Frigid wind howled through bare branches, sending a chill down my back. Although safe inside my warm house, I shivered at the wintry blast in an otherwise mild January. But the temperature wasn’t all that chilled me.
The disappearance of the Occupy Scranton encampment on Courthouse Square iced over any comfort I felt. Because of government opposition, First Amendment rights in this home of the brave are far less vibrant than they must be for us to remain free sons and daughters of liberty.
Obviously we’re not China. And police or soldiers aren’t yet shooting anybody downtown because of dissent and protest. The Arab Spring was one thing, of course, but the Scranton Winter is an entirely different matter.
Lackawanna County officials put the small band of occupiers on notice last week that they must vacate. As always, these protesters peacefully complied, cooperating too much as far as I’m concerned.
But the mostly young radical good citizens wanted to be viewed as reasonable, rational and receptive to negotiation. Good intentions regarding fairness are always commendable. But Lackawanna County officials are rarely fair. Manipulative and mean-spirited intimidation with a smile is their hallmark.
Not one elected county official has respected free speech enough to issue a public statement about Occupy Scranton or address the press about the matter. They hide behind their lawyer – now two lawyers since the Republican minority commissioner is in the picture. Commissioners squander public money on solicitors for bad advice while ragtag occupiers earn their priceless dividend in knowing that their fight is noble and based on pure American principle.
Even with a new county commissioner, a man who calls himself a Democrat, respect for the redress of grievances receives less attention than his own smiling swearing-in ceremony. Even with Martin Luther King Day right around the corner, nobody in a position of responsibility and leadership is even thinking about civil rights.
If King had lived and decided to pitch a tent on Courthouse Square, commissioners would likely evict him, too.
That’s how backward county government has become.
The end of the month brings federal court sentencing for two former majority Republican Lackawanna County commissioners. Both men face life in prison for their political corruption and crimes that turned county government into an organized criminal enterprise.
The new commissioners, however, are guilty as well. Prosecutors have not charged them with crimes, yet they deceive and cajole and twist the common good into something sad, all the while betraying the mission and vision of democracy.
Four occupiers met yesterday with all three commissioners – and their politically-connected and well-paid lawyers – to discuss plans to return free speech to Courthouse Square.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyers in Philadelphia, as well as a well-known Scranton lawyer who chooses to remain in the background, have advised the occupiers as to their rights and the arguments they should try to make when they meet with the county Politburo.
Press accounts report that county officials want the occupiers to be bonded and have insurance. An occupation spokesman said they would try to comply with that demand – a demand, I might add, that is as bogus as it is treacherous when it comes to political dissent.
Occupy Scranton isn’t an ethnic festival like those grand celebrations in this city where grinning government officials pose for their dull photographs after running the flag of this nation or that up the public flagpole.
We already have a flag flying over the courthouse. The stars and stripes are already there. The flag is still there - for now.
But Occupy Scranton is gone. Dissent on Courthouse Square has disappeared. Government drove out freedom in the name of provincial security.
And most people – particularly most young people who call themselves urban professionals - seem to agree.
A “Winter In The City” party is scheduled for tonight at one of the historical venues downtown where the beautiful people meet to sip cocktails, network and tell each other how successful they are. Organizers ought to hand out fiddles so party-goers can amuse themselves in their pursuit of happiness while liberty burns, forming an awesome backdrop for their next art show, puppy fundraiser, fashion show or safe little public theater production that offends nobody.
The only real record of historical dissent that remains in this once stand-up-for-your-rights town is the magnificent bronze statue of John Mitchell on Courthouse Square. Above his head the words “champion of labor” and defender of human rights” are literally carved in stone.
Don’t look for Big John at the party tonight. Mitchell is long dead.
So, too, apparently, are so many of the courageous ideals to which he committed his life.