I learned an interesting lesson the first time I attempted college. I was young and stupid and nowhere near ready for the college experience. I was out of state, on my own and the first gulf war had started during my very first semester. I was filled with the idea that I could change the world, and that government could and should be for justice and the rights of the citizens. South Dakota State University in Brookings is certainly no hotbed of social activism; in fact the only social movements there were around the kegs at the many house parties. No matter though. I wanted justice and I wanted to stick it to the man any man would do I did not care. I joined up with the dozen or so other social activist minded students and waited for my turn to raise hell and force the government to stop the war and do the right thing.
My big chance to stick it to the man came when our small group traveled to Chicago for a symposium on civil disobedience at Loyola University. During the road trip we listened to protest rock, and a Jello Biafra tape. We were big time and going out to raise some hell… for the people of course, viva la revolution! The conference was pretty awesome, we learned about passive protests and how to behave when getting arrested. There was lots of talk about how great Mau was and that he fought so hard for the people against the evil imperialists and capitalists. Near the end of the conference we all met in a large meeting hall were we would all be allowed to come up and say a few words. I was picked out of the crowd due to my larger size and designated as “security”. A band of masking tape was placed around my upper left arm as a symbol of my status. It was then decided that due to limited time they could only allow one representative from each group to make a statement. My sense of fairness at the time and still today says hey that’s cool every group gets a shot at expressing themselves.
Mine! Mine! Mine!
About 20 minutes into the speeches someone discovered that a group had sent up 3 representatives. The 4th person who had just stepped up to the podium started spitting about his rights to free speech. I put the emphasis on “HIS” because by one particular group sending up multiple speakers they were infringing on the rights of the other groups. To my shock the first amendment rights of everyone else in the room did not matter it was selfish and it was petty. I then realized I was standing there with the masking tape of authority on my arm as the room erupted into a screaming match. Everything boiled down to “what about me? What about my rights” I looked across the seething mass of shouting middle and upper class white kids. It was total bedlam, luckily violence broke out and I did not have to do anything physical. The group that had sent up multiple people pulled out ready-made placards and started protesting the protest.
Hell no we won’t go!
On the way back to South Dakota we all chuckled a bit about what happened. The Jello Biafra tape was and still is funny as hell. We took a break in St. Paul. There was an antiwar protest on the state capital building and we joined in. I was still processing the events I experienced in Chicago but my participation even then was half-hearted at best. I did notice one thing. No one outside the protest seemed to give a damn. People went about their business. There was no police presence. There was someone shouting into a bullhorn, people carrying signs like “save a life, frag a general” another couple was holding up a large American flag. Most of the stars had a military injustice written over it. I noticed Wounded Knee was missing so I asked if I could add it. “Right on man!” I was handed a sharpie and I put Wounded Knee under the star for My Lai. I tried to chant. I tried to cheer, but no one seemed to be listening, so I started to do what no one else seemed to be interested in doing. I listened to the people around me.
As the afternoon wore on I disliked what I was hearing. I could not think of our men and women in arms as criminals. I was taught to honor and respect our warriors and soldiers. They put themselves in harm’s way, they are willing to lay their lives down for me and every person on those steps that were currently damning them to hell and calling them criminals. I got the feeling that not a single one of those people currently surrounding me would ever lift a finger in my defense. I have no illusions about war, I have never experienced it but I know it is hell. In war bad things happen, sometimes there are mistakes, sometimes good people do bad things, and because soldiers are human sometimes bad people do bad things. War is pain, war is suffering.
Changing of the Heart.
By the time I got back to SDSU in Brookings I was pretty sure that my career as a protester was over. I started questioning a lot of other things as well, the government, the role of government and the reality of government and the two political parties here in the US. I certainly started to understand the real power of the citizen in this nation.
I am not saying give up; I am saying that even though peaceful protest and civil disobedience have brought great change in the past. The two greatest examples were led by Gandhi and King. They were massive, they were peaceful and the people stood silently against great oppression. These were not kids barking at the world. They did not advocate the destruction of anyone. They were for something, they were for freedom and equality and stood quietly and effectively against powerful enemies and they did overcome. They were young and old and they spoke with a singular voice for a singular goal. I did not see that in Chicago or St Paul. I do not see it with the Occupy crowd.
NO Peace…. No justice.
I cannot change the world but I can change my part of the world. The political and financial machinery will grind away at those who continue to throw themselves upon it. Those institutions have no care or concern for the everyday person. We do not matter to them and we never will. Yea the world is not fair. It never has been. But you can still make the world a better place. Not all companies are evil, do business with the companies you agree with or that assist causes you care about. Volunteer with local groups. On the 500 year anniversary of Columbus landing on the islands of the Caribbean I could have stood out on the street protesting but I chose to assist a learning workshop at CSU. I danced a bit and talked with people. I helped people come to understand something new; we communicated and did not just shout at each other from our own trenches. In nearly 20 years there has been no change in Denver on Columbus day. There is the parade, there are the protesters, both sides shouting the same things at each other no resolution, no reconciliation no change. Next year they will line up and do it again. Be different, make a real difference.
There is one protest I would love to arrange. I call it the million moon march. Get 1 million people on the national mall and show your ass to the white house or congress. You choose. Then we all pull our pants up and go get a drink.