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Planet Waves: Voting is Not Enough 

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My car got booted for unpaid parking tickets the other day, so naturally I went to Kingston City Hall to clear the matter up. Because the governments and the banks are in the process of stealing our money, I had some cash on hand (my accountant suggested this). The city government where I live doesn’t take checks or credit cards. I am pretty good at fighting parking tickets, but I didn’t have time this summer.

When I showed up at the window in the city comptroller’s office, they already knew my name. “Are you Eric?” The personal treatment was disconcerting. I said hello and then politely added, “I just have a few questions.”

“Okay,” said the clerk.

“Do I have a right to plead not guilty?”

“No,” said the clerk.

“Do I have a right to an attorney?”

“No.”

“Do I have a right to a trial?”

“No.”

Then another (apparently senior) clerk added, “If it gets to this point where your car is booted, you’ve lost all your rights. Your tickets are past 45 days, notices have been sent out, you had a chance to do everything you just talked about doing, and you haven’t done it.”

The legal logic here is: We arrested you (or at least your car), so therefore you’re guilty. I proposed an alternate scenario, that I learned in school: innocent until proven guilty. Even if you rob a bank and go on the lam, you still have the right to a lawyer and a trial if you’re caught five years later. One lady laughed; the other reiterated that I used to have that right, but because I ignored the tickets for a while, I had lost it.
“There are a lot of dead patriots buried by the Old Dutch Church who gave their lives so we could have our rights,” I said. The women were silent for a somber moment. I paid cash under protest, took my paperwork, and walked away. I felt that I had got my money’s worth having been told by a city official, openly and notoriously, that I had no rights.

What is the truth, and does it matter? I say it does matter, if we value our freedom. I don’t mean to make a parking meter a bigger deal than it is, but most people don’t think that federal wiretaps or the “free-speech zones” that are set up to contain protesters are an especially big deal either.

We were all told we live in a country where we have rights, and where we send people abroad supposedly to die for our freedom. I’ve heard this about a thousand times since September 11, 2001. We have rights for a reason. For example, what if my car had been booted by mistake? Would I have to admit that I was wrong and pay the fine with no further recourse in order to have the boot removed? Then it doesn’t seem like such a small matter; we all use our car to get to work, buy food, and get the kids to school.

When my local city councilman, Tom Hoffay, came into my office at Dominick’s Cafe a few days later, I asked him what someone would do in that case. He said they would have to file what’s called an Article 78 proceeding, a lawsuit compelling the city to follow state law. Out of politeness, I didn’t laugh. I may be the only person outside the legal community and state government who even knows what that is. It’s not the kind of thing you can do during lunch.

We wonder why government so often acts on its own behalf, or those of its biggest constituents (lately, the banks) and ignores the needs of the people who created it and pay for it. We wonder how we get taxed and taxed and have so little to show for it. We wonder why people can attack nationalized health care as wasteful when they support nationalizing the banks for many times the cost. We need to look no further than the refusal of most people, most as in the majority, to be aware and to get involved in their communities.

I have seen numerous instances where the moment actual citizens get involved and show up at city hall or at the state legislature or a student association meeting, and mysteriously the right thing happens. All of us in the past decade seen how, when we ignore our rights, we supposedly lose them—just like the clerk at City Hall proposed. In that sense, she is correct. If you don’t exercise your rights, you lose them.

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