Saturday, March 24, 2018

For What It's Worth

If you've been paying attention lately and are old enough, something seems vaguely familiar. There was a song from the sixties* that to me perfectly defines that bygone era. Over fifty years after it was released, the song continues to be played frequently, and its lyrics ring true in our day; so much so it could easily be adopted by young people today as an anthem for their own generation:
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

The refrain of that song always brings me back to early June, 1968. Two months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Menphis and as a result, much of the West Side of Chicago, a couple miles from from my home, was in flames. The National Guard, whose armory was in Humboldt Park a couple blocks away, mobilized along the parkway right in front of our apartment building on Humboldt Boulevard. To them, Mayor Richard J. Daley issued his infamous "shoot to kill" order, directed at would be arsonists.

That year the Vietnam War escalated after the Tet Offensive which took place in January. A regular feature of the evening news in those days was the death counts of soldiers on both sides of that war. "Radicals" as Middle America called them, for years had been protesting our inolvement in Vietnam. But on February 27, when the famed network TV anchor Walter Cronkite called for a negotiated peace after visiting the front lines, President Lyndon B. Johnson knew it was time to leave office. "If I lost Walter Cronkite..." he told his confidants, "...I've lost Middle America."

It was an election year. The void Johnson left as his party's nominee for president was filled by two Democratic anti-war candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. I distinctly remember watching with my parents, a June 1st televised debate between the two candidates, held in advance of the California Primary. It was a Saturday night. In case you're interested, here is an audio recording of that debate. Kennedy won that primary the following Tuesday, but he didn't have long to celebrate his victory.

The next day, I was awakend early in the morning by my sobbing mother phoning my grandmother who lived in an apartment downstairs telling her: "Bobby Kennedy's been shot."

Simply put, violence, war and death were very much a part of the world in which I grew up. What I just described was only the tip of the iceberg of the state of the world in 1968. My parents did little or nothing to shield me from all of that, and for that I thank them, because it made me conscious of the big world outside of my very little world at 1850 Humbolt Boulevard. I'd say it was a scary time to be a child but the truth is, it was all we knew as kids. But something hit me that morning of the 5th of June, 1968. The coincidences of Kennedy being shot (he died the next day) right after I had watched him on TV,  just two months after Dr. King, and five years after his brother the president, hit me profoundly. I remember lying in bed that morning, with the words of the refrain to For What it's Worth going through my head:
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Later that year, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago and all hell broke loose. Anti-war protestors from all over the country descended upon Chicago. The Dada infulenced leftist group known as the Yippies, who took joy in being a thorn in the side of the establishment, threatened to spike the city's water supply with LSD. That, and other antics got the attention of Mayor Daley who was still reeling from the King riots and the unwanted national attention they brought to him and his city. Daley hunkered down with his police commanders in an effort to ensure that the convention would come off peacefully, without a hitch. His efforts backfired.

The convention was held at the old International Amphitheater on the south side. Police cordonned off the area like an armed camp. But they couldn't cordon off the whole city, so protestors gathered Downtown in Grant Park, across the street from the Conrad Hilton Hotel where many of the convention delegates were lodged. Nobody agrees exactly who's to blame for the Grant Park riot, but there is no question that the Chicago Police, reacting to the taunting of the crowd which included having bags of human feces thrown at them, went bat-shit crazy.
There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

While there were well established people from all walks of life who were active in the anti-war movement of the sixties, that movement will always be remembered by the overwhelming number of young people in its ranks. These were the baby boomers, children of the generation who lived through the suffering of the Great Depression and World War II, folks who didn't want to see their children live through the hard times they experienced. So they tossed out much of the old world and created what they believed would be a new and better world, one of single family homes in new communities called suburbs, connected by superhighways which tore old communities (and the human connections they made) apart limb from limb. The parents who lived through the war, well most of them anyway, saw to it that their children would have what they didn't, and would want for nothing. For their part, the children of the fifties and early sixties became restless and dissatisfied with the complacency of their isolated communities, and the boredom of what they considered their meaningless existence.

Many of them found meaning in the struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that the history of both those struggles would have been much different, were it not for the grass roots activities and protests involving a great number of young people.

As a result, my peers and I, only a few years behind, followed in our immediate elders' footsteps in being passionate about world events and participatting wherever we could in activities that we saw could help change the world for the better.

In many ways, things did get better; the war eventually ended, and the enormous racial divide grew smaller, or at least, so we thought. Although the world was far from perfect, gains were made in other battles fought by activists in areas such as equality for women, protecting the environment, LBGT rights and many others. Eventually we got older, and complacency set in amongst ourselves; our direction shifted from egalitarianism to self-interest, while cynicism began to replace youthful idealism. But most of us continued at the very least, to vote, so ingrained in us that it was the very least we could do to improve our communities, our nation, and the world.

