Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ruminations on the Cost of Dissent in Pleasantville (circa 2007)

It has been 15 years or so since the Rodney King case dragged Simi Valley, California kicking and screaming into the unfriendly glare of the media spotlight. You undoubtedly remember Rodney King. He was the black motorist who was beat senseless by LAPD officers who were later acquitted of their videotaped misdeeds by a predominantly white jury sitting in a Simi Valley courthouse. The jury’s verdict of acquittal was the catalyst that ignited four days of rioting, looting and general debauchery in Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities. Rightly or wrongly, it also sparked the idea that Simi Valley was nothing more than a white enclave populated primarily by cops, rednecks and bigots.

To be certain, it has been a struggle for Simi Valley to get past the Rodney King verdict. The City has been routinely mocked and pilloried because of its actual and perceived role in the Rodney King affair. But time heals all wounds, and the sting from the Rodney King case was finally starting to subside for the denizens of Simi Valley.

That is, of course, until Mayor Paul Miller decided to split open a fresh wound by thrusting the City into the midst of another, absurd controversy pregnant with racial undercurrents.

The present imbroglio arose after the membership of the United Church of Christ, a local Simi Valley church with a progressive bent, offered sanctuary to Liliana, an illegal immigrant, and her U.S. born infant son. Predictably, the Church’s action triggered a protest by the anti-illegal immigration group Save Our State; predictably this protest triggered a counter-protest; and predictably, both the protest (organized by Save Our State) and the counter-protest (not organized by the Church) required that the Simi Valley Police Department be ready and available in the event the protesters decided to not play nice.

So far, so good, or at least so normal as far as demonstrations go. But this is where it gets interesting. After the protest dust had settled, the City tallied its demonstration related expenses which totaled $39,307 in police and public works staff hours. Then, the good Mayor (with the backing of a complicit City Council) sent the bill to the United Church of Christ. That’s right. The City billed the object of the protest (the Church) for the costs of a protest which the Church did not organize, it did not want, and in which it did not participate. Apparently, the Mayor felt that the Church “invited” the protest by making known its decision to provide sanctuary to Liliana. He also made it clear that he was not happy that the Church refused to follow his directive to not make Liliana’s presence at the Church known publicly.

It is easy to be misled into believing that this is all about illegal immigration, especially if you listen to the shouting voices of Save Our State and their ilk. But the debate about illegal immigration is merely the context in which the present controversy arises. It really has nothing to do with whether the City was justified in billing the Church for the costs of the demonstration. At its core, this is about fairness, the right of expression, and the right to challenge ideas, particularly those that are unpopular. A debate about the right to debate. By sending a hefty invoice to the Church, Mayor Paul Miller has weighed in heavily and communicated very clearly that, at least in Simi Valley, these are the rules: (1) the Executive Branch of local government (read the Mayor) is all powerful, (2) refusing to accede to the all powerful Mayor’s wishes, whether sensible or not, will be immediately punished, and (3) debate is fine, but it will come at a cost to those with whom the Mayor disagrees.

So, at the end of the day, what is the take away? Well, it seems that if you are the target of a demonstration in Simi Valley, and you have in any manner “invited” protest which requires a police presence, you should be prepared to pay the Piper. You are the family of a soldier who died in Iraq and post an obituary in the local paper giving details of the time and location of funeral services? Be prepared to receive a bill from the City when Fred Phelps and his not-so-merry band of idiots shows up to make certain that you and the other funeral attendees understand that your son died because “God Hates Fags!” Say you’re the Ronald Reagan library and you host a nationally televised debate for Republican Presidential hopefuls. Not surprisingly, demonstrators of all flavors show up at the heavily fortified event. Well Mr. Mayor, under your theory, you had better be prepared to bill the Library for the extra security detail needed to control the demonstrators who were “invited” to show up. If you don’t, not only are you a partisan, but you are the worst kind of partisan: a partisan hypocrite.

I know the counter argument, but it’s a trap. It’s like staring at a solar eclipse without protection: while it is a thing of beauty to behold, in the end it will blind you. Here is how the argument goes. The Church is violating federal immigration laws by providing sanctuary to Liliana. Therefore, billing it for the security costs associated with demonstrations is justified.

But wait! Neither the Church nor its members has been found guilty of violating any laws, including federal immigration laws. As a matter of fact, it does not appear that any citations have even been issued or charges filed. So, to claim that the Mayor’s actions are justified on the basis that the Church has violated the law demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how government in this country is supposed to work. More troubling, it suggests that folks are willing to defer to the Mayor and allow him to act as judge, jury and executioner. In other words, the consolidation of power in the Executive Branch of government that we see at the federal level may have trickled down to, and gained traction at, the local level.

Even without taking into consideration the concepts of separation of powers, presumption of innocence and other constitutional inconveniences, sending a bill to the Church in this case based upon an assumed violation of the law is not only a bad precedent, but it is dangerous territory for the Mayor. For if that is the new Simi Valley standard, the Mayor may very well find himself on the receiving end of a bill if a raucous group of demonstrators decides to descend on his neighborhood. After all, the Mayor has certainly “invited” protest by his words and deeds and it is just as easy to claim that he has violated the U.S. Constitution as it is to claim that the United Church of Christ has violated federal immigration laws.

DB ☼

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