I'm a small business owner, not a public employee. I have never been in a union. So why do I still sing protest songs with the Solidarity Sing Along at the Capitol, even after being arrested for doing so? If a permit is readily attainable, isn't it just stubborn not to apply for one?
There are, in fact, good reasons why I still sing without a permit.
Rights and permits are incompatible. The word "permit" implies permission. If you "permit" your neighbors to fish on your land, by definition you are choosing to allow them. If Native Americans have treaty rights to fish on your land it makes no sense to say you "permit" them. If they asked for your permission, they'd be admitting that they need it and therefore that they don't have a right to fish except at your discretion.
By the same token, if I applied for a permit to protest in the Capitol, I'd be admitting that a permit can be required. This means granting the state the power to decide when and if demonstrations critical of its own policies will be allowed.
Permits are a needless obstacle to the exercise of our rights. As the officer who arrested me admitted, whoever takes out a permit is responsible -- and financially liable -- for everyone else's conduct. But how can anyone be responsible for the conduct of every stranger who happens to visit the Capitol during the noon hour?
Madison city cops tried the same thing when the Madison Area Peace Coalition (MAPC) held a march against the Iraq War. The cops not only wanted to require a permit, they wanted MAPC to pay for police overtime and get a multi-thousand-dollar liability policy. Obviously, MAPC refused. If such restrictions were placed on our rights, only the rich would still have them. Rights are for everyone, from millionaire tea-baggers to high school kids demonstrating for the Dream Act.
To enforce the Constitution, I have to violate unconstitutional laws. One quirk of our legal system is that no citizen has standing in court to challenge the constitutionality of a law unless he or she is accused of breaking that law. I can't simply write a letter to the court asking them to overturn a rotten law. Only by submitting to arrest do I get my day in court.
In a sense, I'm performing a law enforcement function. The Capitol Police and I are each enforcing a law and thereby breaking another. The cops enforce an ordinance and violate the Constitution; someone has to violate an ordinance to uphold the Constitution.
Singing in the Capitol is a tradition, not an organization or organized event. If you sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch, are you participating in an organized event? No one organized it. No one needs to, since it's a decades-old tradition. No one is responsible for anyone else's participation. When you decide to stand and sing you don't know who else, if anyone, is going to sing too.
At the Capitol, the Department of Administration requires that a gathering of 20 or more people must have a permit. If you find yourself singing with 19 people when another voice joins in, are you now engaged in criminal activity? What if you don't even know that other person? How can that person's decision to sing, over which you had no control, make your conduct criminal?
Whether or not you care about the issues that originally motivated the Solidarity Sing Along tradition, we all have a stake in preserving our Constitutional rights to peaceably assemble, speak freely and petition our government for redress of our grievances. That's why I still sing.
David J. Koene is the owner of Koene Courier Service, a small delivery company based in Madison. He has been an occasional participant in Solidarity Sing Along since 2011. "Citizen" is an op-ed that represents the views of this author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.