Across the great divide

Reflections on protest then and now

Part one: spring 1970

Forty-two years ago this coming spring, I was teaching my first class as a grad student “lecturer” at a Bay Area college. Just before I left home to teach that class on a beautiful May morning, I heard the news about students who’d been shot and killed by national guardsmen at Kent State, a college I’d never heard of, back in Ohio.

It seemed in those paranoid and divided days that the nation had turned on its young. There had been other students beaten or shot, in the deep South, on the streets of Chicago and in Berkeley, violence directed toward young people who were seeking social justice, were opposed to the war in Vietnam, or who were merely on their way to class when trouble started.

Only the year before, at the urging of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, helicopters had flown over the Berkeley campus spraying nausea-inducing gas that sickened protesters and non-protesters alike. And S. I. Hayakawa, then president of San Francisco State, launched a political career by taking fierce stands against students who were exercising First Amendment rights.

But students weren’t the only casualties in the war against America’s youth. Not by a long shot. Thousands of my peers were dying in that Southeast Asian war. They were soldiers who’d barely begun to shave, some of them guys who died before they ever got laid, kids from my graduating class ushered out of high schools across the land to find themselves swept up in the draft, going from the senior prom to the killing fields and rice paddies in a matter of months.

I tried to teach my class on the morning of the Kent State shooting, but I couldn’t. “Look,” I said to my students, “they’re shooting people like us back at a college in Ohio, and I just can’t do this now.”

I said I was going out to the campus free-speech area, and that they could go, too, or they could study, or they could do the homework I assigned. Then I left the classroom. Some of them followed me, and what we found was a large, spontaneous, and growing demonstration made up of other students who had reacted just as I had. We milled around for a while, no one knowing how to focus the feelings generated by the bloodshed on a campus more than 2,000 miles away, blood that was somehow more vivid than the blood we had been hearing about on the nightly news for so long, the body counts in Vietnam of Americans and Vietnamese that had desensitized us to that more-distant death.

We marched to the administration building, all of us expecting to see squads of cops or guardsmen showing up in force at any moment. It’s difficult to remember how much fear was in the air those days, how many times a kid with long hair could be taunted or flipped off just for walking down the street with a peace symbol on his jacket.

The campus police kept their distance, and some of the demonstrators entered the building, then more, and then there were a few hundred of us sitting down on either side of a long corridor that led to the president’s office. Nobody had much idea of what we wanted done, or who on campus should be the focus of this unfocused outrage. We just knew that we were angry, and frightened, and we still were naïve enough to believe that people who ran schools and colleges might have some power they could use to let other powerful people know that the natives were getting restless, that lots of us were beginning to balk at the way the system was treating us.

I called my wife to let her know what was going on, then headed back to the administration building to rejoin my fellow students sprawled on either side of the hallway leading to the president’s office, listening to a succession of impromptu speakers. Occasionally, the head of campus security would tell us to leave, adding vague warnings of consequences if we didn’t. Everyone expected a confrontation, and we kept hoping local media would show up in case violence was employed against us.

I went home around 10, but I rejoined the protest the next day, a demonstration that gradually fizzled as students began drifting back to their classes and the administrators, wisely, resisted the temptation to respond with force. The semester was closing in on final-exams week, and all of us had GPAs to maintain, papers to write or parents to answer to. Most of all, we were without an agenda. We just knew the war in Vietnam was wrong, and that students shouldn’t be shot on American campuses. Naïvely, we seemed to feel that saying so would make the grownups realize the obvious moral truth of that.

A few days later, one of my professors took me aside. He’d seen me at the protest, and he was worried about me. “You really need to start thinking about the future,” he whispered.

“I am,” I said.

“No,” he said, “you need to be thinking about your future.”

