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Reporter's Notebook : Millions Celebrate Liberty as a Few Try to Define It

July 06, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — What is this thing called liberty?

Overshadowed by the jets streaking through the sky, the ships streaming down the river, the fireworks exploding in midair and the entertainers cavorting on midstage, a group called the Liberty Conference holed up in the conference room of a midtown hotel this sunny holiday weekend to confront that very issue.

Adding "cerebration to celebration," as Chairman Richard D. Heffner put it, 14 panelists--psychologists, historians, journalists and civic leaders, among others--thrashed out the modern-day implications of the Founding Fathers' doctrine of original intent and the nature of free speech.

Dr. James M. Wall, for example, editor of the Christian Century, wished for a way to champion free speech "yet get rid of the porn of 42nd Street. I don't know the imaginative compromise, but I'm looking for it."

Throughout Liberty Weekend, celebrities were offered up to the press to talk about what the Statue of Liberty meant to them. Shirley MacLaine, for one, said she saw it for the first time in the fog, in the morning, when she was in her 20s, and cried until noon. "It probably stands for all human hope. It has a sense of feminine energy. I like her hat."

Astonishingly, police said, a full day of Fourth of July revelry in lower Manhattan resulted in only three felony arrests: two for assaulting a police officer, and one for possession of a deadly weapon. Another man was detained initially after he crawled under a fire vehicle with a bag police suspected might contain explosives. However, the man was given a summons and released when the bag turned out to contain only clothes and some beer.

"Sure, it's amazing," police spokesman James Coleman said when asked about the surprisingly low number of arrests. "But people obviously were here to have a good time."

Not everyone was of that sentiment. In Brooklyn on Saturday, thousands of blacks shunned the Statue of Liberty extravaganzas to flock to an African-Caribbean cultural festival. "I did not participate in the Liberty thing because I don't think that black people have the freedom, the justice that the Statue of Liberty stands for," Thelma Guidry said. Established in 1969 as a black alternative to traditional July 4 festivities, the African street festival has grown to become a massive summer carnival with some 25,000 celebrators.

High atop the ramparts of Castle Williams on Governors Island late Friday night, fireworks commander-in-chief Tommy Walker was shouting furiously into his walkie-talkies. On all sides were the rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in midair--and a TV network had cut into this country's greatest fireworks show ever to run a commercial.

"This is the people's show," the 64-year-old Walker, raising his fist in defiance, told his troops. "We don't stop for commercials."

Moments later, a power source failed and cut off several fireworks barges from Walker's orders. Then more power blew, cutting Walker's TV monitors and lights. "Dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum," Walker bellowed into the radio, waving his other arm like a conductor, to keep the dazzling display synchronized to the music. "You're in Santa Lucia, gang, Santa Lucia. Keep going, keep going, gang. This is history!"

At Operation Sail '86, there were about 30,000 boats in the water, far more than were present at OpSail '76. And this time, all those private boats had to be cleared to make room for 42 barges of fireworks--compared to one barge of fireworks 10 years ago.

With that experience in their ditty bags, U.S. Coast Guard officials were prepared for the worst this Fourth of July. So dense was the harbor traffic this year that a radarman on Governors Island said he saw nothing but fuzzy white dots where he should have seen deep green. It looked, he said, "like the water had a rash."

But much to the relief of the folks on Governors Island, all went better than they might have dreamed. Of 29 calls for help that night, the worst turned out to be a fire on a boat that its operators extinguished by themselves.

However, Independence Day's one big headache for Coast Guard staffers and others on Governors Island turned out to be getting off Governors Island. Thousands amassed at the ferry landing, waiting as long as an hour and a half for the brief ride to Manhattan. "It's like waiting at Ellis Island," one man said.

Nancy Reagan and the Statue of Liberty were not the only two attractions on Liberty Island on Saturday. Many visitors found themselves lured by the loving mug of Brandy, the bomb-sniffing dog. The russet-colored golden retriever sprawled obediently beside the walnut-veneer metal detectors that guests and media had to pass through. "Sure, he's friendly," said Brandy's police handler. "Go ahead and pet him."

Brandy found no bombs, but loved the attention.

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