Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day: America Edition


A few weeks ago I found myself standing in front of the White House with a couple of friends. It was closing in on midnight, and other than the uniformed, heavily armed secret service agents on Pennsylvania Avenue, the streets appeared quiet. Looking through the iron bars, I saw nothing but empty darkness on the front lawn of Mr. Bush's home. About 50 yards from the fence I could see a large fountain.
"I bet you can't make it to the fountain." I said to my friend. The fence was about 8 feet high, it would be easy enough to vault, and it looked empty on the lawn.
"What?"
"I bet you can't make it to the fountain."
"You've got to be kidding."
"I'll give you 20 bucks if you make it."
Now I have to admit, I was a bit "meat" drunk at the time. We just finished dinner at a Brazilian steak house where "meatadors" walk through the restaurant with sizzling slabs of meet on sword like skewers and carve it at the table. The restaurant has a strong game component and I made a number of rookie mistakes over the course the meal. To start, they give you a basket of "can't eat just one" hot popovers and send you to a salad bar full of a Willy Wanka version of an antipasto spread and vegetables harvested from a Flintstone farm. I tasted, the stuff, a couple of peppers, some buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, but even as a rookie I knew they were trying to fill me up before I moved on to the meat.

They tell you to enjoy the salad bar and when you are ready, turn the coaster size disk next to you plate to the green side, and the meat course will commence. As soon as I took the last pepper from my plate, a guy on my left took the old plate away as a guy on my right replaced with a fresh new plate. I innocently turned my disk to green and signaled my readiness. In an instant a small silver drip pan was placed on the table and a 3 foot skewer of meat was standing up next to me.
"Would you like some bviwlwiehdosa?" He didn't really say the last word, but I don't know what kind of meat it was.
"Sure" He started to carve a hunk and instructed me to grab the loose side with my tongs. I did as instructed and put it on my plate. I cut into the meat, tasted, and it was good. My green was still up, so another guy popped up. I accepted more meat. Then another. I took more. Quickly I had a lot of meat on my plate. I went red for a while.
After I worked through my first plate, I turned green and the first guy who walked up had chicken legs and sausages. Now they were tipping their hand. This was clearly filler. All of a sudden, I was catching on, they walked by with gas inducing garlic covered meat, and the rare sightings of "house special" meat involved the carving a translucent paper thin slice of meat carved by an expert whose carving skills belie the fact he probably moonlights as a brain surgeon. They were gaming us. The varying grades of meat and frequency hinted at optimization for the fixed price, but they didn’t tip their hand until the sausage. By putting sausage, the Russian Roulette of meat, in front of us, they telegraphed their tell. Even as a rookie, I knew to pass, but it was too late. I already accepted of the garlic rubbed whatever and bacon wrapped thing. These are time-released fillers. They go down easily, but expand beyond their original size. I ate these, and prior to expansion, continued with the house special and the filet mignon. It all felt good in the restaurant, but as I stood up, I found myself to be overstuffed, and "meat" drunk. It was in this condition, I stood in front of the White House.

"C'mon, I know you can make it and there are clearly no guards." One of my friends was there and the other guy was keeping his distance, pretending he didn't know us.
"No."
"What can be so bad."

Drawing upon the meat courage, I walked over to the Secret Service officers and did some research.
"Hi."
"Uhhhh" They were not talkative fellows.
"My friend and I were just wondering what happens if someone jumps over the fence." My friend was walking away quickly as I started the conversation.
"You wouldn't get very far." The gentlemen did not have much of a sense of humor.
"What happens?"
"Do you really think I would tell you?" Since he was still not seeing the humor, I thought I would explain our perspective.
"We make games, My friend just made a game where the White House was invaded by an occupying force, and Washingon was blown up." One of the men unsnapped the holster of his gun. "Do you play games?"
"I like war games." His partner said.
"great, like what?"
"I don't remember the name."
"So if my friend jumped over the fence and ran to the fountain you would shoot him wouldn't you? Well, not you, but a sniper on the roof of the White House."
"Don't you think you would hear about it if we shot people running across the lawn?"
"No." I really didn't. I imagined the trespasser would be shot by a sniper and immediately trap doors would open on lawn, releasing a team of men in black mumenschantz costumes who would instantaneously whisk the body away, never to be seen again. Then a Wall-e sweeper bot would drive across the lawn, removing all evidence. "Has anyone jumped over?"
"Yes, but not on our watch. If you really want to know, talk to that guy." He pointed over his shoulder to a guy sitting on the curb across the street. “He's been sitting there since 1981 and knows a lot more than we do.”

