*Originally published for the Gabber Newspaper on January 17, 2013.
“Who the hell is Diane Nash?”
Attorney General Robert Kennedy had this question for his assistant in 1961, when young men and women, both black and white, boarded buses to head into the heart of Dixie to test segregation laws. Klansmen had already firebombed one bus, holding the doors closed to try and kill the riders. Mobs attacked them. People beat the riders with iron pipes. Kennedy’s assistant, John Seigenthaler, described the rides as “a war zone.”
Nevertheless, a young black woman named Diane Nash helped lead a second wave of nonviolent protesters boarding the buses. She signed her last will and testament before stepping on board.
Her brave act of civil disobedience, along with the other Freedom Riders, changed the world.
Flash forward 50 years. Gulfport beach. A group of folks wait for the police to arrest them or, at the least, write them a ticket. They use the phrase “civil rights” and “civil disobedience” as they stage their protest.
What did they protest? A ban on smoking on the beach. Last year city council passed a law banning tobacco use on the beach and in certain other outdoor public areas. This small group of men and women gathered to protest Gulfport trouncing their civil rights. A lawyer represented them, puffing on a wet brown cigar. The group planned to get tickets to test the law in court.
It took them two tries, but the police granted the lawyer’s wish and wrote him a ticket for smoking. I heard Alice’s Restaurant in my head. What a joke, I thought.
Turns out, the joke’s on me. This is, after all, America: whine loud enough and threaten to sue long enough and you’ll get your way eventually. A Sarasota County judge overturned Sarasota’s nonsmoking beach ordinance last month, and since Gulfport modeled its law around Sarasota’s, the city opted to revoke the smoking ban rather than face the attorney in court.
In its purest form, this was indeed civil disobedience. I won’t argue that. Bearing that in mind, I say this to those group:
Congratulations! You’ve won the right to smoke on the beach!
Wait, that’s not right.
You disgust me.
Yes, that feels right.
You cried and kicked like a spoiled toddler until you got your way, and I want to vomit every time I think of it. Smoking is not a civil right; you’ve done nothing more than become so much of a pest that the city changed a law most of the taxpayers either wanted or didn’t care about having in place. You did not change the world; you simply preserved the right for people to give themselves lung cancer in public.
I don’t care if you want to give yourself cancer. That’s not my issue. My issue is that smoking is not now and never will be a civil right. That was just the shield many (although not all) of the protesters hid behind. It seems to me, though, that a few of the organizers may have had a chip on their shoulder – perhaps rightly so, perhaps not – regarding former vice mayor David Hastings. I would wager that many in this group so much couldn’t stand Mr. Hastings that, had he advocated protecting smokers rights, this same group of civil disobedients would have hired a lawyer to sue the city for putting their health in danger. While I can see why people may not like him, isn’t a little disingenuous to hold a city hostage and compromise the well-being of the many for a political pissing match of the few?
You have just cheapened the act of civil disobedience of Diane Nash and the Freedom Riders. You cheapened it for every man and woman who fought for safer working conditions in the 1930s. You’ve cheapened it for the gay couple who may want to challenge laws saying their love is wrong. These types of civil disobedients break the law because they believe they could change the world. They would die for their beliefs. Can any one person who protested look me in the eye and say they would die for their right to smoke on the beach? Can you honestly say that if the current vice mayor and not the former had suggested this law you would be just as hot to protest it?
Robert Kennedy asked his assistant “Who the hell is Diane Nash?” when he heard about her plans to ride an integrated bus into the segregated south. The irony became apparent later, when everyone knew Ms. Nash’s name as a result of her acts. She and the rest of the Freedom Riders risked their lives for racial equality. To put yourself on their level because of a personal vendetta?
Well, then, I would have to ask: Who the hell are you?
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.