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"Who Gassed You Today, Dad?" One Man's Memory of Street Protests

Posted: 10/04/2011 3:49 pm

Suddenly, with plenty of focus on Twitter and YouTube, but shamefully little advance notice from the mainstream media, there has been a sea change of sorts in the political landscape of the United States.

The arrest of 700 young, smart and wired Americans protesting "corporate greed" in New York under the slogan Occupy Wall Street, and demonstrations in other cities, suggests a progressive rival to the Tea Party movement just may have been launched.

After all, ever since Yankee hot-heads dumped crates of tea into Boston Harbor to protest George III's "taxation without representation," public protests have seeded powerful grass-roots movements. In our time, the two epic examples are the civil rights and anti-war crusades of the 1960s and early 1970s -- and I was a witness as a Washington-based reporter. The essential difference is that these two street crusades a generation ago were for human rights and peace, whereas the motive of present nascent drive is mainly economic as the rich get richer as the ranks of the jobless swell. (Since Canadian radicals inevitably join the American parade, marches against corporate avarice are planned in Toronto and other cities on Oct. 15.) So, given that history can repeat itself as farce and tragedy, here are some subjective recollections of the high points of the American protests.

Though I arrived in the capital too late to cover Martin Luther King's huge Aug. 29, 1963 March on Washington, I did witness the three-day March from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, organized by students, clerics and community leaders, which seized the attention of the world when, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 police with billy clubs and tear gas attacked 600 demonstrators. A white clergyman died from his injuries and the Ku Klux Klan murdered a white mother of three from Detroit. They became instant martyrs, though black activists complained the media was only interested in white victims. Their deaths showed us that this was not an issue about black citizens; that the bell of justice tolls for us, too, as I put it. TV images of this atrocity -- which reminded me of the brutality of the apartheid police I had covered at in my native South Africa -- made Bloody Sunday a peak moment of the civil rights crusade. President Lyndon Johnson suddenly had cause to "press the flesh" of members of Congress, including reluctant fellow-Southerners, to pass, on Aug. 6, the Voting Rights Act, possibly the most important legislation since the Civil War. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shed tears in the Oval Office when LBJ signed the Act. So did I. In 1960, 53,000 blacks had the vote in Alabama; in 1990, there were 540,000.

From Oct. 21 to 23, 1967, the aging pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose best-sellers had taught mothers (including mine) to pamper, not punish, the macho author, Norman Mailer, and sundry hippies and Yippies were among the organizers of the March on the Pentagon. The issue was the undeclared, unwinnable Vietnam War, whose escalating costs taught LBJ he could not afford butter for his Great Society and guns for Indochina. Tens of thousands of students, whose chant was, "Hey, hey, LBJ: How many kids have you killed today?," ringed the Pentagon. They were treated with (relative) restraint because the president did not want a replay of Selma. In the end, a hard core of demonstrators achieved their objective when, to my amazement and delight, they briefly penetrated the Pentagon building. I was tear gassed there, causing my daughter, Josie, six, to ask when I got home, "Who gassed you today dad?'' The blow-by-blow chronicle of that protest is Mailer's classic Armies of the Night.

Next was a truly surrealistic protest. After LBJ had abdicated in 1968 thanks in part to being kept a captive in the White House by young radicals, tens of thousands of students backpacked to Chicago for the Democratic convention late in August They peacefully supported anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy against Hubert Humphrey, the second fiddle to LBJ who hadn't even been given a bow. The gauleiter of Chicago, Richard Daley, engineered what an official inquiry later called a police riot to beat back the young Americans who staged a Festival of Life. I shall never forget Peter, Paul and Mary, who had performed at Selma, singing "Ain't Gonna Make War No More" in Grant Park as a cop beat me with a baton, shattering my arm, as I emerged from the swing-doors of the Hilton. The Keystone Kops even raided and trashed the headquarters of the McCarthy campaign -- an outrage perhaps without precedent in U.S. history. They roughed up network reporters on the floor of the convention. The highlight of these dismal proceedings was Mayor Daley yelling at McCarthy supporter Senator Abraham Ribicoff: "Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch!"

The next huge milestone of the anti-war movement was at hitherto obscure Kent State University in north-eastern Ohio on May 4, 1970. It was one of many campuses where students protested peacefully President Nixon's brazen extension of the Viet Nam war to Cambodia. Four students were shot dead by allegedly trigger-happy National Guardsmen who, it turned out, had orders to fire. We dashed to Kent State from Washington to follow up this "massacre," which led to the campus chorus: "Don't shoot, we are your children." Though hundreds of blacks had been killed in what we called race riots in Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities, especially after Martin Luther King's assassination, the shooting of the four white students from Middle America at Kent State caused greater alarm and distress across the land. Neil Young wrote "Ohio" as tribute to the victims of State brutality there. Music always plays a big role the dynamics of social protests.

Just five days after Kent State, we covered the literal siege of the White House by more than 100,000 students protesting the "massacre" of their peers and the Cambodian invasion. Washington was again an armed camp. But Nixon, whose relatively narrow victory against Hubert Humphrey was based in part on the revulsion of suburban America to the students, had been spirited away to be safe and sound in Camp David, Maryland. The helicopter that took him there was the same chopper that removed him from the White House lawn on Aug. 9, 1974, the final victim of Watergate.

Raymond Heard was the Washington correspondent for the Montreal Star and a contributor to The London Observer, 1964-74.

 
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