I walked across the street, my friends were now keeping a safe distance and clearly acting as if they didn't know me, and met William Thomas. He goes by Thomas and was sitting in front of a tent, with some signs and his dog. He was clean, and well spoken. The Secret Service guys were right. Thomas knew what happens when you jump the fence. He'd seen a few times. The most entertaining were the folks who put the red dye in the fountain. He pointed out the sensors and showed where guards emerge prior to tackling the interloper. But over the course of the next half hour of conversation I learned much more important lessons about my country.

As you can see from his website, Thomas's vigil addresses a lot of issues, but while his expression has been consistent since 1981, the changes in the world around him altered the meaning of his message. Thomas first sat on the curb when Reagan was in office. He was a jeweler, a merchant marine, and afforded a bunch of other opportunities by the freedoms created by our founding fathers. When he felt the country was changing for the worse, he decided to do something about it, he sat in front of the White House. Pennsylvania Avenue was still open to traffic and Lafayette Park across the street was still a vibrant protest area. Thomas was arrested some fifty times between 1981 and 1989. I can't say I blame President Reagan, if some guy was camping on my front lawn I would call the police too. Then, the arrests stopped, and so did the protests.

Protest permit grants for Lafayette Park started to be granted less frequently. Protesters with signs were no longer allowed to move as freely in front of the White House, the street in front of the White House was closed to traffic, and no one bothered Thomas anymore. Without the protestors marching on the White House, without the crowd in Lafayette Park, Thomas remains the sole symbol of the foundation of this Nation founded on protest.

Americans learn about protest early on. In elementary school we learn our nation was founded by a group of people who decided to protest. We celebrate defiant, anti government acts of the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence as well as exercise of free speech by people like Martin Luther King, which were less than popular at the time. When the country stood independent, the founding fathers injected protest into our national DNA. They drafted a Constitution with an intentionally weak government, and powerful rights of the individual. They even felt it was the individual's responsibility to speak out against the government, and even overthrow the government if it no longer reflects the will of the people. They gave me the right to write this blog without fear of arrest for expressing my thoughts. For 200 some years, the basic structure - or as older countries like to say, the experiment - continues. But along the way, the freedoms were restricted in the name of the common good. Security concerns after 9 11 required closing of streets, relaxation of personal privacy protections and limitations on gatherings.

As the D.C. authorities cleaned up the area around the White House, they left Thomas. After the others left the area, what started as an expression of what was wrong in America turned into a benign symbol of what made America great. Tour buses drive by and show "the Constitutionally protected protester" to millions of tourists from all around the world annually. If you stand stand on Pennsylvania Avenue, you can look to you left and see The White House, the symbol of power in the United States and to the right, and see the protestor. Thomas' position had been transformed from active protester, to a monument, no different than any of the other edifices sprinkled around Washington to commemorate the building blocks of this Nation. Thomas is serving the government as a symbol of freedom, and he serves us, like every other Congressionally ordained monument on the Mall as a reminder of the sacrifices made by others so we can sit and fill ourselves full of Brazilian steak house meat and write about it on blogs. Thomas understands the transformation.
"They use me now."
"How's that."
"If I wasn't here, they wouldn't have anything to show the world. I am the last symbol of the First Amendment within driving distance of the White House."
"Maybe you should leave"
"Explain."
"Maybe your ultimate protest is the decision not to protest."
"I have to think about that. . . . "





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