Monday, March 7, 2011

Swords and Civil Liberties

This afternoon at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, I was up at my local park practicing the use of my replica-quality medieval broadsword when I was stopped by a local police officer and told that I must put the sword away because it represents a potential threat. The officer was reasonably polite in making his request, but when questioned about the legality of using the sword in the park, he responded that it was a legal “grey area” and that if someone should “feel threatened” by what I was doing that it would create a “shit storm” for me. He even seemed to allude to issues related to national security when he noted that people these days are “jittery” about things like this.

While I appreciate his concern, it seems to me that the objection was premised completely upon the symbolic value of swords. The blade is blunted and is capable of inflicting no more harm than a golf club or baseball bat (both of which I have seen at the park). However, because the sword is an object that represents violence symbolically, it is not allowed. Another thing that bothers me about this situation is the idea that it is sufficient for something to seem “threatening” to some single individual for it to be banned. Last year at this same park, I witnessed two individuals who appeared to be affiliated with a hate group (complete with the image of a burning cross on the side of their truck) angrily discussing politics. Could it not be said that they represent a threat? Yet no one would dare challenge the right of someone to have a swastika tattoo or to paint an image on their truck.

What is your explanation for what happened and how do you think I should respond?


  1. People are afraid of what they don't understand. But Americans love sports - and they understand that. Tell them that you are in a league (SCA?) and that you must prepare for an upcoming competition. With a reason accompanying the act - and framed as a sport - people should have no problem with what you are doing.

  2. Personally, I think this might be a situation where the old adage, "discretion is the better part of valor," might apply. While your argument about a golf club makes perfect sense, golf clubs are far more common than swords. Perception is a factor in a case like this. If I was in the park and someone arrived dressed like a Klingon and carrying a toy phaser, I might be concerned, even if I knew the phaser couldn't harm me. Seeing someone wielding a sword might not just seem dangerous to onlookers, but could prove dangerous to the swordsman as well. What if a couple of those skinhead types you mentioned, with their limited intellect and desire for confrontation, are present as well and take issue with the swordsman? That is a formula for disaster all around. An ambulance ride and three arrests later, the back yard suddenly seems like a much more reasonable option.

  3. Alas, I think you're absolutely right from a practical perspective, Liloleme... Unfortunately, not everyone has access to privately owned spaces where such permission might be granted. In my view, the public park is a collective backyard where freedom to practice safely and peacefully should be granted.

    Incidentally, I also think this view is practical in an environment where police sufficiently understand the law. Being a reasonable person, I would pack it in without question if I felt I might receive some unwanted attention. But it shouldn't stop there. My being harassed should be pursued with a call to the police who *should* protect my right to pursue my harmless activity unmolested by troublemakers.