Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Hero: Liz Book (March 8, 2008)

Current mood: hopeful
Let me set the scene here before I tell you about Liz Book, whose name likely means nothing to you.

My church is currently featuring a series of messages concerning heroes – what defines a hero, what do heroes do, who is a hero to you – and we discuss these messages in Sunday evening small group meetings in someone’s home. The ultimate tie-in to church, of course, is that Jesus of Nazareth should rate pretty high on anyone’s hero list.

Our challenge two Sundays ago was to identify at least one hero. I had a short list of about eight, but on further thought, tried to distinguish between role models and heroes. To my way of thinking, role models are those whose way of life is worth emulating. They do the right things for the right reasons, and when they screw up as we all do, admit their faults and learn from them. All good stuff, and plenty of people fit that bill, both living and dead, both real and fictional. Heroes go beyond that. Heroes take on a cause, an ideal, a principle, and, facing true danger, with fear fully understood, blaze forward, see that cause through until success is reached. No small number die trying.

Again, think of Jesus of Nazareth. His cause was to reestablish the law of Moses, which had been trampled and twisted by the religious do-gooders of the day into some warped but entrenched imitation of God’s word. Jesus had to fight to get back to the real thing, and in so doing actually raised the bar, making the Mosaic law even tougher, changing the fundamental rules of society. What he did flew in the face of the establishment, who were so sure they were right that they ended up nailing him to a cross. His many disciples, though, picked up where he left off and, facing the same resistance and the occasional hungry lion, did ultimately succeed.
Returning now to my list of role models and heroes, here are a couple of each:
  • John Lennon. Role model, possibly also a hero. Despite fame and fortune and all the distractions that accompany it, he set his own path and followed it, recording it in word and song for the world to follow. "Revolution", "Imagine", "In My Life", "Eight Days a Week", "(Just Like) Starting Over" – all these document a wonderful way to run one’s life. For the hero part, start with "The Ballad of John and Yoko", but for the details you have to get out of the songs and get into the news coverage. I won’t go into it here.
  • Richard and Mildred Loving. Heroes. This interracial couple married in 1959, defying laws of the time, fought their arrest and imprisonment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. Their battle against entrenched authority struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 17 states. Mildred is still with us, though Richard passed on, I believe, even before the ruling came down. Life isn’t fair sometimes.
Back to Liz Book, a resident of Ormond Beach, Florida, and why she rates as a hero. The nearby city of Daytona Beach arrested her about 10 years ago for baring her breasts during a rowdy festival known as Bikeweek. The problem was not so much the incident itself – many other women did likewise, in that year’s celebration and many more before and since – but what happened as a result of that arrest. You see, the crime she was charged with was "Exposure of Sexual Organs", which caused her to be placed on the Registered Sex Offenders list. And pay a $250 fine to the city of Daytona Beach. 

Liz Book felt that the law was wrong. Men can go shirtless; women cannot. Clearly sex discrimination. As recently as the 1930s, men too could be arrested for indecent exposure in most places for going shirtless, even on a beach. More importantly, though, she believed that Florida law itself is wrong, that female breasts are not sex organs. Sex organs are to be found below the waist. The mammary glands are there to feed babies. Men too have breasts, though usually not as prominent. Cultural and religious taboos aside, to classify female breasts as sex organs while not also doing the same for men, is blatant and illegal discrimination based exclusively on gender.

Note again that the cultural taboo also applied to men here until very recently. Note also that the uncovered female upper torso routinely appears on statuary without much objection, and has appeared on U.S. money from time to time (1896 $5 bill, 1917 25-cent piece) until someone raised a fuss about it. True, the taboo is there, but that’s not Liz Book’s point.

She took Daytona Beach to court, fighting the arrest. She won. Despite that, she still was placed on the registered sex offenders list. This prevented her from participating in school activities with her daughter, as she was now banned from setting foot on school property, by virtue of being a registered sex offender. Think that’s bad? We’re only getting started.

Daytona Beach appealed the ruling. It lost again. Despite this, city police went to extreme measures to identify and arrest every woman it could find who bared her breasts, even briefly. Each one got the $250 fine and placement on the sex offenders list. By police estimates, in one weekend over 200 women were so cited. The real motivation was now clear: It was a money maker for the city, tens of thousands of dollars per day. Daytona didn’t give a damn about the women whose lives it was ruining, most of whom had no idea of the consequences they were in for.

Next year’s Bikeweek, she repeated her shirtless display. She was arrested again. She fought it again. She won again. Daytona Beach appealed that ruling again, this time in a state court. Book won again, citing free speech rules.

In another iteration in a following year’s Bikeweek protest, she was assured that she would not be arrested if she bared her breasts. They lied. Not only did they lie, but they separated her from her crowd of supporters, marched to the center of a bridge, where a policeman asked her if she had any last words.

In yet another Bikeweek protest where she was assured of not being harassed, police hauled away every shirtless female protester around her, and tried to taunt her to come down from a platform from which she was speaking. Apparently she was safe from arrest if she stayed on the platform – protected free speech – but police intended to arrest her if she came off the platform with her shirt off. It took three days, but eventually all her supporters were freed and charges dropped.

Since then, she has been vilified in the press, raped in her own bed by an intruder, attacked at a convenience store, and dragged through one court after another, even facing a judge who groused "Don’t bring the Constitution into my courtroom!" before the hearing began – and won anyway.

March 8, 2008 – today as I write this in the early morning – she will again face down the city of Daytona Beach. She will not rest until the city breaks its money-driven obsession with women’s breasts, and until state law is changed to decriminalize baring breasts.

To reiterate, it is not her goal that she be able to stroll down the beach or a city street without a top on. It is only her goal that a woman be able to take her top off and not be placed on the sex offenders list, and making the city of Daytona Beach $250 richer each time. For all that, for repeatedly marching into battle against an avowed adversary – an adversary determined to defend the wrong thing for the wrong reasons – she clearly rates as a hero.

1 comment:

bus15237 said...

What defines a hero? A role model? In this post, a homework assignment from a church's small group project, I explore the concept, and elaborate on a current, real-life person who I think fits the bill.