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A Vietnam-era Dad Talks to His Protesting Son

Bernard Weiner 
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers

March 24, 2003

Dear Mark:

First, I want to say how proud I am of your -- and much of your generation's -- commitment to the values we both hold dear: fair play, civility, social justice, peaceful resolution of conflict. It's not easy being a young adult in this current crazy world, and I admire the way you're going about learning how to cope with its vagaries, hypocrisies and criminalities. 

As you know well, Mom and I are always nervous about your safety; you and I may not always agree on tactics and strategy in that regard in the growing anti-war/pro-democracy movement, but I'm glad you're willing to hear me out. So, here goes: 

One thing we anti-Vietnam War protesters learned in those '60s and '70s days was that if we talked only to ourselves, we gave the government the perfect opportunity to dismiss and ignore us as but a tiny faction of "scruffy hippies" or "longhaired radicals." 

But when we broadened our ranks to include more and more ordinary middle-class, middle-age citizens -- that is, when we toned down our rhetoric against the "bourgeois System" and focused on the actual enemy, the administration's war policy -- we suddenly found that the government had to take our growing movement more seriously. 

These "respectable citizens" had clout, better connections to opinion-shapers, more access to funding, and so on; many of them belonged to the same churches and organizations and clubs as those who possessed some power. Once those defections started to happen, the Movement began to achieve critical mass. (Example: Nixon and his advisers later revealed that when Walter Cronkite, the beloved and trusted CBS News anchor, began to speak out about Vietnam, they realized they had lost the battle for domestic support of that war.)

So what I'm suggesting, obviously, is that today's anti-war/pro-democracy movement begin to think along similar lines. If we're just engaging in actions that express our anger or that enhance our group's particular agenda, Bush&Co. will win the battle for American public opinion -- and thus find it easier to move on their imperial agenda abroad and their police-state repression at home.

But if we are able to involve more and more ordinary citizens -- many of whom have never before marched or even contacted their elected representatives or written a letter to the editor of their local newspaper -- it will be difficult for the Bushistas to marginalize and demonize the protesters as little more than "violent crazies" or "young punks" or whatever label much of the corporate-owned mass-media assigns in order to denigrate the serious political issues being raised.

The rage expressed in the streets on The Day(s) After the war on Iraq began is understandable; even though I disagree with some of the tactics used by you and your friends, I can appreciate where it came from. You say that you all were very angry, and very frustrated, and some of that energy just had to explode out, kind of scattershot. (Note: There always are, in any movement, a few agents provocateurs -- police plants embedded to steer the actions in a more violent, dangerous direction. The aim is to divert attention from the issues raised but also in the hope that the use of violence will scare away the more mainstream folks from joining the next demonstration. So be on the lookout.) 

In order to build a more effective, cohesive, broad-based Resistance, we have to be more creative, more focused on being politically effective rather than being emotionally cathartic, more dedicated to the long term fight in front of us rather than the short-term action at the next intersection.

Make no mistake about it. This battle we are in is not just about Iraq or this particular war. It is about a desire on the part of those that have hijacked the American government to create a permanent war machine abroad, and a proto-fascist state at home. The outcome of this political battle will shape America's, and the world's, future for the next several decades. The stakes are that high.

The Europeans are well aware of the true nature of the battle. They see America moving aggressively to become the Colossus astride the globe, dictating to everyone else what must be done, and keeping potential economic/political/military competitors in a subservient state. Already, new alliances are beginning to form to combat Bush&Co.'s imperial ambitions. 

Did you ever think you'd see the day when France, Germany and Russia would unite on anything? Well, they and a good many other European Union members are in the early stages of developing a kind of alliance that could rival, or at least put up some stiff resistance to, the Americans -- and, if China and Japan were to join in, a mighty force indeed would be amassed.

Let's talk now about an even mightier force: non-violent resistance. Once that "Soul Force" (to use Mahatma Gandhi's term) gets rolling and honed to a fine point, nothing can stop it. 

