It was a cold and very windy afternoon, exceptional even for December 20th in Central Florida. Three of us arrived at exactly 4 pm, the starting time of our weekly anti war demonstration. Our fourth member, Frances, stayed in her car to "sit this one out." In reality, with her condition, she should have been at home, sipping a nice warm cup of tea and sympathy. Usually, we would have eight or ten stalwarts standing with us by now. I guess the bitter cold (for our Sunshine state) summoned many away this day. I suddenly began to think, to ponder how it might have been that winter day in New York City, almost 70 years ago...
Peter Farruggio came to America from his native Sicily during the first or perhaps second wave of Italian immigration at the dawn of the 20th century. He was a college graduate, having received his degree in Tunisia of all places -- a far cry from his little rural hometown, Campobello, outside of Licata. In those days, college degrees from places like North Africa would fetch a recent arrival perhaps a clerk's job at best. So, Peter Farruggio took up tool-and-die work, finally becoming a machinist -- a trade union craft with considerable status and good pay. He married Anna Dellaquilla and they had one child, a son (my father) Alphonse.
Peter Farruggio was a good husband, a great father, and a proud American by the time the Depression hit in late '29. His inherent sensitivity to injustice soon attracted him to NYC's trade union movement, where he spoke out publicly for workers' rights. Meanwhile, back at home, he and his family often ate dinners consisting of "banana sandwiches," and his only son had to quit college (despite being an “A” student) to work full-time. As the Depression deepened, general strikes were called, and Peter, being an outspoken activist, got himself arrested. When the strike committee could not raise his bail, his wife and son literally had to go "begging" for money to free him. He finally was released and then informed (or "informed on") that he was now blacklisted from his craft. He quickly took whatever menial jobs he could find. Things got worse, and Peter Farruggio, "Master Machinist and Good American," was continually unemployed, unable to even secure Home Relief (welfare). On December 2nd, 1939, while his wife and son were off at work, Peter Farruggio took a gun, sat in the bathtub, and blew his brains out. When his Anna plodded home from a long and tough day on her feet, she found the only lover she had ever known was resting in a peaceful pool of blood.
As I stood talking with Walt and Doug, as we awaited the rest of our group to arrive, a police car parked nearby. As the officer walked up to me, before he even uttered a word, it became suddenly so clear. I realized the president had spoken on the war just the night before. Matter of fact, he had made (rare for him) quite a few speeches that whole week, all on Iraq. His vice president had actually recently "done him one better." Dick Cheney, he who had refused five or six times to serve in Vietnam, referred to we who dissent against the war and occupation of Iraq as "unpatriotic". To him, we were giving aid and comfort to the insurgency, and "hurting the morale of our troops." The young police officer was very polite. He told me not to block the crosswalk and stay far from the curb. I thanked him, told him a few tidbits on how some of the $ 300 billion for this illegal war should have been used to give higher pay to police, teachers, firefighters and health care workers. He gave a sympathetic nod and left. No more than 10 minutes later, another police vehicle pulled up. This time it was one of their SUVs, and a supervisor got out. He too was polite, but a bit more assertive. "You know you cannot stand on the sidewalk with your signs. And you cannot block the crosswalk." I told him we knew about the crosswalk thing, as another officer had just been here 10 minutes earlier. That didn't seem to phase him at all, lending me to think that he knew another officer had already been by. As far as the sidewalk warning, I told him we had a right to free assembly. He then said: "If you want to protest, you must stand on the grass, not the sidewalk with your signs. If you are picketing, then you must be moving at all times." I asked him why, after we had been out here each Tuesday for over 15 months, with not one such visit by the police on this matter, suddenly two of them had come within 10 minutes? "We apparently received a complaint" was all he would offer, and he left. I turned to my friends standing nearby and wondered aloud if there hadn't been at least one or two complaints over these past 15 months. Why the visits now?
Others from our regular protest group began showing up, and by 5pm we had our usual 18-20 demonstrators on that corner. We did not block the crosswalk, and we did not impede anyone from walking by on the sidewalk. As usual, we were peaceful. Not so for the few who disagreed with us. Although about 80% of those who react to us are in support, we do get those who disagree with us. Yet, after 15 months, I can honestly state that the level of animosity towards our group has suddenly escalated. Increasingly so! Tuesday, after the president's Monday evening national address on Iraq, and Cheney's alluding to dissent as "unpatriotic", the nastiness skyrocketed. We were spit upon, had containers thrown at us, and were cursed for being "Communists and traitors." One guy, before he managed to curse us and give us the "finger", lectured me from his car window. "I just got back from Iraq, and you should hold off on this debate until after all the troops come home!" He then closed his window before hearing what we had to say about that.
Wednesday morning, I called the mayor to inform him of the two police visits. Mayor Green's initial response was: "Gee, you all have been out there forever haven't you? We never had any reports of problems with you all being out there." He was highly sympathetic and promised to look into things. Having dealt with him on other issues these past seven years, I know Mayor Green be a fair-minded and levelheaded person, one who cherishes free speech and the Bill of Rights. I contacted the City Manager, and he agreed to add me onto the speakers list at the next city council meeting, scheduled for January 3. What needs to be brought to the council's attention is that it appears that other parts of Florida have experienced the same thing, the same week, at their peaceful anti war demonstrations. Those who run our city need to know of such sudden changes in official reaction to peaceful protest and free assembly.
The blood of that Sicilian immigrant runs through more than just my veins. It goes to the very spirit of what I have become as a man. I protest things that I feel are wrong and unfair. I take further solace from the words of both Ben Franklin and Frederick Douglass: "Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy," and "Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has. It never will."
Philip A Farruggio is a freelance columnist, small businessman and co-founder of ProActivists of Volusia, a citizens action group. Brooklyn NYC born and bred, he is the son and grandson of Brooklyn longshoremen. A graduate of Brooklyn College (class of '74) Philip has had many political columns published in various newspapers and online sites since the 2000 elections. The Counterpunch.org archives contain many of his earlier writings. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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