Sometimes You Get the Bear
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
In March, and again in April, a group of union members and supporters rallied on the common in Greenfield, a small (18,000 population) city in Western Massachusetts. The first rally was in response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting legislative project, the second was part of the AFL-CIO’s “We Are One” nationwide rally.
My husband Ed and I, both retired union members, (he a Steelworker and, before that, a merchant seaman and member of the now-defunct National Maritime Union; I a member – sequentially – of the American Federation of Teachers, The Newspaper Guild, and the United Autoworkers) were at both rallies.
Greenfield requires rally organizers to apply to the licensing board for a permit. The licensing board, at its discretion, requires rallies to be confined to the town common, a postage stamp of dirt and weeds too small to accommodate the number of people who showed up for the two labor rallies.
Staying on the common for the April rally, in particular, was nearly impossible. The day’s deluge had slowed by 4 pm, the appointed time, to a fine mist. The common was muddy and slippery. Many of us lined the sidewalk instead of standing in the mud. We stood shoulder to shoulder, consciously leaving space for the afternoon’s few pedestrians to go by. By 5 we were joined by a group of hard-hatted construction workers. Some of them spilled onto the traffic island in the middle of the street. Drivers-by honked and waved, cheering us on.
A couple of weeks later, the rally’s organizer, a member of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, got a notice from the licensing board that he was being fined $100 because people had been on the sidewalk. He asked for a hearing, then he put out the word that the meeting would be held June 6, and that he’d be there with a local lawyer who sometimes handles cases for the American Civil Liberties Union.
So last Monday night Ed and I joined some 20-plus others – we made up about a quarter of those on the common in April – as witnesses to the board’s meeting. We got there just as the clock in the church steeple next door was striking 6, the meeting’s posted time. Clearly, the chairman wanted the whole business over; he’d started the meeting a few minutes earlier and was announcing that a motion to rescind the fine had been made. One member abstained, another voted No, and the chair and the remaining member present voted yes. The board’s fifth member was absent.
The fine was rescinded. The whole thing happened so fast it was breathtaking. Clearly, the licensing board had heard from the city’s lawyer. Almost as clearly, the board had caucused before the meeting (one of three violations of the state’s open meeting law – the other two being the early start, and the fact that after a while the main door was locked so that if you didn’t know there was another entrance you couldn’t get to the meeting at all.)
The vote took place without discussion. Then the chair asked if anyone had a comment. The organizer spoke briefly and introduced the ACLU lawyer who, in the tone of voice you’d use with children who’d made a serious, but not life-threatening, mistake explained why the board’s fine and, probably, the ordinance on which members hung their hats, was unconstitutional.
The chairman said that the board levied the fine because the public should be allowed to pass a rally “safely and without harassment.” Specifically, he said, someone on the median strip had stopped a woman driving by and asked her to honk her horn in support. (A big mistake. The woman, we learned through the grapevine after the meeting, was a member of the licensing board and a staunch Republican. Apparently she was the citizen cited as having filed the complaint that triggered the fine.)
The chairman also said ralliers may have put some people “in fear,” and that those standing on the median strip were endangering those driving by.
The ACLU lawyer noted that many groups raising money for their organizations stand on the median strip and stop cars asking for contributions. He noted that police were present during the rally and none told the demonstrators they were obstructing the sidewalk.
Probably everyone there, including the licensing board, knew that war supporters have gathered on the sidewalk across from the common to shout insults at the group that holds a peace vigil on the common every Saturday morning.
But the most important point to take away from all this is that the Constitution has been found to allow people to walk on the sidewalk holding signs and to stop passers-by and try to engage them in conversation.
The ACLU lawyer suggested that the licensing board review its ordinance with the city attorney with a view toward coming into compliance with the Constitution. The chairman said that review was already planned.
The whole thing was as civil as it was unnecessary. We in the audience put the frosting on the cake by applauding the licensing board’s decision to rescind the fine. Then we walked out of the meeting room.
Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. This time, without a drop of blood shed, we got the bear. And freedom lived to fight another day.