposed amendments floating around the halls of Congress at present, there are several excellent ideas worthy of serious consideration. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for instance, has sponsored a bill to officially establish that corporations are not citizens and should not have the same rights and protections as flesh and blood human beings, thus formally overturning the disastrous Citizens United decision. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has initiated a House Resolution to put an end to the Federal Reserve and reclaim from private hands, the sovereign right of a nation to create its own money without immediately indebting all of its taxpayers – a dream of both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Such is the state of positive and negative reform. This still leaves open the question of the Constitution as it now stands, and the status of the liberties it’s meant to assure. Oh, but where to begin? The kaleidoscope of recent transgressions is almost too numerous to list and enough to make one’s blood boil. The right of the people “to be secure in their persons, papers, and effects” has been conspicuously absent during the forced dispersal of the Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza encampment in New York and the seizure of the “People’s Library” (in addition to tents, sleeping bags, laptops, etc) by the NYPD. And where is the “freedom of the press” as credentialed journalists have been arrested or forbidden access to observe and film the actions of the police at numerous Occupy crackdowns around the country?
What about “freedom of speech” and the right of the people “to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”? Where in the Constitution does it mention that doing so will result in legions of armor-clad goons descending upon you, swinging batons and wielding pepper spray like candy at a Macy’s Day parade? (Which in itself smacks of “cruel and unusual” punishment.) Have they so soon forgotten the lessons of the Boston Massacre and Kent State? And remind me again which part of Guantanamo or the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act allows for the accused to enjoy the right to “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed… and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation”? And as much as I can’t say that I’m a fan of any kind of organized irrationality, can it honestly be said that the outrage over the “Ground Zero Mosque” was in any way in accord with “no law prohibiting the free exercise” of religion?
The past couple of years in this country have seen the rise, first of the Tea Party, and now of the Occupy movement. Amid all the rancor of the pundits, the propaganda of the corporate media, and the various misconceptions circulating amongst the general populace, I think it’s worth noting that perhaps these two movements are not quite as far apart on all issues as it seems at first glance. At their root, both movements represent a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of the country and its politics, and a gut sense that something is very amiss. Both movements acknowledge that the rights of the common citizen are being trampled by those in power.
Where the Tea Party goes sideways is that they blame the government for all the evils of society. In reality, unless all semblance of democracy is already gone for good, then government is literally “of the people, by the people, for the people”, and everyone is to some degree, complicit in its actions. As the old saying goes, when you point your finger at someone else, there are three more pointing back at yourself. Their misguided fury makes no sense anyway. If someone steals your car and uses it to run a bunch of people over, do you blame the car and have it hauled off to the wrecking yard, or do you try to arrest the thief? Furthermore, these wannabe Minutemen revel in professing their undying support for the Constitution while remaining largely ignorant of what it actually says, or selectively applying only those limited parts they agree with. Finally, in a crowning act of AstroTurf populism, they allowed what was briefly a grassroots movement to be rapidly taken over by the billionaire industrialist Koch Brothers, thus hopeless compromising whatever bits of integrity and chance to do good it may once have briefly possessed.
As the Occupy movement has presciently realized, the corruption we’re now seeing in government is not inherent to government itself, but rather a result of it being co-opted by a tiny, moneyed elite into becoming what can only be called a plutocracy, meaning simply “rule by the wealthy.” The characterization they have brought before the national consciousness of it being the Ninety-Nine Percent versus the One Percent is brilliant, for it has the power to cut through the usual labels that divide us and instead unite all citizens against these would-be kings and their lackey enforcers, the police. This hijacking of our democratic process through the influence of rich, powerful business executives, special interests, and corporate lobbyists, and the armed subjugation being implemented by their mindless foot soldiers is unacceptable if we wish to preserve anything of our accustomed freedoms, or the lofty principles upon which the country was founded. We must draw a line in the sand and stand firm before it.
I’m so sick of hearing the excuse that “I’m just doing my job” “or “just following orders.” That is pure moral cowardice and never an acceptable reason for taking part in an unjust action. Just look at how futile such a defense proved to the Nazis put on trial at Nuremberg. No peaceful, unarmed protestors should ever be beaten, pepper sprayed, and arrested for simply expressing their right to speak their minds, and assembling to air their collective grievances. No citizen should be hunted down with predator drones on U.S. soil or hauled off to be tortured in secret detention camps. Such mockeries of justice cannot be tolerated. It is the duty of every single person who in any way enjoys, appreciates, or cares about freedom – of anyone who wishes their children to have the same liberties and opportunities as they had growing up – to not take this fascist assault on liberty lying down.
To enact meaningful change will take a concerted effort on many fronts. We need to vote out of office, any politician who would sell our rights to the highest bidder – for legal corruption is corruption nonetheless. We need to hold both individual police officers as well as their departments accountable, criminally and monetarily, for all of the flagrant abuses and violence they perpetrate. And finally, if we can get millions of people out into the streets, loudly and proudly voicing their disapproval and making it clear that the future belongs not to a select few, but to the nation as a whole, then all the king’s Tasers and all the king’s men won’t be able to put this police state back together again!