With rights, responsibilities

The St. Petersburg Times published a short article in February headlined: "Not even the protesters go to BayWalk anymore." It went to the core of the dilemma involving the merchants who want to privatize the public sidewalk in front of the troubled retail/entertainment complex and those who see it as the place for exercising "free speech" and the right to assemble.

Echoing a classic Yogi Berra joke, the article asked: "How bad is business at St. Petersburg's BayWalk?" The answer: Business was so bad that even protesters stopped going there.

The article then quoted an e-mail message that St. Pete for Peace organizers sent to their flock explaining why they were calling off future demonstrations at BayWalk: "Due to the dramatic drop in business at BayWalk, we no longer find it to be the best use of our time and energy to continue monthly protests there. We believe we can reach more people in venues other than BayWalk, but if business at BayWalk increases or there are future attempts to restrict demonstrations on the public sidewalks near BayWalk, we will then re-evaluate our decision."

Ironically, as the article suggests, St. Pete for Peace, along with others, helped drive consumers away from BayWalk. Unless something changes, new demonstrations there would be without audiences.

The core of the dilemma at the dying retail/entertainment complex is that one side — the collection of demonstrators and their supporters and unruly teenagers — ignores its duty to balance its rights with its responsibilities in democratic life. They are acting irresponsibly.

Do rational individuals intentionally commit acts harmful to the common good? I think not. Rational citizens seek to balance democracy's competing values. Rational citizens know they must carry the burden of their responsibility for their community if they are to enjoy the protection of their rights.

Because the price of civic irresponsibility is the loss of individual and group freedoms, these are two questions BayWalk demonstrators and the parents of unruly teenagers should ask themselves: What are our obligations to fellow citizens in a free society? Are individual rights and the common good — quality of life — inherently at odds?

Consider the comments of Diane Ravitch, author of Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society: "Democracy is a process, a way of living and working together. It is evolutionary, not static. It requires cooperation, compromise, and tolerance among all citizens. Making it work is hard, not easy. Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility."

I have experience with the responsibilities and dangers of protest. Like tens of thousands of blacks of my generation, I came of age during the zenith of the civil rights movement. In 1963, during my senior year in high school, I sat with four of my classmates at the segregated lunch counter of our local drugstore and refused to move when ordered to leave. We were taken to the police station, where we were roughed up. Our parents and principal had to come for us. I got a terrible whipping. The next day after school, we returned to the drugstore, this time with signs. We marched on the sidewalk. We spent two days in jail. I got another whipping.

What is instructive is that we demonstrated at the drugstore because it was the site of direct racial discrimination against us. Even as kids, my schoolmates and I were acting responsibly.

A few months later, as a college freshman in Texas, I became a student organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the next three years, I traveled throughout the South. I was involved in many demonstrations, including the three 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches that began on March 7 with "Bloody Sunday," when hundreds of marchers were seriously beaten, some permanently injured.

The Selma-to-Montgomery route was chosen in part because the 54-mile stretch epitomized Dixie's virulent racism. The lesson I had learned from the drugstore experience was reinforced on these marches: When protesting, choose sites and venues directly involved in or related to the urgent issues at hand.

We were encouraged to avoid disrupting the natural routine of businesses that were not materially part of the fight. Our self-interests, we were told, should not undermine the common good of a community.

Most memorably, we learned that with anything we have the right to do, we should act ethically, morally, justly and temperately. Above all, we should act wisely.

Now back to BayWalk. Where is the wisdom in protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in front of struggling Chico's or White House/Black Market or Hurricane Pass? How is the common good being served? It is not.

BayWalk is simply an easy target, a convenient place for demonstrations. I am not asking the city to privatize the sidewalk in front of the complex. I am appealing to all demonstrators and others to put the common good of the city of St. Petersburg ahead of their narrow self-interests and to act wisely.

With rights, responsibilities 10/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 12:22am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...