The Sixth Floor's Message to History: Just Hush Now
Someone with a lot of clout in this town thinks Dallas should clamp down on free speech at Dealey Plaza for the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up next year. There's only one right way for free Americans to deal with that kind of thinking. Clamp down on Dallas.
In talking to assassination experts around the country for the past week or so, the phrase that pops up is "Occupy Dealey Plaza." I not only agree, I'd like to see what can be done to help make that happen.
So this column, in part, is an invitation. If anybody out there agrees with me, I will tell you how to get in touch. Let's do this thing.
Two weeks ago The Dallas Morning News published a story by Scott Parks quoting Nicola Longford, curator of the "Sixth Floor," the official Dallas assassination museum. She told Parks there should be no discussion of the shooting itself or the controversy, only a "moment of silence," which Longford apparently thinks should endure for an entire week.
That's a lot of silence. But maybe she thinks she can pull it off. The city has violated its own longstanding policies on access to Dealey Plaza by granting Longford a permit for a full week of exclusive control over the site of the assassination. The exclusivity of the permit, barring others from the plaza, is a first, according to people who have been involved in previous observances.
They have been told no one else can be given an equivalent permit that entire week, a fact confirmed for me last week by the city official in charge. Jill Beam of the city's special events office also confirmed she is directing all groups with questions about the 50th to call Longford, effectively making her the de facto commissar of all 50th-anniversary observances, even though she is the employee of a nonprofit that is not supposed to be a part of city government.
Longford does not come across as a commissar, more as a curator who has been put in a tough position, by whom we do not know. I can't help suspecting the same brilliant leadership that wants to build a highway in the flood zone along the Trinity River — aging affluent persons who may have tossed back too many toddies over the years.
Longford said: "This is something that Dallas has not embraced ever. We know the whole world is going to be watching in 2013."
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings is supposed to be putting together some sort of JFK 50th "task force." I asked him if he thinks diverse groups should have free access to Dealey Plaza. He said in an email that any events must be "solemn" and "respectful."
"Rest assured," Rawlings said, "that Dealey Plaza, in particular, will be closely monitored to assure that that space will be in keeping with the above tone and message."
I believe I am going to take that, perhaps unfairly, as a no to my question about free public access. Rawlings doesn't come across as a commissar, either, but somewhere in this is some kind of very concerted push. Perhaps it is from the Commissar of Too Many Toddies — the one whose face we cannot see.
The words "solemn" and "respectful" do seem to crop up. In the recent Morning News story, Longford was quoted saying any event should be both solemn and respectful and should "put his death into context without reliving the details of what happened."
Yeah, but here's the problem. The context for Kennedy's death in Dallas was a violent public assassination. If he had come to Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, and died of a massive coronary, no one would remember that he died at Dealey Plaza. Or in Dallas.
They blew the top off his head and splattered his wife with brains and blood. That's the context, along with an enduring mystery and a great deal of honest skepticism in many people's minds about who did what and why. Saying that we should just be quiet and have a nice dignified event to make the city look good is not the sort of thing any historian would say, ever.
History simply is debate. No one knows what happened five minutes ago. All we can do is debate what happened. That's what history is for.
When I first wrote about this issue in the spring of 2011, I talked to Conover Hunt, one of the consultants who helped design The Sixth Floor before its opening in 1989. Hunt, who is in Virginia now, is a real historian and authority on historic places. Hunt gets what these places are for.
"Dealey Plaza doesn't really belong to Dallas," she told me. "It belongs to everyone. And not necessarily just the American people.
"There will always be in any of our tragic historic sites where major history was made," she said, "a sense of collective ownership. It's neutral ground.
"People will go there, they'll go to Gettysburg, they'll go to Mount Vernon, to the Washington Monument, to these battlefields, the good history and the bad, and they will ponder the meaning of life, the meaning of government, and they will talk about it.
"These places are like debate parks," she said, "where you can engage in the discussion and feel the power of history under your feet."
Scott Parks' story in the News was especially interesting in the interviews it offered with recognized presidential scholars and historians. They seemed to be of one mind — that the anti-Dallas epithets of the day, like "City of Hate" and "City that Killed Kennedy," have largely faded from memory and may even have a sort of funky anachronistic ring today. You know: Who cares about one little old city of hate, when now we have the entire state of South Carolina?
But beyond being stupid, the idea that Dallas has some right or prerogative to control free speech flies straight in the face of an over-arching global reality. Everyone alive on the planet today has grown up in an era of unconscionable official lies.
How can anyone be shocked that many young people think the 9-11 assault on the Twin Towers was an inside job, when everyone knows that Shock and Awe and the decimation of Iraq produced not a single WMD?
Young people would be idiots to believe what government tells them and fools not to question and debate every single thing they see and hear in the monopoly media. We should all be repelled and infuriated by what Dallas City Hall is trying to do, not simply with regard to the Kennedy assassination but for what it means to speech and freedom.
And I'm happy to say, based on the chats I have had so far, that people are already reacting appropriately. John Judge, an assassination historian in Washington, said to me last week: "A moment of silence that denies talking about his death on that day and certainly not talking about the historical truth behind it and the controversy is no longer a moment of silence. It's a perpetuation of silence."
Judge said it doesn't matter that we can't see exactly who is behind this push. We can see exactly what they want.
"We know the underlying theme. There is going to be a humungous crowd, and they want to catch it and capture the message and control it."
Judge was one of a few I spoke to who are already thinking in terms of what to do. "Maybe we have to do 'Occupy the Grassy Knoll 2013,'" he said.
What a terrific idea. In fact it would be the perfect marriage of physical occupation — the seizing of a place — with concepts of truth and freedom. And what a grand stage it could be, especially with all those cameras hovering.
I spoke to Robert Groden, the assassination author whom the city has arrested and jailed for expressing views and selling books in Dealey Plaza. His take on the assassination conflicts with Sixth Floor official dogma, which is, "We didn't do it; show's over; return to your homes."
Groden promised me he will be out there on November 22, 2013, and if the city wants to clap him in irons again and haul him off to a dungeon in front of Japanese news crews, he says he will be more than happy to play his part.
Judge had what I thought were very creative thoughts. Especially if the city goes really Super-Stalin and rings the place with cops, he thought perhaps it might be fun for counter-protesters to re-enact one of the theories about how the conspirators may have escaped.
"They could reverse the route," he said. "They could go down to the Trinity River bottoms, enter the storm sewer system, crawl uphill to Dealey Plaza and pop up out of the manhole covers."
Oh, wouldn't that be spectacular?
Look, I'm serious about organizing something, but only if anybody else wants to do it. My role would be only to put you together. Some sort of steering committee? Or not. The thing has to grow organically.
Do it without me. Just do it. Meaning them no disrespect, this cause should expand to include more than the community of people interested in JFK. Everybody with a speech issue should be welcome, even though I know that includes the birthers.
Everybody. Come on down. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't use that little contact dealie on the web page. That may be a placebo. Send me a real email. If you want to anonymize, do so. We'll get it all figured out.
Dealey Plaza is already Ground Zero for the debate about the JFK assassination. Maybe it can grow to become Ground Zero for free speech in this country. What greater purpose could this homely rag of ground ever serve? Somehow those of us who do remember where we were that day must imagine that JFK looks down and is on our side.
If this actually does come off, then from the bottom of my heart I must also thank you, the Too Many Toddies of Dallas. You may have been of greater service to your country than you ever dreamed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.