Who are "We the People," anyway? This apparently simple question was asked of the people who showed up June 13 at SSNOVA for the fifth discussion in the "My Daily Constitution" series.
Not surprisingly, the answers they proposed differed substantially, in contrast to the "unanimous consent" of the states that ratified the document on Sept. 17, 1787.
The project's organizer, Los Angeles artist Linda Pollack, conceived it as a way "to break away from the dynamics of the large lecture hall and create a space where individual people can become active participants in a dialogue about our democracy."
Held previously in Los Angeles and New York, the series distributed free copies of the U.S. Constitution and featured discussions about it led by lawyers, academics and activists in nine locations over a period of seven days.
"I was so sick of people shouting at each other," Pollack said. "Our Constitution, our democracy, is about interpretation — and interpretation means a collective, active dialogue, not just passive consumers and lawmaking producers."
After the passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, she was concerned, as an artist, about what rights and freedoms were at risk of being lost.
"Not being an academic, I realized I didn't know a thing about the Constitution," she said.
According to Pollack, there's often a gap between what we think our rights are and what the reality is.
"Some things are not in the Constitution," she said.
"The right to privacy, for example, is only implied. You have to work really hard to be informed about it."
Following the attention that the L.A. and New York events generated, Pollack considered several cities before choosing Cincinnati as the site of last week's forums.
"There are so many aspects here, such complexity — arts censorship issues, 14th Amendment issues, Article 12 — and people are very open," she said.
Openness prevailed during the discussions, despite considerably diverse backgrounds among the participants and the calculated thorniness of the topics.
"The Right to Vote" (which isn't in the Constitution, by the way — look it up) was the subject of the June 9 event at the Artery Gallery and Theatre in Newport led by author and American University Professor Jamin Raskin.
On June 10, the Corryville Branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County hosted Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, discussing the effect of the USA Patriot Act and other post-Sept. 11 legislation on the confidentiality of library and bookstore records.
Howard Tolley, professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, led the June 11 forum on the history of free speech in Cincinnati at Kaldi's in Over-the-Rhine.
The June 12 discussion featured attorney Bill Gallagher discussing the Patriot Act as it regulates rights and liberties in times of crisis.
At SSNOVA, Jack Chin, UC professor of law, and David Singleton, director of the Prison Reform Advocacy Center, led the discussion.
During the weekend, two events per day were held. At Playhouse in the Park on June 14, Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship and First Amendment lawyer H. Louis Sirkin discussed Cincinnati as a focal point for debates about art censorship. In the evening, the topic was reclaiming the public interest in the media, led by Richard James, co-founder of the Neighborhood Network, and Belinda Rawlins, director of Media Bridges of Cincinnati.
College Hill's Contemporary Dance Theater was the site June 15 of a discussion of the constitutional limits on police use of force, led by attorney Alphonse A. Gerhardstein.
The series concluded at Newport's York St. Café with an examination, led by Northern Kentucky University Professor Ramona Brockett, of the demise of civil liberties under the Patriot Act.
It is as likely that the framers would approve of "My Daily Constitution" as it's questionable whether they would agree unanimously with the interpretations that provoked its creation.
Participants responded differently, too. Some were hopeful, such as one who said, "It makes you feel better, being able to talk about it." Another was thankful that "all these people came together for the same conversation."
Others were more skeptical.
"There was a lot of tension in the room," one woman said on Friday. "A lot of the white people don't get it, even here."
Howard Tolley might have captured the spirit of all the discussions when he said, "We get the Constitution we deserve."
Pollack sums it up yet another way: "I like this country and I want it to be the robust, pluralistic, dynamic place that it always was, that it is." ©