Part two: fall 2011

If you live long enough, events in the news can begin to seem like déjà vu all over again. The Middle East struggles through new chapters in its ceaseless turmoil. Natural forces, from hurricanes to tsunamis, wipe out large numbers of our fellow humans in places far from our shores. Or not so far. Human cruelty and our murderous hearts continue to make news, though there’s really nothing new in the way we misbehave toward others of our kind. Corruption blocks politicians from doing what they know in their hearts they should do.

New generations take the place of old, confronting the injustices of the world with the idealism of youth, encouraged by the sometimes naïve hope that their fresh perspective on things can improve the common lot. And, like generations of optimistic and idealistic young people before them, they learn the lesson of just how brutal entrenched power is when it feels threatened. They sometimes learn, too, that contrary to what they were taught in school, the policeman isn’t always their friend.

As most everyone knows by now, cops almost killed a guy in Oakland last month, an Iraq war veteran who had thrown in with the Occupy Oakland protesters as part of the wave of citizen anger that has erupted, manifesting itself with rallies, marches and camp-ins in dozens of cities across the nation.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

Police brutality on the streets of Oakland and Berkeley isn’t new, and shooting veterans who dare to raise voices against the status quo isn’t new either. Gen. Douglas MacArthur employed troops and tanks against a bunch of World War I vets demonstrating in Washington, D.C., back in the 1930s, seeking the bonus pay they were due. They killed two vets in that dust-up.

That happened under Herbert Hoover, back during the first Great Depression, a time with far too many disturbing similarities to our own. Then, as now, lots of people were getting screwed over by banks, driven from their homes, and generally ignored by their government. Then, as now, those who protested were either ignored by the media or labeled as “mobs.”

The guy the cops almost killed in Oakland is named Scott Olsen. If you Google his name, you might find a picture of him with his sister. For someone who’s been through a couple of tours of duty in Iraq, he looks remarkably like a child, and the fact is that by almost any definition he was little more than that when he was first shipped overseas to risk his life in a bogus war.

Olsen came back from Iraq unhurt, but he wasn’t so lucky on the streets of Oakland, where he’d gone to continue the fight for freedom he had been told he was fighting far from home.

It’s traditional for the right wingers to proclaim their patriotism and their support for our brave troops, but when those troops get back to these shores, those voices tend to go silent. They aren’t heard speaking out to protect veterans from cuts to their benefits, and they remain silent when cops assault vets who come home from war disillusioned and eager to use the freedom of speech and assembly they thought they’d fought to protect.

Scott Olsen was part of a nationwide movement to make the media pay more attention, not only to the wars that get so little attention, but also to the ongoing corruption in our system and the growing disparity between the richest 1 percent and everyone else.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

Media reports would have you believe that the Occupy Wall Street movement is mostly kids, a handful of young malcontents and malingerers engaged in a lark. And it’s true that the people who are enduring the bad weather and the discomforts that come with around-the-clock occupation of public space are mostly young, sleeping in tents from Zuccotti Park in New York to City Plaza here in Chico. But lots of people who are old enough to be their grandparents are turning out, too, though far fewer of them are present 24/7.

My wife and I spent several October Saturdays at the Occupy Chico rallies that have been going for several weeks now. This ain’t our first rodeo when it comes to schlepping around the streets in search of social justice. We’ve been on this same walk, under one banner or another, everywhere we’ve lived, for going on half a century: down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, through the streets of San Francisco, and up in Seattle, joining with others for fair housing, against the war in Vietnam, for the United Farm Workers, against U.S. support for the contras in Nicaragua, for a nuclear-freeze initiative, against the war in Iraq.

On Saturday, Oct. 29, we turned out in Chico for a rally and march. Protesters assembled at the Our Hands sculpture behind City Hall at noon, about 200 of them. They carried placards made by volunteers, or they brought their own. Several of the slogans caught my eye. One of them read: “I kept wondering when somebody would do something, and then I realized I was somebody.”

My wife was busy taking pictures, some of which accompany these words. I pestered people as we walked, asking them why they were there.

