Commentary: When dancing is a federal offense

The Miami HeraldJune 7, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

Look, no one wants people dancing at national monuments.

Folks doing the electric slide at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would ruin the spirit of reverence and reflection it inspires. Still, it is hard to believe we need a federal law, a court ruling or squadrons of police in order to enforce that restriction. Sadly, we have all three.

It seems that one night in April 2008, a woman named Mary Brooke Oberwetter and some friends went to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington to celebrate the third president’s 265th birthday with a silent, interpretative dance. For this, they were arrested by U.S. Park Police.

Oberwetter sued. Last month, a federal court dismissed the case, ruling the government is not required to allow “the full range of free expression” in a space built for “a solemn commemorative purpose.” A few days back, protesters took to the Memorial to silently dance their dissent.

The result is captured in videos that have gone viral. We see police pull apart a couple who are quietly swaying together. One guy who fails to respond to police orders is body slammed and appears to be choked by an officer. Another, who does comply, is nevertheless thrown to the floor by an officer and what appears to be a civilian because he moved his arms semi-rhythmically.

All of this unfolds in the shadow of Jefferson beneath this inscription: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

And here, let us interrupt our regularly scheduled column for the following commercial announcement: “The disease of irony impairment continues to afflict an estimated one out of every three Americans. But doctors are hopeful that with your help, a cure can be found. Our lines are open, operators are standing by. Please give generously.”

Ahem.

Without debating the fine points of the court’s ruling, it is useful to ponder an alternate reality in which the protesters are simply ignored. They wiggle around, they go home.

Does an anarchic epidemic of dancing at national monuments then ensue? No. This would be unlikely for the same reason you don’t ordinarily see in public swastika T-shirts or other items that are objectionable, but arguably constitutional.

We are social creatures and, as such, typically conform to the mores and norms of our society. The threat of other people’s disapproval is usually enough to make us behave. It is not a perfect system, but it works way more often than not.

So what’s most offensive about these arrests for crimes of Terpsichore is not the insult to free expression, but the insult to common sense, the implied assumption that unless some guy waving his arms around is thrown to the ground and handcuffed, the rest of us will indulge our secret desire to do the Macarena in the temple of Lincoln.

There is something heavy-handed and totalitarian in that assumption.

Give folks a little credit. People visiting solemn public places usually require little more than a placard or two to keep them in line — certainly not the weight of federal law or a police boot.

We hear so much blather lately about the ability of the free market to regulate itself. Too bad some of us have so little respect for the ability of free people to do the same.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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