Saturday, July 03, 2010
The Day My Father Got Arrested
Sixty-eight years ago today, my father was arrested in Philadelphia.
He didn't rob a bank or run over a priest. No, his only crime was to take a photograph of one of the US's most enduring symbols of freedom: the Liberty Bell.
Back in 1942, the country was at war. My father hadn't yet enlisted in the Army; he was still a reporter for the Philadelphia Record. He was living only three blocks away from the Liberty Bell, which at the time was in Independence Hall. (Now it's in its own special building across the street.) My father often met tourists who wanted to take a picture of the Liberty Bell, but were prevented from doing so by an arbitrary rule imposed by the Bureau of City Property. My father got indignant when he learned that commercial photographers were able to take pictures of the Liberty Bell, but not the average citizen. That's the way my father was -- he liked to stick up for the little guy.
So he took a photograph -- and promptly got arrested. Maybe it was partly a publicity stunt for the newspaper, but I think he was trying to make a serious point, too. Officials asked if he was a communist, and called him "vindictive". He spent the night in jail. But after the article he wrote about his experience appeared in the Record, he was acquitted of the charge of "breach of the peace" by Magistrate Nathan A. Belfel. Maybe that's because my father was clever enough to bring along some important people, like the president of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, to witness his arrest and speak on his behalf. Today, I'm happy to say, that old rule about the Liberty Bell is no longer in place.
But some things never change. We're at war again. And ordinary citizens are still being harassed for taking perfectly legal photographs of public buildings.
My father died in 1995. I like to think, however, that if he were still alive, he'd still be sticking up for the little guy -- and for the right to photograph without being arrested by overzealous officials.