We marched from the sculpture to the downtown plaza. Other people waited there to lend support, though a few weren’t quite up to the walk. Rose Johnson sat on a park bench. She looked to be in her mid-60s, and she’d been showing up most Saturdays.

“I’m here to get educated,” she said. “I was a single parent, and I used to work for Head Start, but I hurt my back. I’m here because I’m worried about what’s going to happen to my kids.”

Photo by karen o'neill

The march moved down Fifth Street, across from the post office. Some of the passing motorists honked in support, or waved, but a white-haired guy in a white pickup offered his opinion with his middle finger, a gesture I saw again from a passing car as we headed up Broadway toward Chase bank.

I fell in step with Earl Rossman, a robust man in his 70s who said he couldn’t walk too far because his legs just didn’t work the way they once did. “I’m a retired small-business owner,” he told me, as he managed to keep pace with other, much younger, marchers. “I’m tired of the corporations dodging their responsibility while we still pay taxes, even on our Social Security.”

On Tuesdays, he said, he also protests in front of one of the banks up in Paradise: “They have announced unreasonable fees while paying their CEOs millions. … It used to be the banks were in business to serve the community. I guess that is no longer possible with the mega banks.”

In front of the old bank building at Second and Broadway, I talked with Norma Wilcox, a 65-year-old nurse who is retired on disability. She carried a placard that read “Support SB 810,” and I asked her about that. Her answer was difficult to hear above the chanting and the drumming, so I asked her to contact me. The next day, she responded via email:

“When the Center[s] for Disease Control reports that 59.1 million Americans in the first quarter of 2010 had no health insurance (up from 58.7million in 2009, 56.4 million in 2008), and that far too many Americans delay needed health care due to costs, and die early from treatable diseases, it is necessary for people to march en masse in the streets to prevent the increased suffering, preventable deaths, and continued destruction of individual lives. Health care is a human right. California’s health care bill, SB 810, will provide Californians improved medical care for all. There is widespread support from the Occupy movements to create a national, universal, and publicly financed comprehensive health system.”

George Dysert

photo by Karen O'Neill

The march moved down toward the Saturday farmers’ market. I was drawn to George Dysert because the cap he wore proclaimed him to be a veteran of World War II. He’d been coming down from his home in Paradise to join the march for the past several weekends.

“I went to the first tea party gathering up on the Ridge,” he said, “but I left in short order because it seemed evident to me just who they were and where they were going.

“I’m angry,” he continued, “and I have a long litany of complaints, starting with unindicted war criminals and war profiteers and a rotten tax structure riddled with special-interest favoritism. We desperately need new campaign-financing laws. … We need control over Wall Street, the banks, and the corporate lobbyists. I’m here because I feel it’s the last chance for the people of America.”

We were standing on the corner of Second and Main, waiting for the light to change so we could rejoin the rest of the march on the opposite corner.

“I was in the Navy,” Dysert continued. “The United States Navy, I hasten to add. I’m also against the endless wars.”

He sighed. “What concerns me most is what might have been. What we’ve lost in my years of awareness is our pride, our sense of the American ‘can do’ spirit. We’ve even engaged in the lowest possible form of human endeavor, and that’s torture. I hope this movement can reverse some of that.”

photo by Kyle Delmar

When the march ended back where it began, the organizers offered participants an opportunity to speak to fellow marchers. A few did—one guy argued that no incumbent should be re-elected, a position I don’t share. A teacher spoke with passion about education, and still another about the criminality of the banks. I stepped up to speak, too, not at all sure what I wanted to say, but sure I wanted to say something.

“I’m so heartened by this movement,” I said. “Back a long time ago, Bob Dylan sang: ‘Look out, kid, they keep it all hid,’ and they’ve been keeping lots of stuff hidden for a long time. But this movement is revealing some of what they don’t want people to know, forcing the media to pay attention to stuff they’d rather ignore. But that’s all I’ll say because when I get upset, I start to cuss, and I’m nearly always upset these days.”

