Scene: City Council chambers in a small southern town in America.
Citizens file into Council Chambers, pausing only to have a police officer check them for weapons. They talk about the days – not long ago – when none of this was deemed necessary: when a Council meeting was an occasion when one could catch up with friends, talk to elected officials and partake in that singularly beautiful event known as “participatory democracy.”
Feelings are running high and before the opening crash of an energetically-wielded Mayoral gavel, the people speak to one another about the issues that are dividing and consuming their community: a local airport that Council wants to relocate miles away in the middle of 200+ acres of fragile wetlands, a 100-year Floodplain and the Rose Basin; water rates that were hiked 35% to pay for an ill-advised venture; a much-loved Director of Tourism recently terminated due to, apparently, trumped-up and politically-motivated charges – and then denied the right to appeal her case; the City’s purchase of a $1.4 million piece of property without the knowledge or input of the citizenry, the seeming violations of Georgia’s Sunshine Laws… the list is long and deeply disturbing.
Council files into the standing-room-only Chamber and begins to dispense with the formalities of business. Then it’s on to the “Granting Audience to the Public” portion of the meeting.
The Mayor, with his stone-face and monotone voice, reads The Rules. These dictate when we may speak, command that no questions are to be asked, no Council person is to be addressed directly, there is to be no speaking among the audience, no sounds – and then he threatens all with ejection should we violate his terms. The audience is also informed that should an individual be ejected they will not be allowed to return to any future meetings without the consent of the majority of Council. Thus freedom of speech and the right to petition the government have been casually dismissed.
And so it goes as the audience is tempted to check their passports to make sure that they have not been inexplicably whisked to a Third World country run by a despotic regime.
Police officers stand to the side and at the back of the room. On one memorable occasion an officer stood in front of the dais fondling his sidearm.
An 83-year-old woman rises and approaches the podium. She has lived in this town for most of her life and has been actively engaged in supporting the causes that keep any society strong. The eye rolling among the majority of Council reminds me of marbles thrown onto the floor by an angry toddler. But she is old and frail and can thus be dismissed by Council.
The woman speaks of the blatant disregard of Sunshine Laws, the dearth of accountability and the trust that lies shattered. (I think that it’s whimpering in the corner beside the First Amendment). She is threatened with expulsion form Chambers.
Citizen after citizen stands to speak: some imploring Council to “just be fair”; some citing actions that reek of lack of honesty, fiscal irresponsibility and the corrosion of integrity. (Cue more eye-rolling on the part of Council). The people entreat their elected officials to “do the right thing” and are met with barely-concealed impatience and obdurate silence.
The citizens leave the Chambers; exhausted, angry and demoralized. Once again their voices have fallen on deaf ears. They have been insulted and dismissed and nothing, it would seem, can permeate Council’s wall of haughty arrogance.
I am amazed by the willingness of my fellow townspeople to do the research; to spend hours looking into the minutiae of the law; to stand up, time and again, before a Council that criticizes, ignores and demeans them. (I, myself, have been told by a Council member that I have no right to speak, care more for “critters” than humans and should simply shut up. I have been, while in this country, subjected to slurs, threats, the rantings of my very own cyber-stalking local crank and the slings and arrows of xenophobia).
But I know that these people will continue to protest the corrosion of their community – and I have faith that they will neither be diverted by obfuscation nor cowed by punitive measures. It is frightening to be sure: many have permits that await Council’s pleasure; many work on volunteer boards that can be shut down; many hold their breath, hoping to avoid retaliatory acts. Still they stand firm and fight.
I am told (and I believed this when I took my oath of citizenship last January) that it is the voice of “the people” that creates the great American choir.
Now I witness, first hand and as a citizen, a painful dichotomy: the defilement of democracy by elected officials underscored by the passionate protests of the people who are the blood, breath and bone of this immense “social experiment.” I must wonder though – when I see the very precepts of this country so sullied and corrupted on a small-town local level – what does the future hold for the nation as a whole?
“Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether or not they are the powers that ought to be.” Sydney J. Harris.