A Flag and a Drum: Free Press, Free People Rally
Saturday, March 7
The first person I see as I walk down Front Street in Traverse City, Michigan to stand in front of our regional newspaper office, Record-Eagle, is old friend and organizer Ashlea Walters with her two children. How lovely, the children here in the bright March sun, demonstrating with us. They jump up and down (hop really—like small rabbit people) with child-sized signs in their hands. Their mother holds a sign that says Free Press, Free People. Since I’m without a sign today, I join other people in the chants, sipping my hot coffee between rounds of chanting. A man unfurls an American flag that he can wave over our heads. Yes, we should have more flags at these events. In minutes I run into a couple of writer friends, Heather and Cari, both wearing variations on the now ubiquitous pink hats, carrying hand-made signs. Then Teresa, one of our best regional poets, joins us. Lisa and Betsy, other writers, are there and we all throw our voices into the chants.
We writers have been watching for months now, both before and after the election, wondering in anxiety what this man now in the White House will do with free speech. We have learned that he likes to exercise it himself, but he doesn’t much like it when it is exercised against him. It seems clear from his history in the courts that weaker libel laws would make it easier for public figures (like him and others) to bankrupt news organizations whose coverage they don’t like. It also seems clear that he has a presidential aversion to transparency—even more than other political leaders. Will he interfere with free speech as we know it? Looks like it’s on the list.
That said, today’s rally is what I call an opposition rally. Ashlea’s email alert indicated that a “pro Trump” rally was planned at the Governmental Center. So ours was planned for the same time. Our purpose, she wrote, “… to drown out negativity with positive action and a peaceful demonstration.” That’s what I want too. Positive action. Peaceful assembly. So we stand in the cold, make our voices heard while ten blocks away, at the stately old brick government building, others gather with a different purpose.
We are six writers standing on the street, a pocket among many others, all of us joined in a concern for the first amendment of our constitution. The man with our flag waves it, we encourage drivers to respond, and they do, honking wildly in support. TV cameras appear briefly. I can tell we are not quite big enough for the evening news, but they film our enthusiasm anyway as we shout our chants toward the camera. Heather has to leave early, so Teresa takes on her box sign, and makes it into a drum, which she bangs rhythmically in time to the chants. It works. Yes, we should always have a flag and a drum at these things.
Show me what democracy looks like!
This is what democracy looks like!
The first amendment has always been especially important to writers. I think often of the utterly repressive book burning in Nazi Germany—even the great classics, and the book banning during our own dark McCarthy era here in the U.S. I know it’s a broader issue in many countries because the press is often controlled entirely by the state. Until now, we are a rare and mighty country to have such freedoms. I know that the “First Amendment is likely to be our savior in the Trump era… Trump has a Republican majority in Congress and will have a conservative majority on the Supreme Court once he appoints Antonin Scalia’s successor. So where will the vaunted “checks and balances” of our constitutional order come from?”
Today, I am part of “checks and balances.” My friends and I are rallying to keep that free press free, at a positive rally, listening to a cardboard box drum beat out the rhythm of chants that celebrate my right to write what, within legal parameters of libel and integrity, I want. I am celebrating a meaningful part of the constitution. Because of that constitution, I am able to write in support of my LGBTQ friends and students, in honor my immigrant friends, my Muslim friends, and even my Republican friends’ right to speak their minds. May it always be so.
When 1:00 rolls around, our voices are raw, and we hug good-bye, pick up the signs and go. I climb into my car and on impulse drive the ten blocks to the Government Center where the pro-Trump rally took place. I have no idea how many people were originally gathered, but I can see that organizers are packing up a microphone and bigger signs. Most of the people leaving the area are carrying those polished blue Trump/Pense signs. No box drums, nothing makeshift about these folks. What remains of their rally is a large American flag on a stand-alone pole and directly under it, bright in the sun, is another large flag of vivid yellow with the timber rattlesnake and the motto, “Don’t tread on me.” This is the Tea Party flag, properly called the Gadsden flag, the one Tea Party members have co-opted from our country’s Revolutionary War history. The snake was suggested as an American symbol by none other than Benjamin Franklin because it was slow to attack, but once riled, fought to the death. I drive twice around the block, waiting for them to take the yellow flag down. During the time I circle, they do not remove it. The only drum here is my own heartbeat.