September 15, 2009
I have known Cheryl Biren for several years through our mutual association with OPED News. While we have not agreed on everything, that does not change the respect I have for her as a journalist and a person. Cheryl Biren does not need me to defend or protect her. That's what the laws of our nation are supposed to be there for. Instead, those laws were abused again by those in authority to arrest Cheryl Biren for doing her job. Sometimes we throw words around to make things sound more melodramatic than they really are but I do not think that it is histrionics to state that we are on the brink of losing the soul of this country. We can talk all day long about the military industrial complex, the vast machine of the two party system, or any other macro-issue plaguing this once great nation, but without a free press none of it will matter. Without a press that is willing to report the truth, this country is no better than Stalinist Russia.
The decline of the free press has been a steady erosion over the past few decades. We saw with the emergence of Fox News that the truth became a malleable property. Something that could be reshaped or molded to fit an ideology. News, which used to reported, was now being packaged. Packaged and sold to the public. Opinion became stated fact. Spin became news. Stories that political interests wanted blown up got blown up and ones they wanted ignored were ignored. The public was fed months of Natalee Holloway or Scott Peterson while the real news was lurking in the background. Wars went on for years and your kids died as a result of those wars. But the news barely bothers to cover wars anymore except to promote them. The free press is dying a very slow death America.
Only in modern day America can a man be arrested in his own home for disorderly conduct. I wrote then that the arrest of Skip Gates was just a microcosm of the evolving police state in this country. Whether or not race played a part is the backdrop, not the real story. The real story is that a police officer abused the power entrusted to him to illegally arrest a man in his own home. Black, white, purple; it doesn't matter. Do a Google search for "taser" and see how many stories you come up with about outright abuse by police. It is not random incidents; it is a growing cancer.
I grew up in New York City. You could talk to cops then. Not anymore. And here is essentially why. Our entire legal system is premised on the concept that people are innocent until proven guilty. The police however, who are charged with the enforcement of our laws, work on the opposite premise. Everyone is a perp until proven innocent. To make matters worse, even proving your innocence may not matter -- just ask Skip Gates, who was arrested after he proved he owned the house he had the temerity to be standing in.
These are perilous times we are living in. A government unchecked by the people is not democratic. This all started under Bush when he created "free speech zones." These were places protestors were allowed to protest -- encased in barbed wire and blocks away from any media coverage. Essentially silencing the right to assemble. Alleged town hall meetings were nothing more than shams with any dissent being arrested. People were arrested for wearing tee-shirts that disagreed with the president. We were all rightfully outraged.
But can we honestly say much has changed under the "change" president? What happened Saturday in Philadelphia was an assault on the freedom of the press. It was an assault on the constitution that is supposed to protect us. It is a signal that the end could very well be near for us as a nation. We are a nation at war and the majority of Americans have had enough of the wars. They have a constitutional right to protest the wars. The press has an obligation and right to cover such protest. The police are not supposed to have the power to disrupt these freedoms given to us by the very laws we established over 200 years ago. If the accounts are accurate, and Cheryl Biren has never given me any reason to doubt her, she was arrested for documenting the arrests of peaceful protestors while functioning as a member of the press. She was accosted, bullied and manhandled by people who think they are tough because they were given a badge and a gun. She was then surreptitiously dragged through the prison system, lied to, and eventually released. As the old mafia would say, she was leaned on. Systematic scare tactics by Philadelphia's finest. Without a real charge to lay at her feet, they charged her with "criminal conspiracy" and "failure to disperse."
The second charge only works if she was a protestor, which she was not. She was a reporter doing her job. The first charge only works if now it is criminal in this country to be a member of the free press. God I hope not. Instead, I hope that every blogger and Internet reporter latches onto this story until the corporate media is forced to pick it up. I hope that people do not allow the framing of this story though. This is not about protest or even the war. If we start talking about those, we lose. This is about two things. Freedom of the press and abuse of police powers. The arresting officer should be investigated for his actions and properly disciplined including termination. Whoever shuffled her though the jail system needs to explain why that was necessary as well and if the answer is not sufficient, they should lose their jobs as well. Anything short of that and this incident only furthers to embolden the growing police state.
In my city they put up four police cameras at four different street lights several years ago. They take photographs of cars going through yellow lights that turn red and then send tickets through the mail. No one complained about the invasion of privacy and now we have hundreds of them. Under the guise of safety, they passed seat belt laws so the police can have another reason to pull you over. No one complained. Free speech zones, tasers instead of de-escalation, Skip Gates and now Cheryl Biren. It is time to realize we are not heading toward a slippery slope. We are careening down that slope and at the bottom is a scene from V for Vendetta. As the main character was fond of saying in that movie, "there is something very wrong with this country."
Stay tough Cheryl, the truth is on your side.