Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s anti-poverty think tank, where she brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of the Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Tina M. Patterson, Esq
The question of a true patriot is one that has many answers depending on who you ask. Frequently, when we think of patriotism, aside from love for country, we also inherently think of the duty to uphold the laws of the nation. One of the most cherished laws is that of the constitutional rights of the first amendment, which affirm freedom of expression through the valued rights of freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition.
Despite an almost automatic notion that patriotism requires dutiful compliance without compromise, founding father Samuel Adams defined patriotism most accurately when he stated:
“For true patriots to be silent, is dangerous.”
In following this description, Detroiters, led by Agnes Hitchcock and “Call ‘Em Out Coalition,” exhibited undying patriotism Friday morning with a grand display of freedom of expression through critical first amendment rights- freedom of speech and assembly- that led to the shutdown of City Hall in protest of the scandalous $600 million over-taxation of Detroit homeowner property taxes.
While these rights are not absolute or without limitations, it is well known that the suppression of these sacred rights is especially scrutinized in cases where government seeks to impose restrictions. For these reasons, government officials cannot simply prohibit a public assembly at their own discretion nor prohibit speech for unsubstantiated reasons.
The constraint of first amendment rights through government infringement is solidified by the highest court in the land, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in our system, “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)). The Court in Tinker also opined that public officials could not silence speech simply because they disliked it or found it controversial or unpopular, further defining the substantial importance of this fundamental constitutional right.
Former President Harry S. Truman also elaborated on the significance of free expression, particularly against government, when he stated: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
The fundamental importance of this hallowed liberty cannot be overstated. Rather, it must be safeguarded as a cherished, universal possession and practiced without fear of retribution, particularly from any government actor. And as founding father Samuel Adams defined patriotism as dangerous if silent, another founding father, Benjamin Franklin, confirmed the need to speak out against government, stating “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”
The duty to express government discontent through free exercise of speech and assembly is exactly what occurred Friday morning inside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building in downtown Detroit. Named after Detroit’s legendary first African American mayor, black Detroiters crowded the building in protest of the first white mayor in 40 years, Mayor Mike Duggan, and the $600 Million over taxation of property taxes that has come to light under his administration.
Droves of Detroiters assembled downtown to let their voices be heard and their opinions known that they are not happy about the massive city oversight and failure to provide corrective relief. In fact, just days earlier, Mayor Duggan delivered the State of the City address in which he alluded that nothing could be done to pay the money back because it had already been spent. Duggan addressed the hot button issue nonchalantly and in an unbelievable display of arrogance, avoided any responsibility for the over assessments that occurred under his first term in office.
But in a gallant demonstration of patriotism not seen in the corridors of City Hall for some time, Detroiters gathered to send a strong message to the mayor that they are not happy with their treatment at the hands of their government under his leadership. With $600 Million unjustly taken from citizens by their government and its admission of this wrongdoing, no one can blame these dutiful citizens from rightfully demanding full restorative justice.
While few mainstream media outlets have reported on the fallout from this massive tax scandal, a couple of media organizations were on hand to cover the downtown protest. However, the media only disseminated information without critical analysis or summarizing the event in proper context. Additionally, these media accounts underreported key facts about the protest, including inaccurately describing the number in attendance and how long police shut down the building, in what seems to be an attempt to soften the blow of the impact of the intense crowd to be viewed in a light most favorable to Mayor Duggan.
Yet even with these questionable media reports, the power of social media makes freedom of expression inescapable and bypasses traditional media entities to ensure the truthful account of events are told. Used effectively, social media has leveled the playing field, expanded the rights of citizens to express themselves, and most importantly, given citizens the right to control and shape their narrative, free from the monopoly of mainstream media as the sole authoritative accounts on current affairs.
Furthermore, independent platforms like The PuLSE Institute are free to not only disseminate accurate information missing in traditional media accounts, but also to analyze the turn of events beyond the periphery of the story. The demonstration that took place downtown was not a simple gathering of angry black citizens to brush off lightly. Rather, it was an exercise in democracy, an organized coalition of engaged and informed citizens who fully displayed their patriotic duty to express their first amendment rights. And mostly importantly, this was a direct assembly of multitudes of voters and tax payers expressing legitimate discontent with their government leadership.
It is not a patriotic duty to remain silent in the face of oppression at the hands of government action, and without voices to raise the debate, a more perfect union will remain an impossibility. So too will justice. Former President John F. Kennedy, astutely noted that “Without debate, without criticism no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.”
Those words ring true today in Detroit as well. And if Mayor Mike Duggan did not realize that before, he certainly has been put on notice now.