As I write this, I have just returned from Cade’s Cove in the Smoky Mountains. Although it was a workday and a long drive to a remote area, a friend and I joined 40 or 50 other people — retirees, high-school kids and working folk — who got up at 5 a.m. and traveled from Asheville, Spring Creek, Bryson City, Knoxville and assorted other places to Cade’s Cove on April 22 to let President Bush (who was visiting that day) know how unhappy we are about the grave harm his environmental policies are causing.

More specifically, we wanted to express our outrage that the president had the unmitigated gall to come to the nation’s most-visited national park, where trees are dying daily due to air pollution, and make a speech (on Earth Day, no less) to promote his “Clear Skies” initiative — which, if passed, will actually make our air quality worse.

I had never taken part in a presidential protest before, and though I was expecting lots of bureaucracy and hoopla and security, I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which the essential interchange of opinions and ideas between the president and the electorate has been snuffed out.

As we drove up to the entrance — the park was closed for the day to all but invited guests — we were met by two rangers on horseback, many more on foot, and a dozen or so men and women wearing tight, black outfits with red blazes along the sleeve and a CERT patch on the pocket. These folks — a scary-looking bunch who never made eye contact or smiled — were on loan from a local law-enforcement agency, we learned.

The chief ranger, however, was most courteous. He examined our permit to demonstrate (a permit to demonstrate!), showed us where to park and where the port-a-potty was, and walked us to the designated “free-speech zone.” “What,” I asked, “is a free-speech zone?” And what has happened to our democracy when people who wish to let the president know of their dissent can be prohibited from entering a public park and allowed to protest only within a designated area — defined by rocks in the front and a river behind — that’s visible to no one except whatever local reporters might choose to seek us out and the occasional invited guest driving into the park (and, oh yes, the Kerr bread deliveryman)?

Whenever any of the protesters stepped on the wrong side of the rocks, a ranger on horseback or one of the CERT people would appear. The rangers smiled and urged us back; the men in black would walk out in a line, stare at us, and return to the parking area, from where they could watch us. We demonstrators, meanwhile, had an interesting discussion about what a “protest” actually means if we all have to be polite, do as we’re told, and stand behind the rocks. (We could not, for example, wave our signs until we’d moved from the parking lot into the free-speech zone.)

When the weather suddenly turned bad and it appeared that the president would not be able to helicopter into the park but would have to actually be driven past us, the guys in the black suits prepared to unroll some orange-plastic fencing farther down the hill within the “free-speech zone” — the idea being to make us stand behind it so we couldn’t even be seen from the road. But as the group began to grumble and discuss whether or not we would comply — and a dangerous group of retirees and schoolchildren we were — the sky darkened, the clouds rolled in, lightning flashed and thunder boomed, and the chief ranger arrived to tell us the entire event had been canceled. So we got in our cars and drove for two or three hours to our respective homes.

I like to think that the goddess of storms was the ultimate protester that day who prevented the president from delivering his message about a worthless air-quality bill in the Smokies on Earth Day. But it’s up to us to make it clear that the free-speech zone is supposed to be the whole country — not a 50-square-yard lawn outside a public park, removed from public view, and carefully screened from the president’s tender eyes. This man seems to believe that if he doesn’t see the protesters, there is no dissent. Fellow citizens, we must take back our democracy, our right to assemble, our right to speak out and be heard. It’s our duty as citizens to make him hear and see us.

And, oh yes, on the 6 p.m. news on our local ABC affiliate, the newscaster quoted from the president’s speech, interviewed some invited guests who were disappointed that the visit had been canceled, and commented (without showing photographs) that there had been demonstrators who weren’t able to protest because of the weather.

But was that the real story? Or was it about shutting down a public park, herding protesters into a “free speech zone” that rendered the term meaningless — and prohibiting dialogue between a president and the people he was elected to serve?

[Maxine Dalton is a retired organizational psychologist. She lives in Spring Creek.]

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