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“Music, this favorite passion of my soul.”
Dancing can be dangerous. In Ceausescu’s Romania I was arrested for dancing without a partner. In newly independent Guinea Bissau, my dancing partner was thrown in jail for boogying before the President and his wife had the first dance. In Cuba I was awoken at 4 am to bail out a friend who had been locked up for “lesbian dancing.” And in Afghanistan I narrowly escaped arrest for dancing on a “men-only” dance floor. On each occasion I was shocked by the misuse of government power and disrespect for personal freedom.
So I naturally felt the same sense of outrage when I heard about the case of Mary Brooke Oberwetter, who was arrested for dancing quietly (with a headset on) at the Jefferson Memorial back in 2008. She sued the Park Police, lost and then appealed. On May 17, 2011 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against her, saying that that dancing at memorials is forbidden “because it stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration.” Never mind that Oberwetter was arrested at midnight, when there was nobody but her and her friends around. Never mind that tourists at these memorials are always talking loudly, posing for photos and making all kinds of “distractions.” Never mind that dance can be a way to express joy at the freedoms espoused by our founding fathers.
To protest this absurd ruling, some folks put out a call on Facebook to gather on Saturday, May 28, to dance at the Memorial. I heard about it from my friend Adam Kokesh, an Iraq war vet and producer of the show Adam vs. the Man on the network Russia Today. A committed libertarian, Adam decided to help spread the word and join the protest.
It was Memorial Day weekend. My partner Tighe Barry and I were on our way to New York, but we decided to make a quick trip to the Memorial to support the dancers. When we got there, two park policemen were talking to the group. We moved closer to hear what they were saying and overheard someone ask the police how they define dancing. Tighe put his arms around my waist and started swaying, illustrating how hard it is to define what, precisely, is dancing.
Suddenly, to our utter amazement, we were set upon by the police. They yanked us apart, handcuffed us and shoved us on the ground. That’s when three members of the group put on their headsets and started boogying. The police went wild, bodyslamming, chokeholding, and jumping on top of them. The police cleared out the entire Memorial as if they were protecting the tourists from some kind of terrorist threat, then threw us in a paddywagon and hauled us off to jail. Three hours later, after mug shots and fingerprinting, we were charged with “dancing in a restricted area” and cited to come back to court.
But then something even more remarkable happened. We looked online and discovered that a video taken of the event was already out, and had gone viral. In just a few hours, thousands had seen it and were reposting it all over cyberspace. Other video versions began popping up, and the media starting calling. We were on Fox News, CNN, the Washington Post. In a few days, over 1 million people had seen a version of the video, and over 10,000 people were engaging in an intense on-line debate about it. Sure, some thought we “got what we deserved,” but most were as outraged as we were?and they wanted to do something about it.
So we decided to invite people back again, the next Saturday, to dance. Adam put up a Facebook event page, and before the week’s end, over 2,500 people had signed up.
Of all the issues I have been part of in recent years?protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Wall Street banksters, the BP oil spill, attacks on immigrants, draconian drug laws?few have struck a chord like this. People around the nation, both progressive and conservative, are appalled that the police would so violently arrest people for dancing?silently?in a memorial built to a man who was this nation’s most passionate defender of the rights of the individual against the state. It was, after all, Jefferson who asked, “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” It was also Jefferson who warned that “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
The interior walls of the Jefferson Memorial are engraved with passages from Jefferson’s writings and on the southwest wall are excerpts from the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What could be more emblematic of the pursuit of happiness than dance? Surely Jefferson, an avid fiddler and jig lover, would agree.
If you are in the DC area, come join us Saturday, June 4th at noon at the Jefferson Memorial. You don’t have to risk arrest. You can dance on the steps (legal), you can observe (legal) or, you can bring your dancing shoes and your smoothest moves. If you can’t come, you can sign this petition to the DC Park Police urging them to Let the Dancers Dance.
So this Saturday, we’ll be dancing in reverence to Thomas Jefferson’s spirit of resistance. We’ll be dancing to reclaim our nation’s memorials for us, the people. We’ll be dancing because we are freedom-lovers and want to preserve our freedoms. Most important, we’ll be dancing for the pure joy of dancing.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace and the human rights group Global Exchange.