Callen Harty on the Freedom to Dissent

Open Letter to Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief Erwin

by Callen Harty

Capitol police officer watching the Solidarity Sing Along beneath a large banner reading, “Big Brother is Watching You”.  Photo by Callen Harty.

August 27, 2012

Dear Chief Erwin,

I haven’t met you yet, though I anticipate that some day I will.  I read about you today and feel as if I know you already.  In an interview with the Associated Press you said that as the new Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief you intend to crack down on protests at the Capitol.  Scott Walker will appreciate you doing this, as he certainly doesn’t want to hear what the citizens of his state may have to say about his policies or governance.  He would just as soon we all go away so that he can focus on taking phone calls from only the wealthiest of his constituents (and of course, several out-of-state donors who are not constituents but still expect payback for their generosity toward his most recent campaign).

Like him you apparently have no respect for the history of the Capitol building that you are sworn to protect.  You may not know this, but it has always been a place for citizens to congregate, a place to raise voices against the worst of legislative assaults on our rights, freedom, and way of life.  There is a rich history of protest and citizen involvement in the Capitol, and particularly the rotunda, a place as close to a statewide town hall as can be found anywhere.  It seems that you are determined to overturn that history and make the Capitol and its denizens available only to those who can afford to pay for the privilege.  It is our house and we will not be evicted.

It is understandable to get tough on criminals who are violent or who damage the building in some way.  It is not understandable to try to prevent legitimate protest in a democracy.

The sad truth is that those who silently acquiesce now to you shutting off the ability to protest under the dome will one day have protests of their own silenced, and they don’t understand that connection.  This is not about the specific protests of the last year and a half–it is about any protest that may be silenced in the future, from either the left or the right.  Those of us who appreciate the Bill of Rights wish those rights extended even to our enemies.  Diminishing rights in any way is a chilling endeavor, especially from a former Marine who undoubtedly swore at one time to fight to preserve the rights of fellow Americans.  Putting roadblocks in the way of citizens assembling, petitioning their government, and raising their voices to be heard over the din created by the exchange of pieces of silver and gold and the rustling of dollar bills is an affront to the citizens of the state and the sometimes messy thing known as democracy.

If the legislators working in the Capitol would like the protesters silenced then perhaps they should govern in a way that is consistent with the historically open and honest government that Wisconsin prided itself upon for years. They would not need police to quell peaceful protests if there were no need for protest.

People understand that both the federal and state governments have chipped away at the rights inherent in protesting in a number of ways over the last several years.   They have created permitting systems, free speech zones (where one can say anything to others of like mind but can’t be seen or heard by anyone who needs to hear the words), confiscated cameras and video recorders, intimidated protesters, and more.  But that doesn’t mean that we won’t fight the continued erosion of our Constitutionally guaranteed rights.  In fact, it means that we will fight all the harder.

Nobody is surprised by this impending crackdown.  While Chief Tubbs wasn’t perfect he did strive to strike a balance between the functioning of government and the rights of that government’s citizens to protest.  He understood the need to protect the building and those who work there while also protecting the Constitutional rights of those who came to express their dissatisfaction with those working there.  When Tubbs left to take another job everyone knew that Governor Walker would select someone in his stead who would be more beholden to the Governor and the Department of Administration than to the citizens of the state that all of those in government–legislators, bureaucrats, and the police–are meant to serve.  The only question was who would be the administration’s lap dog, how draconian would that person be, and how soon would the hammer come down. Now we have the answers–you, very, and now.

Please understand that we are not afraid of you.  Nobody wants to go to jail or face fines, particularly for something as innocent as gathering to make our voices heard.  I would rather have my hands in chains than my mind enslaved.  It is better to be a convict in any jail than to be a prisoner of your own conscience.  We will not be silenced, particularly when the issue is free speech, the right to peaceably assemble, or the right to petition our government for the redress of grievances.  Your brute force will not stifle our creativity and your tenure will not outlive our passion.  Perhaps the former chief didn’t tell you that every time they cracked down on legal and peaceful protests our numbers swelled with sympathizers.  Perhaps he didn’t tell you that for every police action there is an opposite and greater citizen reaction.  If not, you will learn soon enough.


Callen Harty, citizen
Monona, Wisconsin

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