Our mothers and Sunday school teachers told us that, if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. But it took the cadre of Albuquerque police protesters to remind us that good sense often resides inside those old bromides.
Sometimes the most effective communication is … silence.
Protesters came to the May 5 Albuquerque City Council meeting with a plan of civil disobedience. They wanted to send a message that the problems in the police department aren’t being solved quickly enough and all hell broke loose. At a meeting later in the week, a group of protesters changed tactics to silent protest, going to the microphone and using their allotted two minutes to hold a fist in the air but not speak.
The council decided it didn’t want to spend its time listening to the sound of silence – not germane to the agenda issues at hand – and had the protesters thrown out.
Peter Simonson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which is in negotiations with the city about restrictions on comment at City Council meetings, says speech takes forms other than the voice or written word.
“Speech that isn’t verbal in nature receives the same protections that other speech is afforded in the Constitution,” he says. “You can’t be penalized for silence.”
How effective is a silent protest? In a world of words, being silent focuses attention on the non-speaker and two minutes seems to last forever. And anyone who’s ever been in an argument and gotten the silent treatment can attest to the powerful message silence can convey.
“It can communicate a disagreement with government policies or practices,” Simsonson said, just as effectively as a speech or a letter or a protest sign.
Defenders of free speech will tell you that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. They’ll also tell you that this exchange of ideas that we value and rely on to form a more perfect union sometimes spits out hurtful mistakes – the perils of operating freely in the free speech marketplace.
In political campaigns, constant chatter leads to thoughtless remarks, which lead to politicians’ heads being placed on skewers and roasted over hot flames of indignation – perfect for our Memorial Day barbecues.
After the Republicans’ mal mots about women who rhyme with witch and Hispanics who speak English like Spanish is their first language (imagine that), members of the Democratic Party stepped up to the plate to hit some bloopers of their own.
State Rep. Miguel Garcia, a Democrat from the South Valley, penned an email accusing two Anglo Democrats of being – horrors! – “Anglo” and also having big mouths and big egos.
Then, Alan Webber, one of the Democrats seeking the nomination for governor, got hooked by the same bait that caught Gov. Susana Martinez in a pickle; he was caught on a video making a fat joke about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie is “a big man,” as Webber said, but he does not blot out the sun, as he also said. Webber also took a jab in a blog post at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s accent, saying he talks like a “hillbilly,” which went over in southeastern New Mexico like a cow pie at a church supper. (At least there were apologies all around in this series of oops-and-gotcha.)
We seem to be at the perfect (or imperfect, depending on whether you’re the one being stung) collision point where politicians are communicating all the time, are being monitored all the time and haven’t figured out that they have to mind their manners all the time.
The right to remain silent sounds better every day.