Thursday, June 4, 2020

Lafayette Square Park, Faith, and Freedom

I grew up in and around DC. My whole young life, church happened downtown, at New York Avenue Presbyterian, just a short walk from the White House. She's a storied old girl. John Quincy Adams worshiped there. As did Eisenhower. So did Abraham Lincoln, which is why one of the rooms I'd play hide and seek in with friends after Sunday School had the original handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a teen, I still went to church, but I was...well. I didn't like Sunday School. I was gloweringly sixteen, into Camus and Sartre, and even though I loved the church in the way that a teen loves their parents, it just felt too...something. Too soft, perhaps. Too formal. It lacked that dark edge that appealed to my adolescent eyes, so newly opened to the mess of the adult world.

So I'd leave the church, grab a free City Paper, and wander over to Lafayette Square Park. It was my quiet place. My sanctuary. I'd settle in, read snarky, informed reviews of film and culture, and watch the world go by. The park was quieter on a Sunday morning, but as the day wore on, there was plenty to watch. Tourists from all over America, here to see the sights. Clusters of visitors from other countries, wandering behind tour guides. Near the bench where I'd sit and read, a little yellow church sat, a trickle of Episcopalians coming and going for their bells and smells and Jesus..

In Lafayette Square Park, there'd be occasional demonstrations and protesters. People with signs. Folks trying to get you to sign petitions. At least one older peace activist basically just lived there.

I'd watch the tour guides do their schtick, leading school groups and church groups. "Look," they'd say, pointing to the resident activist with her signs. "Right here in front of the White House, people are free to speak their minds. That's the difference," they'd say, "Between America and the Soviet Union. This is a free country." And the school groups would chat with the protesters, and move on.

Despite my newly found teen cynicism, it was undeniably real. For all of her flaws, I couldn't deny my own eyes and experience. America was genuinely free.

That park is not accessible now. It's cordoned off from the American people. The peaceable voice of the people's grievance, driven from that space by clubs and tear gas and flashbangs. Even that modest yellow church on the park is now forcibly closed, as yesterday church members and leaders were denied access to their own property.

"Law and order," those in power say, "makes this necessary." "Safety and security," they say, "requires it." These are lies unworthy of our republic. At the height of the Cold War, toe to toe with Soviet authoritarianism, nuclear holocaust just one misunderstanding and a twenty minute missile flight away? In those hard times, Lafayette Park was open, as both a symbol and as living proof that Americans are a free people, whose leader does not hide behind high walls and cold eyed men with guns.

Those freedoms have been taken to serve the ego of a petty despot, a dissembling huckster and bully who has desecrated the freedoms that made America a beacon to the world. Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the people to seek redress.

I remember what it was like to sit as a free American in that park on a cool Sunday morning. I remember what it meant, even at the height of my adolescent awakening, to know what it meant to be free.

I refuse to forget that freedom.