The Constitution? What’s That?
By Jeffrey Page
If the American experiment with popular rule comes to an end, I’m convinced it will be as a result of otherwise sensible people allowing mold to grow on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Often we don’t abide by what the framers had in mind. One glaring example is over the question of how the United States shall go to war. The Constitution, in Article I, spells it out within a long list of Congressional powers and authority. Congress declares war.
The last time that happened was 71 years ago, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Since then, American presidents have sent troops and fleets to wage war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, the Gulf and many other places with no congressional declaration sought or granted. I don’t recall any serious congressional objection to this presidential use of force.
In New York City, meanwhile, the mayor and his police commissioner are busy dismantling the Fourth Amendment – the one that forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures” – to ensure the continuation of their odious stop-and-frisk program. Briefly: A cop stops a “suspicious [read: nonwhite] person,” asks for identification, orders the “suspicious person” to empty his pockets, notices that along with some money and a handkerchief, the pocket contained some marijuana that is now showing, and promptly arrests the “suspicious person” for displaying marijuana in public. Never mind that to refuse to clear out his pocket renders the “suspicious person” guilty of ignoring a police officer’s command. Either way, there’s an arrest.
Last year, NYPD stopped and frisked 685,724 people: 53 percent were black (blacks comprise 26 percent of the city’s population); 34 percent were Latino (Latinos comprise 29 percent), and 9 percent were white (whites comprise 44 percent). The numbers suggest stop-and-frisk is something you might have encountered on the streets of Berlin around, say, 1939.
Racist? Not us, cry Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. If you bet $10 on the assumption that no relative of Bloomberg or Kelly has ever been stopped and frisked, pick up your money. You’re a winner.
If there’s been a popular movement involving huge numbers of middle class people marching on City Hall to protest this racist atrocity, I haven’t heard about it.
Now, in Middleborough, Mass., some residents are upset about people (especially high school students) swearing in public. And so, the Town Meeting voted to allow the police to fine people $20 for cursing in public. You might think the vote of 233 people who participated would have been about as close as 117 to 116 or that the measure would go down in flames. No such thing. The vote was 183 to 50. That’s 79 percent favoring a dubious move to get around the First Amendment.
It’s dangerous enough that the penalty for uttering a dirty word in public is strictly a police matter. It’s at an officer’s discretion, Police Chief Bruce Gates told The Patriot-Ledger.
Worse is the fact that there’s no official list of banned words. A dirty word is what a police officer on duty says it is.
Can you say “shit?” Probably not.
Can you say “asshole?” Maybe, maybe not.
And since this idiotic rule is up to the cop who hears it, can you say “cop?” Or “fuzz?” Can you call your boss a “son of a bitch?”
No one knows. But that’s OK in Middleborough where the people have accepted Gates’s explanation that the rule is not directed at what he called “ordinary swears,” whatever they are. Actually, he said, the rule is to prevent “profane [a word with religious overtones] language directed at some attractive female walking through town.” He didn’t say which member of the force will decide which females are attractive and thus deserving of protection or what official action he would take if he heard someone saying something profane to a female he finds unattractive.
What they’ve enacted in Middleborough sounds ridiculous. But it’s more than that. It’s dangerous. Oh, and I forgot to mention that children as young as 7 are eligible to be cited under Gates’s rule. He didn’t say what would happen if a kid and his mom and dad refuse to pay the fine.