Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bush at Calvin: Final Thoughts

With just a couple days left until Bush arrives at Calvin, I thought I'd jot down some final thoughts on the whole thing. Of course I realize that I've been getting a lot of blog mileage out of this topic for someone who doesn't even attend Calvin anymore. Or, for that matter, in Grand Rapids anymore. (Or for that matter in the same state, country, continent, or hemisphere).

I also realize that I've been shamelessly using this topic as an excuse for launching into my own stories. Which brings me to this post....

During the 2000 election, I was doing my student teaching at Calvin College. Despite my request to be placed in a public school, I had gotten placed in an ultra-conservative Christian High School. Oh, the stories I could tell about this place. To say they were pro-Bush, to the last faculty member and student, would have been under-stating the case.

I was doing my best to shut up and fit in. It wasn't easy, especially during an election year, but I tried really hard to control myself. During that fall Bush came to visit Grand Rapids during one of his campaign stops. My supervising teacher at the high school had obtained a bunch of tickets from the Republican Party, and he gave me four of them. "Maybe you can find some friends to go with you," he suggested.

Of course that summer Bush had spoken at the NAACP. And 4 protesters had made national headlines by interrupting his speech and chanting, "Remember Gary Graham. George Bush killed an innocent man."

So I was thinking, "I've got four tickets" and "4 people were able to make national news by shouting at Bush." Of course the NAACP has a lot more symbolic value, and gets a lot more media attention, then just a normal campaign stop in Grand Rapids, but for whatever reason that didn't occur to me at the time.

I was very tempted to go myself to the rally and try and disrupt things, but I thought it would make for an awkward next morning when I would again met the supervising teaching who had given me the tickets. I was trying to make it through the semester at this place without incident. So I got on the phone to see if any other trouble makers would be willing to go in my place.

I couldn't find four people, but I got two takers: Buma and Vito. Perhaps I should have gone myself. After all, politics is more important than student teaching. But then again, knowing me, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to speak out when the time came anyway.

Vito, whatever else anyone may say about him, is not someone who is lacking in courage. In fact he didn't even wait until Bush took the stage. He started yelling when (then) governor Engler came on stage to introduce Bush, and was dragged out by the police.

Buma was a bit more subtle. He waited till Bush began speaking, worked his way towards the front of the crowd, and then, when Bush was looking in his direction, held up a "Nader" bumper sticker. He's sure Bush saw it. The police instantly confronted him and escorted him out of the building.

Once Buma was safely outside, and there was no longer of Bush seeing a "Nader" bumper sticker, the police apparently relaxed and became a bit friendlier and were willing to engage in a philosophical debate about freedom of speech. Their position was that inside the building, Buma's right to freedom of speech didn't exist.
(Obviously Buma or Vito could tell this story a lot better, if you run into either of them.)

The Point

Because everything these days is manufactured for television, politicians don't like to be confronted by people who disagree with them. It works a whole lot better if they are only in front of enthusiastic cheering crowds. That's why you need a "ticket" to be able to attend a campaign rally. And you can't bring in any posters or bumper stickers that don't fit the theme.

(When I was in 5th grade, my class went to see Bush's father when he came on a campaign stop to Grand Rapids. As a class project we had spent a week making signs and posters. I, being rather apolitical at the time, had spent the week making a poster about wolves. I was forced to discard this at the entrance, presumably because it didn't fit the theme.)

That's why, as many people on the internet have already noted, Bush chose to speak at Calvin. It's probably one of the few colleges where he thought he could secure a supportive audience.

I don't think this trend is healthy for our democracy. Of course the Republican Party has a right to freedom of assembly, but President Bush is different than candidate Bush. President Bush should be held accountable to the people who elected him, and he shouldn't always be able to hide himself from voices of dissent.

Which is why the Calvin graduation might have a lot of potential. If there are only four people brave enough to confront Bush, perhaps it could be headline news again.

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