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Postcards From Boston | The Nation

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Postcards From Boston

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"The Free-Speech Zone"

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"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," read a chalking in the middle of Canal Street on Monday evening, just outside a narrow entrance to the now-infamous "Free Speech Zone" (FSZ).

The Zone was a rectangular penwith Green Line subway tracks overhead. "CAUTION WATCH YOUR HEAD," warned the spray paint on a steel beam that stretched across one of only three exits, less than six feet above the ground. The city-provided sound system pointed away from the Fleet Center. Two layers of fences and a layer of netting (purportedly to block a urine squirt-gun attack) separated the inside of the FSZ from the delegates arriving by bus on the other side.

A federal judge had opined just days earlier that "one cannot conceive of other elements put in place to create a space that is more of an affront to the idea of free expression." That same judge, though, turned down requests to alter the zone to make it less restrictive--without evidence of a specific threat.

The FSZ was--or at least should have been--as much an affront to the delegates and the concept of a political convention as it was to the demonstrators inside it. On Wednesday, a group of about a dozen delegates went to the site and spoke out against it. Most ignored it. Monday evening's rally for Palestinian rights was one of few during the week that actually capitalized on the Zone: Speakers inside drew a connection between the fenced-in demonstration site and the fenced-in life lived by so many Palestinians currently. Speakers criticized Kerry: "We need a new policy, not only a new face," said Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies.

There was no way that the 200 or so people in attendance--distracted by the circumstances--could hold anything like a normal rally, and certainly no way they could connect with the delegates.

A few hundred feet away delegates who arrived by taxi or on foot had to walk down the sidewalk of Causeway Street, an unsecured area, to the other entrance to the Convention. Protesters there were prohibited from using amplified sound and had limited space, but were otherwise free to bring their messages to the delegates (and did, if in small numbers). The situation made it clear that the FSZ was no security measure at all.

BEN SOMBERG

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