When everyone who wanted to speak had spoken, the people began to disperse except for the handful of mostly young activists who had been occupying a small space on the sidewalk next to the plaza.

Before leaving, I approached Jill Lacefield, a woman who is, quite conspicuously, one of the organizers. She teaches part-time at Butte College. Though my tenure as a full-time faculty member at Butte overlapped hers, we’d never met until I shook hands with her at City Plaza. She’s a slender woman of very fierce commitment, a commitment rooted in her concern for the young. If you want to feel the passion that fuels this movement, just talk to Jill Lacefield for a few minutes.

“In the past few years,” she said, “I’ve been really looking at ways we can re-establish the lost connection between youth and elders. The youth bring their fresh vision, and the elders can share their experience to connect with these young people.”

Norma Wilcox

photo by Karen O'Neill

I got a follow-up phone call from Lacefield the next day. She was feeling a little discouraged, wishing more of her colleagues at Butte were joining the protest. “I teach public speaking,” she said. “I tell students that I’m there to facilitate the voices within them. ‘Don’t go to your grave without speaking up,’ I tell them. On Saturdays, lots of people I know drive by and wave at me, but I so much wish they’d join us. I’m so glad I live in this place, but I keep wondering why more people aren’t taking to the streets.”

I know how she feels. The tenured academics I once taught with at Butte College are all conspicuous by their absence, though nearly all of them were eloquent defenders of progressive ideas. But I never see them at any event that would make their views more generally public. Where are the profs from Chico State who so often preen their politics on campus, but too seldom can be found lending their voices during their off hours?

Jill Lacefield doesn’t have the protections that tenure gives those people, but she is stepping up, on the march and on the line. “I’m here to refire the vision,” she told me. “I’m one of the elders here to support the young, to offer experience to help facilitate their young legs.

“I race to get down there on Saturdays,” Lacefield said, “to walk with those young people and to let them know in no uncertain terms that they aren’t the only ones who think things are fucked up. But it can be so discouraging for them when so many people won’t get involved. What will it take? When will changing things ever be easier?”

As my wife and I were heading up the Skyway on the drive back home from Chico, a van passed us, adorned with a bumper sticker that read: “A village in Kenya is missing its idiot.” A few miles farther on, a big SUV pulled out from the Tuscan Ridge Golf Course. It bore a bumper sticker that read: “Does this ASS make my rear end look big?” Next to the word “ASS” was a picture of President Obama.

photo by tom gascoyne

Like the people at the Chico rally we’d just left, these people, too, are fearful about what lies ahead, distrustful and angry, looking for someone to blame for the sorry state of things. People like me blame the banks, the corporations, and a political system that has grown corrupt and dysfunctional; people like them blame Obama.

On the Monday following that Saturday march, my wife and I switched our checking and savings accounts from Wells Fargo to STAR Community Credit Union in Chico, a symbolic act of protest against the big financial institutions that have played such a significant role in bringing the economy to the brink of ruin.

The young woman at the credit union who helped us make the switch told us that lots of people had been doing what we were doing, and for the same reasons. Transferring funds from a bank to a credit union doesn’t amount to much in the “rage against the machine” category, but it is entirely in spirit with what I had read on that placard in the plaza, the one that sought to remind us that we can’t wait for “somebody” to do something.

On the Friday night that followed one of the recent Saturday marches through Chico, I had occasion to be driving by City Plaza. It was late, it was cold, and the wind was scattering leaves into the puddles that were picking up shards of light from the street lamps.

I saw the big tent that houses some of the Occupiers who camp there after we weekend protesters have gone back to our comfortable homes. The tent was illuminated from within, glowing in the darkness, a perfect metaphor for what this movement represents, a small, brave light against a world that seems to be growing colder and darker each day.

Under my breath, in my warm car, I wished the kids in that tent the sweetest of sweet dreams, then drove on home to go to bed.