Twenty years ago, June 4, a young student stepped in front of a slowly moving tank. The military vehicle slammed to a stop a few yards from hitting him, paused for a moment – obviously waiting for the young man to realize the stupidity of his action and rush out of the way. When he didn’t, the tank commander ordered the driver to steer around him and go on with business. The youth side-stepped to again block the tank which, again, ground to a halt. There resulted several minutes of standoff, videotaped by a number of journalists and private individuals, creating a world-wide movement in support of the student “revolution” in Beijing, China. The image, even today, is moving and symbolic of the lengths to which some are willing to go for personal freedom.
The Tiananmen Square protest is one of the most recent examples of people who, oppressed, realize that freedom is something hard won, and harder yet maintained.
I was an associate editor of a college newspaper at the time of the Beijing Revolution. The campus is a suburban one and, overall, conservative in its politics. For the most part, the students were (possibly are) the self-involved offspring of self-involved parents who are interested in creating for themselves as much comfort and pleasure in life and seemingly unconscious of anything around them that does not directly affect them. Still, some students on campus organized a small rally in support of it. My top shooter and I went out to cover the rally, at which there were maybe 25-30 people on a campus of 13,000. There was a single remote broadcast truck there from one of the local radio stations, and not much else. Some of the student leaders read poems or statements but mostly those in attendance stood about not really knowing what to do. All they knew was that this was something important and that they wanted to show that they supported it. It flung me back to the 60s, when I had been of (traditional) college age.
Thinking back, it seemed as though organizing protests, demonstrations and rallies came naturally to us; that all anyone needed to do was to give a cause that demanded action, and out of the blue would spring a completely organized event complete with agenda, speakers, signs and chants. That’s the way it can appear these days when we look back at it, as well.
But, in all honesty, we had a lot of help and very good training.
Now, here, there are bound to be those people who, obviously, are the same ones who had “America: Love It Or Leave It” stickers on their bumpers who will leap to their feet and shout out “Of course you help and train! All you commies worked together to bring your filthy revolution to this God-fearing country!”
I beg to differ. While there were, without a doubt, communist organizers and instigators – as well as fascist ones, and not to mention the FBI and CIA plants who did their best to make us all appear to be anarchists and Destroyers of All That Is Holy – overwhelmingly, those who protested and demonstrated loved this country and, because they loved it, wanted it to live up to its ideals, its beliefs and its purposes.
One of the great misunderstandings of the antiwar movement is that it grew out of a concern for the soldiers who were in combat as much as it did out of political and self-motivated reasons. What better way to support our troops than to get them out of the place where people are trying to kill them? It was only when the very people we were trying to bring home began gassing and shooting at us that the protestors turned anti-military, and rightfully so.
But enough of distraction.
In those days of what might seem to be constant protest (maybe we were so good at it because we had so much practice?) we were able to draw from some pretty good resources. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. learned his non-violent protest from Gandhi and adapted it to the American Civil Rights Movement. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the fledgling Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began spreading the word, they also began spreading the way in which the word needed to be transmitted. There were classes held on campuses, Ohio University, Miami University and Antioch College being just three of the many sites, where recruits were taught not only how to protect themselves from beatings, tear gas, fire hoses and police dogs, but also taught their rights as citizens – something that had been somehow overlooked in their education classes. When we went into a demonstration, everyone knew their job and everyone – at least most of us – knew what to do in any given circumstance. That didn’t keep us from getting our heads bashed in, of course, but it did, undoubtedly, allow many of us to survive without serious, permanent damage.
Then came Kent State.
Next year, on May 4, we will find ourselves at the 40th anniversary of one of the most pivotal events of the 60s protest era. It is an event that, when I see films of it, or discuss it, or even remember where I was and what I was doing at the moment I heard about it, I get very emotional; the anger, fear, sadness, bewilderment – most of all, I think, the bewilderment – flood back into my consciousness as though I was transported back to that day.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio