Small Wonders: Off topic and out of order

The Internet offers so many things: convenient shopping, social media, up-to-the-minute news, entertainment — both silly and salacious.

But it has also become an increasingly useful tool in the preservation and expansion of democracy. Look no further than the recent Facebook-fueled uprisings that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. And closer to home, the city council chambers of Pensacola, Florida, a city half the size of Burbank and a quarter that of Glendale. Thanks to the Internet and viral videos, the seeds of unchecked government control are being prevented from taking root there.

If you haven't seen it yet, go to YouTube and find the video of Father Nathan Monk addressing the Pensacola City Council. Originally, he was there to speak against the mayor’s proposed city ordinance banning camping on city property (i.e. sleeping overnight in the park), bathing in public restrooms and prohibiting the seeking of handouts and donations in city streets.

Many, like Father Monk, saw it as a blatant discriminatory crackdown on the homeless.

But after council President Sam Hall unceremoniously dismissed several speakers from the chambers for speaking to this topic, Monk took his allotted time before the council to talk about every American’s right to free speech before our elected officials — a position which Hall felt was “off topic” and therefore out of order.

With angry bangs of his gavel, he ordered Monk to leave and had him surrounded by several sheriff's deputies. Monk’s non-violent and respectful refusal to leave the lectern during his allotted time is what has caused this video to spread.

No doubt there are those who use their time at the pulpit to angrily espouse their opinions, to hurl insults and share nonsensical manifestoes. Many cross the line in council meetings all across America. The people in the chamber on the Pensacola video bear a striking resemblance to the folks you might see week after week attending our local council meetings.

And that's why I bring light to this story from the Florida panhandle.

If you watch Father Monk, or any of the speakers, you won’t see violence or undue venom. You won’t see crazed conspiracy theorists or even Jimmy Stewart ala “Mr. Smith.” You will see intelligent, passionate, concerned citizens speaking their minds in their own unique, rational voices.

And for that they would be silenced.

There’s a troubling wave crossing our land, one of fear for our civil rights. Some people cite, for example, the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, and the building of supposed FEMA internment camps to house civil disobeyers.

I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories or notions of covert attempts to create a police state. But I do subscribe to the freedoms that America was founded on, fundamental rights that I believe are still working for us.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we can’t pretend that democracy is perfect or all-wise. It may, in fact, be the worst form of government. Except for all those other forms that have been tried and failed throughout history.

And it ultimately relies on those it governs to keep it working right.

America is not perfect. Lines — like borders and regulations — get blurred and it can be hard to discern what is ultimately just and right. But in this case, banning the mundane activities of those who are homeless in an effort to be rid of them is simply wrong.

And so is the repressive way in which some politicians wield their gavels and their power.

As more people see this video, it should serve as a warning for us all to preserve our democratic rights — locally, nationally and globally.

I’ve attended our city council meetings, heard people ramble off topic, get angry and draw curious analogies that don’t apply to the topic at hand. And always I’ve seen a council that takes the time to listen, to hear people out, to give citizens their due time to freely speak before those that can make a difference in their lives.

Agree with them or not, they’ve done a fine job representing the diverse communities they serve and respecting the rights of those they represent.

But should that change, they may find themselves on YouTube, and written about by a columnist on the other side of the country.

PATRICK CANEDAY wants it to snow again. He can be reached at Friend him on Facebook. Read more at

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