Freedom to Brawl

Recently an—let’s call it an altercation—broke out at a St. Petersburg city council meeting. This altercation, called a brawl and a fistfight in newscasts across the nation, was over the sidewalk at the BayWalk complex downtown.
This may be a sign that some folks have lost perspective. Yes, I understand that some people feel like it’s a first amendment issue and others think it’s a case of the city subsidizing business, but when you look at the facts without emotion, here’s what happened:
St. Petersburg residents had a fistfight. Over a sidewalk. So incensed were these residents that they came to blows after the city council meeting and, in short order, had council chambers looking a little but like a scene from a John Wayne movie. I’m not clear on all the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure, but I’m fairly certain they’re called Roberts Rules of Order for a reason.
I am so proud to be a Floridian today. Not as proud to be a resident of a city other than St. Petersburg, of course, but proud nonetheless. This stuff just doesn’t happen in Wyoming, folks. Only in Florida can a city meeting devolve into fisticuffs over a five-foot wide stretch of pavement. I love getting the phone calls and e-mails from my northern relatives when stuff like this makes national news. The rest of the country is worried about healthcare, but what are we focused on?
Never mind 35 million uninsured Americans. Forget about the country hinging on the precipice of total economic collapse. Forget, for a moment, the American soldiers dying in Afghanistan. Let’s focus instead on sidewalks.
I know what you’re saying. You’re saying that those American soldiers in Afghanistan are dying so we have the right to protest on a sidewalk.
Not, as it turns out, exactly. They’ve died so I can write this column (although some weeks even I doubt that what I have to say is worth it); they’ve died so people can march on Washington. They died so men like Al Davis and Bill Pyle could go to their respective city council meetings and, without turning things into a barroom brawl, express their concerns and opinions.
They did not, I assure you, sacrifice their lives so that a group of what the police consider a terrorist group can hold a private company and its patrons hostage to their opinions. They did not die so that the group that directly contributed to the early 1990s riots in midtown St. Petersburg (then called the south side) can ride roughshod over businessmen and people wanting to take their family out to a movie.
Look, don’t misunderstand. I’m not a BayWalk fan and I think that the city shouldn’t give them a dime- St. Petersburg residents already pay the highest property taxes in Pinellas county and for the city to give BayWalk $700,000 because it’s no longer a financially viable business is a blatant show of disrespect those citizens. As for BayWalk, for any business to demand a government bail out… well, OK, so it’s trendy right now, but that doesn’t make it right.
But let’s not confuse the city’s lack of prudent fiscal stewardship with free speech and the right to assemble. Free speech doesn’t mean you’re free to intimidate and the right to assemble isn’t a right to get violent, on a sidewalk or in council chambers. Free speech means that you can say what you think without fear of criminal retribution. The right to assemble guarantees the right to assemble for peaceful and lawful purposes; it offers no protection for those gathering to encourage others to break the law or do so themselves. In fact, the government can legally stop people from associating with groups that do just that.
Or it can just turn the property over to a business and make it the businesses problem, because the first amendment doesn’t mean much on private property.
Of course, the best part of this is that at what could have been a reasoned debate about all these things, the crowd gathered gave the city the best reason ever to wash its hands of this first amendment nuisance: residents can’t even have a peaceable council meeting with the police right there. Of course we can’t trust the sidewalks downtown to these people; they can’t even control themselves in a city meeting.
The first amendment is not just a right; despite what some may think, it is also a privilege. Those who abuse it do not deserve it no matter what the constitution says. You want the right to assemble, St. Petersburg? Start acting like you deserve it.
A good start would be not turning council chambers into an old west saloon.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.