July 4th. Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Two-hundred-and-thirty-four years ago, The United States won its independence from, guess who: the British.
Not so fast. At the end of the road is a public park clearly marked “OPEN.” It’s noon when I approach what looks like a little temporary trailer-style guard station at the entrance.
A young guy with a clipboard straightens up and walks quickly to the threshold of the park entrance. The power play is immediate. He’s joined by an older guy, 60s, who takes over the interaction.
“ I assume this park is open,” I say, “since the sign says, ‘Open.’”
“Then why does the sign say it’s open?”
“Because they haven’t taken it down.”
“Why would they take it down if it’s a public park?
“Why is it closed?”
“Because there are operations going on here connected to the oil spill. It’s been taken over by the National Guard. The National Guard is operating down here.”
“And they’ve closed the public park, even though it says it’s open.”
“Yes. The city has closed it.”
“Does that seem right to you?”
“I have no comment on that, sir. All I know is it’s closed to the public.”
“And who do you work for?”
“I work for Response Force One security.”
“What is Response Force One?”
“A security company.”
“And you’re hired by who?”
“Response Force One.”
“Yes, but who are they hired by?”
“BP,” he says with a lift of his chin, as though those two letters are the big trump card of the whole Gulf region. A foreign corporation has hired American citizens to keep other Americans off of public property. These are not even real cops. They’re what we used to call rent-a-cops, private security guards, the kind appropriate for guarding private property like office buildings and department stores. The kind who have no real legal authority. Local police or sheriffs, as I understand it, can grant authority to private security guards, but I can’t check whether they’ve officially done so here, since, after all, it’s a holiday. But these guys are not guarding the park or public property. They’re guarding, well, I can’t really see; looks like more booms and porta-potties.
“So BP closed the public park?”
“No. The town closed it. The town has closed it. Because there are operations going on here.”
The parking lot behind him is pretty empty and the equipment is idle. It’s a holiday, after all. “I don’t really see any operations going on here,” I say.
“Sir,” he says, starting to lose his cool, “I’m tellin’ ya—it’s closed. OK?”
“OK, and I’m asking why.”
“Because there are operations going on. It’s a secure area.”
“So, it’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and we won a war of independence and now a British corporation has”—
“Sir,” he interrupts, now getting exasperated, “if you have any questions about the beach being closed I’m gonna suggest that you contact somebody from the Town of Dauphin Island.”
“OK. Who can I contact?”
“Anybody in the city. Contact the mayor.”
“Do you have their phone numbers?”
“They’re not working today. It’s a holiday.”
“But you don’t have their phone numbers, any contact information?”
“No I don’t.” Now he’s pretty fed up with me. Feeling’s mutual, I’d estimate. The eye contact between us is turning hostile. I ask if I can take his picture and, not surprisingly, he says “No.”
“But you’re on public property,” I point out again. I’m no lawyer, yet I assume he’d have a private right not to have his photo taken. But since he’s saying he’s acting in an official government capacity, I’m pretty sure the First Amendment would cover as free speech taking a photo of an “official.” At any rate, this is not a discussion on the fine points of the Constitution. We’re miles and miles from the fine points. This, after all, is The Oil.
“I said, NO!” he yells. I see hatred in his eyes and he’s starting to shake with rage. I guess he’s not accustomed to being challenged. Most cars just turn around. He doesn’t usually even have to talk to anyone. His mere presence is enough to repel people. Everyone can see it’s closed, never mind the sign. And obviously, I’ve come with an attitude about this. I hate it. I hate all of it. I feel myself pointlessly returning his glare of rage.
He reaches for his radio in a threatening way, as if to warn, “I’m going to call Daddy.” He’s got his finger on the key.
I should make him call some real police, in uniforms and a real cop car, hired by the citizens and paid with tax money. But I presume they’ll side with him and we might all get angry. I say ‘OK,’ turn, and leave.
But, acting on my own interpretation of the First Amendment, I’ve already got my photos, and my recording of our conversation.
Later, I did find a sheriff and asked how private security guards can keep people off public property, especially where the sign very clearly says a park is Open.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The park is closed; that’s true. In fact a lot of the island’s beach access is closed. But how they’re doing it, you’d have to ask the Town. Right now there’s a lot of screwy things on this island. I don’t understand it all myself.”
I guess you can’t explain something that doesn’t really make sense. Happy Independence Day.