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Pizza, Ice Cream, and the First Amendment

February 22, 2005
By Mark Drolette

I got lucky the other day. (No, I'm not talking about that kind of lucky. What do you think I am, a "family values" Republican at a convention?)

What I mean is that I was fortunate to meet a couple of real-life patriots: Stephen and Virginia Pearcy. They're the folks who live one neighborhood over from me whose recent anti-war displays at their house sparked some, um, discussion - both locally and nationally.

Well, not exactly discussion discussion. More like brainless name-calling and misplaced outrage from folks who are apparently, as we say in the constitutional-awareness recognition biz, "First Amendment-challenged."

The Pearcys hung a mock-up of an American solider, with a noose around its neck and a sign that said "Your tax dollars at work," from their house's gable. I first found out about it on Thursday night, February 10, when, for some still-unexplainable reason, I was watching the local news. Within about thirty seconds, I was reminded of why I should not ever, ever do this again.

The on-the-scene talking head said something like: "In a neighborhood where patriotism runs deep, the display has got some people very upset." I'm still not sure how he'd determined the exact depth of Land Park's patriotism - perhaps he used a meter. At any rate, I was on the phone to his station in a hot Sacramento second.

The gist of the conversation: "Your reporter just clearly implied that only people who are upset by the Pearcys' message are patriotic, while those against the Iraq war are not."

The woman responded, pleasantly, "Really? I didn't get that at all."

"Well, I did, and I called because I wanted to register a complaint, for what it's worth." (Estimated net value of objection: imagine the egg of a large goose.)

The next day, Friday, a young man stole the dummy soldier. We know it was a young man because the appalling, Constitution-affronting episode was captured on videotape.

Saturday, I had a hankering for my favorite ice cream: peppermint stick from Vic's Ice Cream Inc, an old-time parlor. A main route to Vic's runs through the Pearcys' neighborhood. I kept my peepers peeled on the off chance I'd espy their residence, for these were folks I definitely wanted to meet. Fate was smiling. As I was heading down 2nd Avenue, I noticed several media trucks on a side thoroughfare. Employing my lightening fast analytical skills, I deduced I had, indeed, gotten lucky.

I parked my truck with its "Free Palestine" and "Doing My Part To Piss Off The Religious Right" bumper stickers on the Pearcys' street, vaguely wondering if, now that I was a marked interloper in Sacramento's newly-designated hotbed of patriotism, I'd find the windows retaining their current structural integrity upon my return. I walked up to the Pearcy porch, noticing a new dummy had been hung (sans noose) with a different sign: "Bush lied. I died."

Most excellent.

The Pearcys smilingly invited me in through the open door. Much great conversation ensued as other supportive and appreciative folks periodically dropped by.

I asked if the thief had been caught yet (other than full-face on camera, that is). Steve said no, that the cops said they couldn't identify him and hadn't even physically come by to take a report. Yet, they'd had no trouble responding (with two squad cars approaching hurriedly from different directions, no less) the day that a neighbor phoned in a complaint about a gay pride flag hanging in the Pearcys' front window.

I asked Steve and Virginia if their display was meant as a protest of the administration's policy of using the U.S. military as fodder for prosecuting an evil and immoral war solely for power and profit, or was it instead a personal attack on American soldiers? I'd been instantly certain it was the former, but I wanted to double-check.

My take was correct, they assured me. Steve said he'd even related the symbol's connotation to critics and had been told in response, "No, that's not what it means." As Steve said, "How often does one get to talk to the artist to find out exactly what the meaning is?"

I left after about 45 minutes, but not before telling them they were on my list of heroes and exchanging contact information with them. I finished my ice cream run and later consumed the tasty commodity. It was good.

Within a very short time, the Pearcys' second dummy soldier was stolen. They live in Berkeley during the week and in Sacramento on weekends, and were in the Bay Area when it happened, so were not here to put up another display were they even so inclined. No matter; the story was already widespread.

The usual right-wing suspects - bloggers, DJs, talking heads, pundits - were predictably frothing at their vitriol-spewing orifices. The Pearcys were roasted, skewered, lambasted, ridiculed, insulted, slammed, crucified - and those were from their kinder detractors. Their supporters were similarly slandered. Naturally, a "counter-vigil" was planned outside the Pearcy's home by their opponents.

I had to go, of course. I e-mailed my best buddy, Mark W. Bradley, and asked him if he was game, which, of course, he was. (Mark lives in my neighborhood and is also a published political essayist.) I also e-mailed the Pearcys to lend support and ask if there was anything we could bring, like sodas or pizza. Steve's reply said pizza sounded great. I was in heaven. A chance to actively defend the Constitution and eat pizza at the same time! It gets no better than that.

Early that evening, we picked up the extra-large combination delight (with pan crust, extra crispy) and headed over to the festivities. I'd not eaten since morning and that pizza was calling my name.

Mark and I didn't know what to expect, of course. It had been raining steadily all day and as it turned out, would continue to do so throughout the evening, letting up only sporadically. I had visions of a light turnout because of the weather and filled my head with thoughts of the Pearcys, Mark, and myself, communally chowing down on savory comfort food in the warmth of the Pearcy home, discussing our love of the Constitution, while a handful of clueless "patriots" stood outside in the downpour (rightfully exercising their First Amendment liberties, of course), desperately trying to keep their candles lit.

