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The Last Free Fourth of July?

It’s the Fourth of July and the night sky will soon light up with corporate-sponsored fireworks, mimicking the sounds and flashes of the U.S.made bombs and missiles that bring death and destruction to Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Tonight, to celebrate Independence Day, I joined a dozen others participating in the CoDe Pink Troops Home Fast. We stood at Vance Monument in Pack Square in Asheville, North Carolina, with ten or more Veterans for Peace during their usual 5-6 p.m. weekly vigil. Streams of people passed by, many gave a thumbs up to our signs, some stopped to join us, others presented a stony countenance or averted their eyes as they passed by on their way to the bandstand at the other end of the fountain.

About 45 minutes into the anti-war vigil, two Asheville police officers moved toward us from a group of about ten. I had watched them discussing our presence in a cluster across the street. They approached the Veterans with the question, “Who is your leader?” This comment drew laughs all around until one of the Vets identified himself and asked, “What’s the problem?”

“You can’t stand here. You don’t have a permit. Ingles has the permit for this space,” the officer responded. “We have received a complaint, ” he continued, though he did not identify the complainant. “You will have to move across the street.”

It was nearly 6 p.m. and we were soon to pack up to go anyway. “We have been here every Tuesday for three years,” the Vet asserted. I’m staying until 6 p.m.” When the officer again declared that we had to leave, the Vet replied, “Well, I guess you’ll have to arrest me then.”

The policeman, a Sergeant Luke Bigelow, stated again that since Ingles had the permit, and we were not part of Ingles July 4th party, we had to go.

Eventually, after further conversations with the Veterans, and realizing that there would be some resistance to the move, the police officer said he would “allow” us to stay until 6 p.m. He did not respond to my rhetorical question: “Does the Constitution expire at 6 p.m. on this July 4th? Does Ingles, as a city permit holder, now have the power, that the U.S. Congress does not, to deny the First Amendment “right of the people peaceably to assemble?”

I had been fasting all day, drinking lots of water, and I was really ready to head for home, but my ire was up. “Then I am ready to go to your jail, too” I said.

Things have just gone too far if a complaint from a grocery store representative in Asheville, North Carolina, can cause the Police Department to threaten to arrest peaceful protesters standing in a public square.

The Vets remained until 6 p.m. and then, as is their custom, packed up and left the square. The police, now nearly a dozen, remained across the street watching. Several folks took up spots across the street and continued to hold signs, standing outside the “public” square that had been sold for the night to the Ingles Corporation. Four other CoDe Pink-identified folk, remained standing inside the public square.

None of us were eager to spend a night in jail, but neither were we willing to be easily deterred by a threat of jail for asserting our Constitutional rights. One woman had a creative idea that allowed us to make a bold statement without further police confrontation.

Leading with a peace flag, we four (joined by others as we walked) began a single-file parade through the heart of Ingle’s July 4th celebration. Then we parted ways. I and another pink-attired woman walked home, carrying our signs as we went. Along the way, a local character, dressed like a Biblical prophet, waved his staff and declared in passing: “Enjoy the last free Fourth of July!”

So now I am home, with another glass of cool water, a faster’s headache, and a lot of questions and concerns. Will this same threat of jail occur when the Downtown After Five party permits are issued for the public square where I stand with Women in Black ? What will happen when Belle Chere invades the town and claims all public spaces for their corporate-sponsored circus?

If Congress shall make no law prohibiting our right to peaceably assemble, how is it that Ingles supermarket, or any other corporate permit holder, can trump our Constitutional Rights and obstruct us in our duty of dissent? Perhaps Asheville’s prophet on the street was right.

CLARE HANRAHAN can be reached at: hanrahan@buncombe.main.nc.us