Consider what Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez accomplished without succumbing to the temptations of picking up arms. Consider the protesters who by sheer (mostly) non-violent "people power" hastened the end of the dictatorial regimes in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, et al. Not only is non-violence a powerful political tool, but it is, and becomes, a spiritually uplifting force. 

And why? Because it changes the interaction. Instead of you reacting to their violence with your violence -- which then leads to more violence, and then to more and so on -- you've changed the parameters. Suddenly, they have to deal with you differently, as a human who bears them no ill will even as you confront their power; they often get flummoxed by these new rules of engagement. (One extremely effective way is to be friendly toward the cops -- addressing them by name when possible, offering them food and drink, telling them in conversational tone why you're protesting, how your concerns may connect to theirs, etc.; the tensions tend to relax, even when arrests are made.)

And, most importantly, the larger public, appreciating the non-violent nature of the protests and raised with a belief in morality and fair play, starts to understand the immorality of their government's policies and brutalities, and begins more and more to support the protesters. 

Just one theorhetical example: Imagine the social impact, and the attendant news coverage, in two different scenarios: 

1) Two thousand protesters take over the streets in a major American city, break windows, block freeways, trash a corporate lobby, fight with the cops, etc. The news media highlight photos and footage of the violence, and interview poor people trying to get to work on the buses that were blocked for hours; the political issues behind the protesters' rage is barely mentioned, and often neither is the police violence that sometimes creates or heightens the confrontational mood.

2) Two thousand protesters surround the symbol of their anathema, the federal building (or a major defense-contractor), in a major American city. When told to move or face arrest, they willingly allow themselves to be arrested. Two thousand new protesters surround the federal building (or defense contractor) the next day. And the next. And the next. The news media is forced to handle the story in a different way, especially because "people of substance" -- doctors and lawyers and teachers and soccer moms and civil rights leaders and grandparents and clergymen -- are, in the name of conscience, willing to face arrest (partially because everyone understands that this will be a non-violent action), in order to highlight the issue of the government's crimes. The serious issues raised by the protesters gets more ink and more currency.

This may sound like a dream, but I truly believe the Resistance can move forward to that kind of scenario, if we play our cards right. If we're willing to be more creative in our tactics and strategies. If we're willing to think beyond tried-and-true methods of protesting, with humor and determination. (Just one example: In the Vietnam War days, some of the most effective campaigns involved spilling blood onto Draft Board records, getting arrested and, in effect, taking the government to court in highly publicized trials.) If we're willing to spend the many weeks and months organizing, planning, organizing, training, organizing -- and organizing. 

I'm not trying to pretend that all of this is going to be easy, or without dangers. This Administration is ruthless and has already made clear that it's willing to wound, to smear, to kill to get what it wants. And local police forces are often the least well-equipped, most overworked, and least monitored in the way they deal with dissent. 

But if we want to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the best of what we are in the world, and if we want to help advance humanity another couple of feet along the route to civilized behavior instead of falling back into the old habits of violence and repression -- if we truly desire that future, we can make it happen. Soul Force. 

Remember that there is another Superpower out there able to resist the dangerous adventurism of the Bush Administration: us, the burgeoning, worldwide mass movement of those who are joining together and standing up to leaders who, out of the worst of motives, are trying to take humanity in the wrong direction. 

So get on a steep learning curve. Read your Saul Alinsky, read Abbie Hoffman, read Robert Moses (Paris), read Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi and Cesar Chavez and Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth and Martin Lee and Frederick Douglas. You don't have to re-invent the wheel totally. Others have been there and laid the foundations. (How I wish we young New Leftists in the Vietnam era had been more open to listening to the wisdom of the many Old Leftists we consciously ignored.) 

So that's where I'm coming from, Mark. Let's talk more. And let's work together to turn this country around.

Love, Dad 

Copyright 2003 by Bernard Weiner


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances