Politics in the U.S.: No questions, please

By Robert Jensen

Published in Progressive Populist · May, 2000

[This article appeared in the print publication the Progressive Populist, May 1, 2000, p. 6.]

Here in the United States, a democracy with legal guarantees of freedom of speech, I was arrested for asking a question about public policy of a former public official in public. More than a year later, I’m still waiting to find out if I will be punished for that basic act of citizenship.

Here’s how it all started: During a break in a book reading by former President George Bush in the Texas House of Representatives chambers in November 1998, I stood up in the gallery and loudly asked a question about his support for the economic sanctions on Iraq that have killed more than 1 million civilians.

It was not an “authorized” question-and-answer period, but there was no stated ban on asking a question at that moment. I had waited until Bush had finished and did not interrupt his speech. I was loud in order to be heard, but I posed no threat and was not carrying anything that could have been misidentified as a weapon. I left without hesitation when a state trooper asked. The only person at risk was me; the woman next to me was so angry that I thought she was going to impale me with her umbrella.

I got out alive, with a serious scolding from the woman for being impolite. I also was charged with a class B misdemeanor for “disrupting a public meeting.” A county judge has thrown out the charge on a technicality, and now I’m waiting to find out if the prosecutor will file amended charges and start the process all over.

In one sense, there’s not much at stake in this case. I’m a tenured professor with lots of status and privilege. If convicted, I would face a fine and some community service. But there are two reasons I didn’t want my lawyer to plea bargain.

My first concern has to do with freedom of speech and a meaningful political process.

Certainly, no one individual should expect the right to walk into a meeting and take control of the discussion. But arresting me for simply asking a question that did not disrupt the meeting was clearly a political decision. If I had stood up and told George Bush that I thought he was the greatest president in history, I may well have been asked to sit down and be quiet, but I wouldn’t have been arrested. They hauled me out of the room because of the content of my speech, which goes directly against what in First Amendment law is called content-neutrality — the doctrine that the government can’t discriminate based on the content of the speech.

My question came during the opening of the annual Texas Book Festival, which is usually fairly apolitical. But that year, the presence of Bush and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft turned that opening event into a Republican Party party, with the usual political cronies in attendance. It was one more scripted political event so typical of public life in the television age.

Rather than seeing my intervention as a disruption, folks should have been grateful. Along with the other member of our political group who stood up after me and also was arrested, I tried to force some real politics — public discussion of important policy questions — into the event. If we are to recover a sense of politics and democracy that goes beyond TV commercials and pseudo-events, such interactions are crucial.

But my concern is not limited to the state of the political process. I stood up because the ongoing U.S. war against Iraq — a war being carried out through sporadic bombings and the most brutal economic embargo in history — was, and remains, a crime against humanity.

I live in a country that pursues policies which each month, according to UNICEF figures, kill 5,000 children under the age of 5 in Iraq — deaths that are a direct result of the deliberate destruction of the civilian infrastructure during the Gulf War (one of several U.S. war crimes in that attack) and the sanctions still in place almost 10 years later. In the hour that Bush and Scowcroft entertained the crowd and basked in their standing ovations at the Texas Capitol, six more children in Iraq died from the effects of malnutrition, lack of medicine and contaminated water. Although Bush is no longer directing U.S. foreign policy, his appearance was an appropriate place to protest because of his role in creating this crisis.

Why does the Clinton administration refuse to follow the rest of the world, which wants to end the suffering of the Iraqi people and lift the economic embargo? We’re told the sanctions must stay in place to force Iraq to comply with weapons inspections, with perhaps the added goal of forcing the Iraqi people to overthrow the Hussein regime. But the sanctions’ main mission is simply to break the Iraqi people until we get a compliant government that will follow U.S. orders. The attack on Iraq also serves as a warning to the world: If you defy the United States, this is what happens — we will destroy you, we will kill your children.

In 1996 when interviewed on “60 Minutes,” Madeline Albright — then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and now secretary of state — was asked if the deaths of a half-million children in Iraq were an acceptable price to pay for a policy. She didn’t contest the figure. “I think this is a very hard choice,” Albright acknowledged. “But the price — we think the price is worth it.”

When a high-ranking official believes the deaths of a half-million children are worth it to shore up U.S. power, it is the job of U.S. citizens to stand up and say: “Not in my name will you commit these crimes. Not in my name will more people die.”

There is a truism about silence: All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to remain silent. When we stood up in the Texas Capitol gallery, we were loud. The critical question is not why were we loud, but why are so many so silent?