In his documentary titled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, filmmaker Ken Burns described why parks and wildlife preservers – lands owned by the public – are really an American invention.
“They are more than a collection of rocks and trees and inspirational scenes from nature,” narrator Peter Coyote says in the film.
“They embody something less tangible, yet equally enduring. An idea, born in the United States, nearly a century after its creation, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, and just as radical. What could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? Think about Europe. In Europe, the most magnificent places, the palaces, the parks, are owned by aristocrats, by the monarchs, by the wealthy.”
Not so in the U.S., where parks have always embodied American ideals, such as freedom of assembly by the rich as well as the poor, the powerful as well as the homeless.
This is especially true for the national park immediately north of the White House: Lafayette Square Park. These seven acres, shaded by trees surrounding a statue of President Andrew Jackson, for decades have served as an open space for the First Amendment for anyone who wants to raise a voice in protest.
For example, since 1981, a group of peace activists had maintained a campsite directly across the street from the White House entrance, with yellow and black signs proclaiming “Live by the Bomb, Die by the Bomb.”
They kept up their peace vigil of almost four decades, until last week.
That was when the Trump Administration ordered National Guard officers and police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets and march on thousands of peaceful protesters who had gathered on June 1 to voice their opposition to police brutality against African Americans. The shield and baton wielding officers cleared the area around the public park so that our billionaire president could stroll, unbothered by critical voices, and pose for a photo opportunity, holding a bible.
President Trump then held a press conference.
“Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,” Trump said.
His administration had cordoned off Lafayette Square Park with metal barricades before the protest. Afterwards, they raised an eight-foot tall fence around the perimeter of the park to keep people away from the White House.
Trump had finally built his wall. But it wasn’t – as promised -- along America’s southern border to keep Mexicans out. It was a wall around a national park, to transform a garden of free speech into a fortress for fascism.
Several former generals and high ranking Pentagon officials criticized the President for his military response to American citizen protest. Afterwards, the troops were sent back to their bases, and the National Park Service announced it would remove the barrier around Lafayette Square Park.
However, it was not the first time that Trump has abused public lands. Back in 2017, for example, his administration stripped federal protections from 85 percent of a national monument in Utah called Bears Ears that Native Americans held to be sacred. Why? Well, a uranium mining company had been lobbying to extract profits the land.
This is not America’s best idea. Our public lands should be protected for all people, not strip mined by private industry or barricaded and abused for political theater.