Shot down in flames

Thanks to a strong organizational effort, on Nov. 14, city officials got what amounts -- in Orlando terms -- to a massive display of public concern regarding the USA PATRIOT Act. This humble columnist was not there to witness the event*, but one Jeffrey C. Billman did make it to City Hall in my stead. Over to you, Jeff:

"I didn't really expect much. After all, I've been in Orlando long enough to realize that most left-leaning protests, even the best promoted and most ballyhooed, usually fizzle to the point of insignificance. So Friday's rally against the nefarious PATRIOT Act in front of City Hall left my mouth agape. There were between 100 and 150 protesters holding signs like, 'Dude, Where's My Bill of Rights?' and -- a personal favorite -- 'Welcome to 1984.'

"Then there was the unlikely mix of protesters: the Rev. John Butler Book next to some guys wearing Dennis Kucinich T-shirts next to UCF women next to suburban moms with kids in tow. In predictably indifferent Orlando, this seemed to be a cause to which folks from all across the political spectrum rallied.

"I was also encouraged by the reactions of the drivers-by. Hundreds honked and flashed thumbs-up signs, and only one in an entire hour yelled, 'George Bush rules!' This suggests that Orlando is more progressive than we give it credit for. This raises the question, which commissioner will get off his/her butt and get the anti-PATRIOT Act resolution on the city agenda?"

Thanks, Jeff. You raise an excellent question, the answer to which is more than a little discouraging. You see, even though the turnout was impressive, even though a broad spectrum of Orlando residents care deeply about their civil rights being stripped away by the federal government, don't count on your elected officials taking a stand -- however symbolic -- on the matter. As Mayor Buddy Dyer said in the Oct. 27 city commission meeting, "It is our policy that we don't take official city positions on issues that are not city issues."

In other words, the city didn't make the law and isn't about to expend any political capital condemning it. Let's be kind and call that the easy way out.

Five or six people concerned about the PATRIOT Act appeared before the city commission at that October meeting. They were going to ask the commission to sign on to a resolution denouncing PATRIOT, in effect stating that Orlando disapproved of and wouldn't cooperate in things like sneak-and-peek warrants, library-record snooping and e-mail prying.

But this isn't friggin Berkeley (or even that Florida bastion of out-of-touch liberals, Alachua County, which did pass a resolution denouncing PATRIOT). This is Orlando, a city that only recently (and reluctantly) dipped a toe in the water of dissent via the toothless Chapter 57 ordinance protecting gays from discrimination. That experience was so traumatic (JERRY FALWELL called us a name!) that the city commission apparently still quivers at the thought of offending the far right.

What the anti-PATRIOT people were asking for was a city resolution saying, essentially, hey, let's talk about this. But even that's too radical for O-Town.

Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who says anti-PATRIOT Acters "have a friend in me," explains it this way: "I'm not going to go out on a limb and embarrass the mayor's office."

Without four solid votes on the council, neither Sheehan nor anyone else is going to bring a resolution to the table. It isn't going to get there any other way. Sheehan would support it, Ernest Page might support it, as might Daisy Lynum on a good day, but after that the ship starts sinking.

PATRIOT opponents need to do their homework and build community consensus, says Sheehan. They need to stop protesting and start glad-handing. "If you are going to do activism, you have to do it the right way."

Except they've already done that. Glenn Anderson of the American Freedom Coalition told commissioners in October he'd collected 1,000 signatures on an anti-PATRIOT Act petition and had 28 groups -- from The Florida Council of Churches to the NAACP of Orange County -- on board. There was no public debate when Attorney General John Ashcroft rammed the act through Congress two years ago, noted Anderson, so the only way for citizens to make their opinions known on the issue is via resolutions passed by local and state officials.

Except that ain't gonna happen in Orlando.

*This humble columnist was unable to attend the rally due to a previously scheduled fact-finding mission to Broward County. There, I found the fact that some bars are open until God knows when, while others close between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. In my full report to the mayor and city commission, which I intend to write as soon as this headache subsides, I will note that staggered bar hours -- such as those being contemplated by creating a special "entertainment district" in downtown Orlando -- only encourage patrons to drive around in search of, as Jim Morrison sang, "the next whiskey bar." This is bad.

In my case, the badness was mitigated by the fact that I wasn't driving. However, it is not inconceivable that people who've been drinking would drive from the far-flung reaches of Central Florida to downtown in an attempt to stay out long past the time they should be snug in their beds. My recommendation: Change bar hours throughout the city to 4 a.m., or don't do it at all.

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