Friday, August 17, 2007

A little peek behind bars

I have enormous respect for people who have the courage to put their principles into action by defying bad and/or illegitimate laws and refusing to cooperate with the government in a very public way. Such people are willing to suffer a little inconvenience and discomfort for the purpose of making an important point and forcing government officials to examing the morality of their conduct. By their courage, people like Dave Ridley make me feel, frankly, a bit inadequate.

Ridley was arrested in New Hampshire for emulating another man who entered an IRS office to illegally distribute leaflets questionaing the morality of the purposes to which taxes are put and urging the workers there to quit their jobs.

One placid July day in 2006, a jovial free marketeer approaches the Keene, New Hampshire IRS office on an illegal mission. Upon his head is a straw farmer's hat. Over his shoulders a bib and blue overalls. Each hand holds an instrument of defiance, a specimen of contraband restricted from use inside the confines of this remote Federal outpost. One is a pitchfork, the other a wad of leaflets.

These devices, strangely feared and controlled by Washington regulation, are destined to set in motion a lasting, disturbing series of events. But the tall pacifist, backed by a collection of reporters and onlookers...broadcasts only mirth.

He has, some days before, announced his outlaw plans to drop the pitchfork, enter the office of this "Internal Robbery Squadron" and petition for a redress of grievances. His flyers ask that workers contemplate the ill uses to which their revenues are put, renounce torture and quit their jobs. Washington agents are waiting for him at the entrance, in force. They seize him and his straw hat long before he is able to present his handbills or trouble in person the minds of tribute collectors.

He is arrested, released, and immediately intercepted attempting the same endeavor. A court date is presented to him, along with petty charges of Federal origin. He assures authorities he will not attend such trial unless physically dragged to the Concord courtroom, one hour east. The next business day, agents from the increasingly resented Department of Homeland Security oblige him. Streaming through his front door they carry him to that very place, his wife of two years snapping a hasty but dramatic photo of the seizure.

Inside the courtroom he constructs paper airplanes as a shocked national magistrate ponders his fate. He is jailed for three weeks, released without fine or follow-up, left to pursue his libertarian agenda. Media attention is moderate. But an explosion of excitement and interest overtakes his New Hampshire-centric website and the small local paper he produces.

He is Russell Kanning, the Outlaw Leafletter.

A month passes. Then, disgruntled by news of the Federal overreaction at Keene, an imitator enters IRS facilities in nearby Nashua. Unannounced, he stands silent in the lobby, bearing a sign, a friendly expression and more forbidden but respectful pamphlets. Two reach the hands of "Robbery Squadron" agents, who eventually order him out. Upset by the slow speed of his backward withdrawal, they light Homeland Security hotlines and crowd the exit in manic impatience.

He is me, Dave Ridley, the Second Outlaw Leafletter.

In two detailed posts written in a gentle and restrained voice, Ridley describes his treatment at the hands of government agents. Just as important, he outlines the non-compliant, but polite, demeanor with which he conducted himself throughout the experience--as well as a few mistakes along the way. He never made his jailers' jobs easy, but he never let them easily assume that his imprisonment was justified.

Once away from onlookers our conversation evolves. Did *you* take an oath to the Constitution, I ask. None of your business, he replies...a little louder than need be. Is this the kind of thing you signed on for, locking people up for handbill distribution? I don't lock people up, he says. He presses the button on an elevator which takes me to lockup. I thank him, and note that button pressing is easier for him than for me.

"That it is," he replies. ...

Four of them are now with me in the room and engage me regarding my concerns. I thank them for this. One says he'd rather go after sex offenders than demonstrators like me. I say I would rather he did that and nothing else. His name is Deputy Barry, the picture of friendly professionalism. I should probably check the constitutionality of Federal sex crime hunts, but granting his wish would certainly would be an improvement over this!

I suggest they quit their jobs, but am half joking. I tell them if I were a Fed I'd probably keep my job and, from that station, try to minimize the harm such a job inflicts on the public.

When Ridley is moved to a facility in Massachusetts, his new keepers quickly lose patience withs non-cooperation. He cleverly uses the pressure as an opportunity to quickly turn the tables and put officials on the defensive.

A Sergeant enters. What questions has this man refused to answer? Matias looks up from his blank clipboard. Date of Birth, Social, Height, Weight...almost everything.

The Sergeant turns to me. There will be problems for you if you fail to answer. I tell him I do not have training to withstand torture for a lengthy period but will nonviolently resist for as long as I am able. We don't torture people here, comes the shocked response. I will ask for orders, he says.

At no time (in the two parts about the ordeal posted so far) does Dave Ridley lose his cool. And throughout his imprisonment he remains not just willing, but eager to engage his jailers in friendly discussion about the moral implications of his arrest and their own role in the process. Of course, there's no guarantee that he made any of the police officers or guards actually think about the issues he raised, but he certainly maximized the possibility that somebody will have second thoughts about the government's action and their own participation.

Ridley's account deserves to be distributed far and wide. It's an excellent first-person story about living up to your ideals--and doing so in a constructive way.

Read the full account here.

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