In retrospect, with the excpetion of atrocities that took place in specific corners of the world, things trended up in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Prosperity grew for most people, hostilities between East and West lessened as the Cold War warmed up, and with notable exceptions, the years between 1975 and 2000 were relatively peaceful. Children who grew up in the eighties and nineties, at least in the develpoed world, did not live with intractable wars, or were subjected to the great social upheavals that rocked the sixties and early seventies. For all intents and purposes, the period that led up to the turn of the millennium was a pretty good time to be alive and consequently, there was no great urge to change the world, or for that matter, at least for young people, to vote.

Then came 9/11.

My son is the same age as the students seen in these pictures, as they gathered around Senn High School on the north side of Chicago last week. They stood together with locked arms and formed a complete circle around the school's enormous front lawn, in solidarity with the students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where exactly one month before, a gunman opened fire and killed seventeen students and faculty members. Unlike the generation before them, today's high school students, born around the time of 9/11, have never known a world without war, without terrorist attrocities graphically depicted on the internet, and without mass shootings at schools. The latter is particularly relevant, as none of today's children have experienced going to a school and not being subjected to a terrifying lockdown drill, in preparation for an unlikely, yet still very possible horror that could befall them.

The Stoneman Douglas shooting was similar to the roughly 50 school mass shootings (in addition to mass shootings that have occured at other venues), that have taken place in this country since 1999, when two students walked into Columbine High School in suburban Denver, and killed 13 of their classmates and teachers, as well as themselves.  Unlike Columbine and the vast majority of school mass shootings, the students at Stoneman Douglas banded together to do something about it.

Their public actions in starting a nationwide student movement to push for responsible, common sense gun control as a means to address the calamity of mass shootings in this country, has been an inspiration to adults and students alike, all over the world. Their actions have also been roundly criticized by some, as an alterior motive, taking advantage of a tragedy in order to persue a political agenda, one that of course, the critics don't agree with. Some have gone so far as to say that the young people who passionately articulated their message at rallies and on radio and TV interviews, were not actually students from Parkland, but "crisis actors", hired guns paid by left wing activist groups to stir up public support of gun control. The ultimate goal of these groups, so the argument goes, is nothing short of a complete repeal of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees the right of Americans to bear arms.
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
The accusations that the kids weren't who they said they were are verifyable rubbish. It stands as proof that there are people in our country who will stop at nothing in order to promote their own political agenda, not even attacking children who witnessed their friends and teachers die before their very eyes.

Wednesday, March 14 was dubbed, National Walkout Day. Students all over the country were encouraged to walk out of school at precisely 10:00 AM local time, in commemoration of the Parkland Tragedy. The demonstations were to last about one half hour and would include seventeen minutes of silence, one for each life lost in the Parkland shooting. School officials and faculty, at least here in Chicago, are explicitly prohibited from promoting a political agenda, so the principals who were sympathetic to the cause, supported it by looking the other way, not penalizing the students who chose to leave their classes at the appointed time. The walkout was entirely voluntary, those who chose not to walk, stayed in their classrooms. Those principals who did not support the effort, either banned their students from leaving the school building altogether, or imposed punishments such as detentions for the students who walked out. 

The walkouts took on many forms. From the coverage I read about and saw dipicted in photographs, many included singing songs and carrying signs of protest against groups such as the NRA who steadfastly opposes any form of gun control, politicians who take money from that organization and sheepishly bend to its will, and the current administration which has so far been wishy washy at best on gun control. 

But by and large, the protests stuck to the message of making it possible to go to school without having to worry about getting shot. That included, but was not limited to stricter background checks on potential gun buyers and restrictions on the sale and possession of firearms such as the AR-15 rifle, which has been the weapon of choice among many mass shooters, because of its ability to kill a large a number of people in a short period of time.  

Huffing, puffing, ranting and raving, members of the far right cried foul at the thought of schools allowing kids to leave class to particpate in what they felt amounted to a political assault against ideas and values they hold dear, namely that the Second Amendment to our constitution has no limits and no responsibilities attached to it.

Cleo Shine and Rory Hayes, the leaders of Nicholas Senn High School's contribution to National Walkout Day 

As you can see from the photographs I posted, no one carried signs at the walkout at Senn High School. What you can't see, you'll just have to take my word for it, is that there also was no chanting, no breast beating, no berating of politicians or even the NRA. Most importantly, what you don't see are adults. Including myself, I'd say that out of about 1,000 people on the Senn lawn that morning, I could count on my fingers the number of adults present and still have a few fingers to spare. Yes the principal and one of her assistant principals were present as well as a few security people to insure the safely of the students. And yes the two young women who were the organizers of the event held bullhorns; they used them to direct the throng of students in a circle around the campus, no easy task. Then they used them to announce it was time for the seventeen moments of silence, which they pulled off. Imagine one thousand teenagers without any adult supervision standing silent for seventeen minutes. At the end of that, one of them used her bullhorn to read off the names of the Parkland victims. Fianlly the two women used their bullhorns to remind everyone to return peacefully to their classes.

Now some might have seen it as a lost opportunity, after all what kind of a demonstration doesn't have picket signs and chanting? But in my mind, the silence, dignity and respect that diverse group of Senn students showed at an event that was first and formost a commemoration of lives tragically lost, spoke louder than ten thousand words.