This is why I am not a professional seer. As we drove by, we saw there were plenty of people on both sides of the narrow street, with signs, banners, candles (which were staying lit) - and lots of energy. I'd estimate the peak attendance was about 150-200 for each group; it was interestingly even.

There were also lots of corporate newsies, replete with satellite vans, microphones, cameras, and writing pads. I wanted nothing to do with them and had already formulated a response if asked for comments. I was gonna adopt my best squinty-eyed look and sniff: "I refuse to help further the corporate media's agenda." But nary a one sought my insight the entire evening.

Bastards.

We parked a couple of blocks away and made our way through the crowd to the dry Pearcy porch. Virginia and Steve hadn't arrived from Berkeley yet. I warily placed the pizza box on the little bench, and Mark and I stood there, surveying the scene. A few folks, including reporters and cops, wanted to know if we were in charge. A couple people even asked me, "Are you Steve?"

Perhaps the pizza had given us cachet.

We wandered about. Mark ventured further than I, as I felt compelled to keep an eye on the food. Two displays had already been stolen from the property, and I was too famished to let some covert varmint vamoose with the victuals.

The Pearcys pulled up, and when they got to the porch, I gave them the pizza and, feeling protective, told them to go inside and decompress for a few minutes. That was the last I saw of the extra-large combination delight (with pan crust, extra crispy). However, if there is one thing I've learned over the years, it is that there actually are more important things than pizza. It's a short list, certainly, but defending the Constitution is definitely on it. In fact, it steadfastly occupies spot number one.

Steve had mentioned during our initial meeting how he was hoping to engage in civil discussion with those opposed to his and Virginia's views, which, of course, speaks to the very essence of the First Amendment: the free and open exchange of differing ideas, with the underlying hope that agreements can be made, consensuses reached, to help a functional society develop and flourish.

There were a lot of exchanges on their street that night, to be sure, but not of ideas. In addition to singing and lots of yelling, the back-and-forth consisted of taunts and chants, the latter category containing our critics' favorite: "Shame on you!"

I mostly hung back from the fray, but after hearing the above refrain once too often, I dipped deep within my well of wit and exclaimed: "For what??"

No great conversation ensued.

And, naturally, one of the hackneyed slogans that confronted us, emblazoned upon a banner, was: "Support our troops."

I'd like to know, once and for all, just what the hell this is supposed to mean, cause it certainly can't mean taking but five minutes to search the Internet or listen to two butchered half-sentences from Bush or even read a corporate media newspaper and then using even a dollop of critical thinking to conclude anything other than that the truly American way to "support our troops" is by uncompromisingly refuting this depraved administration's horrifying, senseless sacrifice of even one of them in its insane pursuit to militarily solidify U.S. global power and rape the world's citizens for every last possible dollar.

Because if it did, those people would have been standing on our side of the street.

How does one reason with those who cannot reason? Ryan Rose, in a piece on The Sacramento Union website, included a mind-bending but oh-so commonly characteristic quote from demonstration participant Regina Aponte, with whom it's fortunate for all Star Trek lovers Mr. Spock never attempted a mind meld lest his brain explode from the illogic.

Aponte, who apparently saw the classic Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense and took the title seriously, emitted this Gordian knot-headed assessment of what the Constitution means to her:

"The Pearcys have crossed a line and offended the hearts of Americans.  What the Pearcys have done is a slap in the face to those who have given their lives for the voice of the very freedoms the Pearcys say they are acting upon."

There are three things wrong with Aponte's sentiment, a view shared by way, way, way too many Americans:

1. It's stupid.

2. It's stupid.

3. It's bullshit.

Because, as anyone with even a brain remnant knows, U.S. soldiers are not dying in Iraq to protect any "rights" other than those of Halliburton and other corporations run by administration cronies.

Which is exactly the Pearcys' message. This, though, is obviously way over the pointy heads of those who claim American soldiers have killed and been killed so we can stick the First Amendment and its sister liberties into fusty glass bottles with frayed labels that say: "For Use Only at Your Own Risk of Being Called a Communist or Some Other Nasty Name."

I had two overriding thoughts while I stood on the Pearcys' lawn that have stayed with me since: One is that Karl Rove would be pleased. Here were a few hundred U.S. citizens expending time and energy trying to outshout one another, when all of that power should be focused eastward full force to oppose the fascists running the show in Washington, D.C.

The other is that that would never happen because the people on the opposing sidewalk just don't have it in them to ponder such a notion. They are America's "good Germans," the ones without whose support Bushco could never survive. They are inarguably complicit in the utterly pointless deaths of nearly 1500 and wounding of about 11,000 U.S. soldiers, unconscionable slaughter of uncounted thousands of innocent Iraqis, and irrefutable dismantling of our democratic system - and we're the traitors?

Mark and I left after about three hours. The next day, Steve e-mailed thanks for the "'collateral' support" and said it had come in handy on his and Virginia's drive back to Berkeley. He also extended a warm invite for me to come by their abode any weekend.

I plan to take him up on that; it's not often I get to spend time with special folks like the Pearcys. Heck, I might even bring another pizza! (But I think I'll make sure first there aren't any demonstrations planned.)

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