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Commentary: In a small town's square, peaceful democracy in action

Over the weekend, thanks to an annual camping trip I take with my son, Nick, to a location near Camp David, I had a front row seat to a display of democracy in action.

There's a good chance you heard about the event in question: The G8 gathering of world leaders to discuss economic issues was held on Saturday at the presidential retreat in northern Frederick County.

Camp David itself is situated in Catoctin Mountain National Park and is subject to a high degree of security at all times, though the usual security detail is rather low key. I've been a frequent visitor to the area since I was old enough to walk, and there are old Kodak Instamatic slide photos of me and my sisters standing in front of an old incarnation of the Camp David sign.

Curiously security at the retreat has manifest itself in variety of ways over the years. When I was a kid, Camp David was shown on park brochure maps, and there was that sign where I had my picture taken. Then when I was a teen, someone had taken a black marker and blotted out the Camp David notation on the brochures, and the Camp David sign was taken down and replaced with something more generic.

The presidential retreat is a solid 15 to 20 minute drive from the town most often associated with it, Thurmont, a name that means gateway (the "thur" part) to the mountains (the "mont" part). Camp David was established a few years after the national park and originally had been known as Hi-Catoctin, which was a kids camp when the national park opened. Prior to the park being opened, Thurmont was known as Mechanicsville because it had been the location where mechanics had set up shop to repair farm equipment for the folks who worked the hardscrabble soil of the nearby mountains and the more fertile fields of the nearby Monocacy River Valley.

At this point, it's worth noting that in the hundreds of times I've visited Thurmont and the surrounding parks and camping areas, I've had very few presidential encounters. All of my brushes with presidential security (all very polite encounters) were during the Carter Administration when I was spending a lot of time fishing in the park. President Carter is a fellow angler.

In addition, several of the local restaurants have displays featuring photos of presidents and world leaders who have visited, along with bits of memorabilia.

By and large, though, presidents and their guests are rarely on the ground outside the secure gates of Camp David. They are taken by helicopter from the White House or other centers of government directly to the camp. This prevents the kinds of motorcades and security through the small town of Thurmont that would prove disruptive were they to occur regularly.

The G8 gathering over the weekend, however, was a bit different. Though my fellow campers and I saw military helicopters in the sky heading back and forth into Camp David, indicating there was high level activity there, also on hand in an unusual way was a massive contingent of security. The reason: in recent years, activists of various stripes have sought to disrupt G8 gatherings in the name of any number of causes. Such disruptions unfortunately have taken the form of riots, so, because it was well publicized that the G8 would be gathering at Camp David, there was a need for high security because protesters were expected in Thurmont.

As it turned out, however, the gathering of demonstrators in town was relatively small. The Frederick News-Post reported the number at around 100, an estimate that seemed pretty accurate. Several groups were represented including an Ethiopian delegation carrying a large photo of President Obama with a Hitler mustache. Across the street was a contingent with re-elect Obama signs. Also on hand was a TEA party contingent. It had also been well publicized that there would be Occupy movement people on hand, too, though I never saw any of these folks because I was making a left turn and it appeared they had set up at the other end of the block.

In any event, possibly because of the high level of security, the protests were polite and civilized. Sure, there was a measure of disruption (I had to wait through three changes of the light at the intersection), and there was plenty of chanting going on, but no one was throwing stones or breaking windows and I'm sure the folks involved got their messages out to anyone who was interested in hearing them.

This, in my mind, is exactly what the constitutional protection of peaceful assembly is all about: Gathering with some like minded people and letting everyone else know how you feel about a particular issue. Especially heartening to me is that there were groups espousing fairly divergent opinions who managed to stand side by side without becoming violent.

It is worth noting here that the security detail and its reserves were probably every bit as large as the group of protesters that turned out, so rock throwing was not something that would have gone unchallenged. It's also possible as many people from town and the surrounding areas were on hand to have a look at the rather unusual amount of commotion.

As a nation we are a rather diverse bunch when it comes to opinions regarding how to run a government, raise a child or catch a fish. We were blessed in having a similarly diverse group of national founders who respected those whose opinions with whom they disagreed. This respect for the opinions of fellow founders was written into the Constitution in the form of the rights of free speech, free press, peaceful assembly, freedom of association and the right to petition the government. The idea here was, and remains, to offer all of us the chance to sway others to our ways of thinking and translate that into action when picking our leaders.

Sure, the protests over the weekend proved a little disruptive for my son and I, but the disruption was worth living in a country where people can speak their minds without fear.

As for me, any protests or affirmations I make will come in November when we have the opportunity to turn our opinions into action by voting.

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