Indeed, not all of the school walkouts played out as Senn's did. I saw many inages of events staged around the country, including my son's high school a few miles away, where the adults seemed to be leading the charge.

Does the extreme right have a valid point when they say that adults are having children do their own bidding by encouraging them to go out and protest? Well, perhaps in some cases, yes. We'd like to think, some of us anyway, that our children have the initiative and intelligence to think for themselves. A little while ago I asked my eleven year old daughter if her feelings about the current president were entirely her own or if they were shaped by her parents' views. I was foolishly surprised and a little taken aback when she told me a little of both.

So yes, children are influenced by their parents, that should go without saying. What naturally follows then is the question, are parents setting a bad example for thier children by encouraging them to walk out of school, or even break the law, to demonstrate for a cause they believe is right?

Obviously that's a personal decision that every parent must make for him or herself. My personal feeling is that the core of our democratic republic and the spirit of our nation lie at the feet of people who willfully broke the law for what they believed was right. We owe our very existence as an independent nation to law breakers who started a revolution in order to rid ourselves of colonial rule. In the ninteenth century the injustice of slavery was met head on by abolitionists who defied what they believed to be immoral laws, as labor activists did who fought for the rights that today we take for granted at the workplace. Suffragettes defied laws in the early twentieth century so that women could have the right to vote, as did civil rights activists in the middle of that century who fought the battle to once and for all fulfill for all Americans, the promises made in the Declaration of Indepenence and the U.S. Constitution. And so it goes in our day as people continue to fight, sacrifice and when necessary break the law, to promote justice and decency.
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away
Implementing change takes will, courage and sacrifice. The men and women who shaped this country, from George Washington to Harriet Tubman, Albert Parsons to Susan  B. Anthony, Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King to Caesar Chavez, were no shrinking violets. Our nation was forged out of the actions of brave, heroic people who would not simply accept things as they are.

Critics of the school walkout claim that students would be better off by staying in their classrooms and learning, rather than being off marching outside. My question to those critics is this: what could possibly be a better civics lesson than having students follow in the footsteps of these great Americans, participating in an action that promotes a worthwhile cause?

Clearly we're not going to all agree on which causes are worthwhile and which are not; it's all in the eye of the beholder. Folks on the right lately seem to have a problem with the idea of activism and protest marches. But as this article by arch-conservative writer Pat Buchannan makes clear, nobody seems to have a problem with social activism, even acts of civil disobedience, when they promote ideals in which they believe.

Therin lies the rub. Would those of us who as I did, support National Walkout Day, feel the same if high school students walked out of school for a cause we did not believe in? That is the dilemma of life in a democracy, which is becoming more and more apparent  every day. We all love the First Amendment when it protects our own voice, but not so much when it protects the voice of others,

On the other hand, who on earth could possibly say the cause of keeping our children safe is not worthwhile?

Today a nationwide protest is scheduled called "March for our Lives." The focal point of the demonstration will take place on the streets of Washintgon D.C. where there will be a march led by several of the Stoneman Douglas student activists. The permit granted by D.C. authorities to the marchers was for 500,000 people, but many more are likely to show up in front of the U.S. Capitol Building at noon local time. In addition there will be satellite marches in cities all over the country including New York, L.A,, Portland and Chicago.

From yesterday, the following is an NPR interview with Cameron Kasky, the defacto spokesperson for the students:

Kasky's face and voice have been all over the media, social and otherwise for the past month. His strident demeanor may turn some off, but one cannot deny his eloquence in tackling head on, the tough questions thrown his way. It is clear he and his peers have an agenda, and they are not going to let anyone, not critics of their movement, nor adult supporters bent on giving them unsolicited advice, get in their way.

Clearly, we adults in America have dropped the ball when it comes to protecting our children in thier schools, so who is to say that children have no right to fight for their own lives?

Having just said that, I hope this adult who has seen a lot in his life, is not out of line by providing some unsolicited advice of his own:

Banding together to organize great public events in support of a cause is a worthwhile and wonderful thing, but it is only the first step. The next step may not be as glamorous, it may not provide for good photo-ops or get you nearly as much attention, but it will be a far more effective way to achieve your goal.

Organize a nation-wide voter registration drive for kids turning 18 before the national election this coming November. The balance of power in Congress is at a tipping point right now and with a crop of millions of passionate, driven new voters, the balance of power in our government may shift. At the very least, you will get the atention of politicians who for years could not care less about issues that affect young people for the simple reason that young people don't vote.

If there is any silver lining to our current political situation, it is that few of us will ever again take for granted the power of the vote, and perhaps more profoundly, the peril of not voting. That is a message that we adults must pass along to future generations, and a message that young people today simply can't let pass by.

You have the momentum and our attention now; grab it, and run with it. You are our hope for the future, and from what I've seen in the past month, I'd say our future is in very good hands.

* For What It's Worth, written by Steven Stills, performed by Buffalo Springfield, released January 1967

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