Down with Up!

Posted on 09. Nov, 2011 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

My first recollections of the power of ‘Street Speech’ (protests) took place on September 2, 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas when nine black students tried to enter Central High School. They were stopped by the Arkansas National Guard that was called out by Governor Orval Faubus. The protests were initiated by whites who were opposed to integration. I was surprised to see so many black people in one place at one time but shocked by the actions the government took to keep them out of school.

Next, Vice-President Richard Nixon made a goodwill trip to Latin America (Uruguay, Peru and Venezuela) in 1958. Boy, was he surprised when his motorcade was assaulted with jeers, raised fists and flying vegetables! Seems these folks didn’t quite appreciate something called, ‘American Imperialism.’ It looked to me on our black and white Sylvania TV set like we lost the battle for the hearts and minds of our southerly neighbors. As a young man I didn’t know why people would dislike us so much that they’d throw things at Mr. Nixon.

I found out later when I read about our Latin American foreign policy. Fidel Castro came to New York City in 1959, and some folks were not too pleased to see him and protested his visit. I remember he was interviewed by Jack Paar. He seemed to be a pretty nice guy (for a guerilla fighter), but that was before I read about how the Cuban revolution went down.

Then there were protests against Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 for being Catholic (something I thought was pretty harmless, but then I’ve never lived in Ireland, either). Fast forward to the counter-culture hippie-inspired protests in the mid-sixties and couple them with the civil rights protests AND the anti-Vietnam War protests leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The American protest movement was at its zenith, or so we thought until the anti-Vietnam protests continued even beyond the Paris Peace talks and the Peace Accords.

Protesting had become a fixed part of American life – an industry. We could see it every time we tuned in to the evening news. There were handbooks that guided protesters like, “Rules for Radicals,” by Saul Alinsky that was published in 1971. The first chapter says, “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

If that didn’t presage what we are seeing today with angry and often violent union protests and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ (OWS) movement, I don’t what could have. Many Americans are simply tired of the ballot box and feel that voting makes no difference anymore – that no matter who you choose, they will disappoint you once they get into office. Many of the OWS are young people, probably unemployed, and certainly angry. They may say they’re there for ideological reasons and to ‘change the system,’ but frankly I don’t think many of them know the difference between Karl Marx and Harpo Marx or understand that it’s the very capitalism they’re protesting that made America and Americans rich.

Protests do prove one thing, though. They teach us that while freedom of speech may be difficult to stomach (especially if you disagree with the person who’s holding the protest sign two inches from your nose and calling you names), it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

- Editor

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