“Whose streets? Our streets.” The chants at the massive demonstrations against the Republican National Convention in New York City last Sunday were usually as short, but rarely as true as the above. Half a million people and I took over two miles of Seventh Avenue from Union Square to Madison Square Garden; several thousand then made their separate ways to Central Park for a gathering in defiance of a city ruling that it would destroy the grass. The biggest demonstrations ever during a political convention showed that at least some in this generation haven’t succumbed to apathy.

Various actions continued through the week, including a day of “direct action”, a code name for civil disobedience and anarchic action, on August 31st. While the New York City Police had been remarkably restrained for the first two days of the convention, they lost patience as small groups harassed delegates all over the city. As soon as more than a few people gathered on a street corner, and unfurled signs or began to legally march on the sidewalk, the police simply wrapped the entire area in orange netting and arrested everyone inside. Many members of the press, civilians merely in the wrong place in the wrong time, and peaceful protesters were wrongly detained.

Nearly 1,700 arrestees were taken in city buses to a dirty pier on the Hudson, made to lie on an oily cement floor without padding, and held in excess of the legally mandated 24 hours. The rational for this long wait is either incompetence, or a desire to keep protesters locked up until the President left the city. Either is unacceptable. On Thursday, a New York State judge ordered the the release of those prisoners held for more than 24 hours, and fined the city $1000 per illegally detained person.

I had left the city before the mass arrests began, but did experience some action. I narrowly missed an arrest and perhaps a beating in front of the Broadway theater where my state’s delegates saw the play Bombay Dreams. I was able to converse peacefully with delegates and members of Congress attending a party at a bowling alley late on Sunday night, until the police showed up and cleared the sidewalks under threat of violence.

Some at the Republican Convention questioned the patriotism of the demonstrators. Zell Miller, a renegade Democrat who gave the keynote address on Wednesday, claimed that Kerry’s protest of the Vietnam war “weakened our military.” He said that “it is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest.” While the solider does defend that right with his or her blood, the right itself is given to all by the Constitution, and expected as the behavior of an active citizen by our founding fathers. No less a man than Thomas Jefferson stated that “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

While Zell Miller may compare me with a terrorist, dissent is our most important political right, enshrined in the First Amendment. Whatever your views, speak up. Dissent has been curtailed in previous times of war, and it is often the first right to go in dictatorships. To truly honor those who sacrificed themselves defending our freedoms, practice the rights guaranteed to you in the Constitution. Silence is the ultimate act of condonement and defiant dissent its antithesis.

Both political parties claim that this is a defining moment in our history. It couldn’t be more true. While both candidates use remarkably similar language on certain issues, particularly the war, we are faced with a choice between two radically different visions for the future of government. Unlike the last election, where it seemed we were given the choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the choices these two candidates make, and the people they surround themselves with, will take this country in different directions.

Which future you support is your decision, but participation in democracy is not. I don’t care who you vote for, just vote. Request an absentee ballot from your state, read a real newspaper, and make an informed decision. Thanks to the peculiarities of the electoral system, your vote in Massachusetts is meaningless, because the state is guaranteed to go for Kerry. If you want your vote to count, vote by mail.

You don’t have to risk arrest or bodily harm to be a patriot, but you do have to vote.

– Published in today’s Tech