STOKING THE FIRES OF RESISTANCE: In the Ashes of Past Protests and Bungled Politic

Talking Drum: At Peace... “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”  (Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, principal author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence)

While raising our three kids, now young adults, I often challenged them with questions about what they learned from certain failures or setbacks in their lives. Despite their perceived degree of difficulty with the issue-of-the-day, no matter how they responded, I usually followed with a simple question, “Yea, but what did you learn from the experience?” The time lapse in reply, not the answer, usually told me what I was looking for.  In the process, I could see that after each Q&A session, they became better prepared for the next series of probing interrogatives which inevitably followed.

When I look around, today, at the time and distance between America’s past protests and potential lessons learned, I wonder if our nation’s leaders, the social and political elite, even appreciate or understand how America’s honed spirit of resistance often melds into rebellion or transformative anarchy.  Our nation’s history has presented some pretty darn good examples. It shows that certain individuals often arise from the masses of common folk, early in the process, to provide the proverbial shot across the bow for open resistance looming on the horizons.  Often, the powers that be seem to collectively turn deaf ears to the associated rumblings. This also seems to be the case with today’s public outcry against the bungled and baffling politic of congressional leaders and public officials, seemingly bent on taking care of themselves, instead of the constituency they claim to represent.

Rather than embracing the so-called “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) protest movement, as the case once seemed to be with the so-called “Tea Party,” it appears that knee-jerk reactions, on various fronts, have been aimed at chopping off the movement at the knee caps. This couples with a behind-the-scenes beefing up of special police forces for future strong-arm tactics, if the OWS can navigate the approaching witches’ brew of wintry snow- and political wind-storms. Yet, I wonder how much consideration has been given, within the tactical responses we see, for the wording and intent of the 1st Amendment (Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression), within the Bill of Rights section, to the U.S. Constitution, affirmed some 220 years ago.  It said:

 “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Colonial era miscues and neglectful listening aside, it seems to me that the cautionary tale of failed politics and social unrest, once again, is beginning to take shape on the landscape of wobbly public protest. But, like the new-born thoroughbreds, back home in Kentucky, it’s a relatively brief time lag between wobbly legs and steady gait.

Recently, here in Virginia, the always-dapper Richmond Free Press Publisher, Ray Boone, opened his home and gave temporary squatting rights to local OWS protestors (see Style Weekly Magazine, Richmond, VA, November 16, 2011, “Boone’s Farm” by Scott Bass), while public officials scratched their heads. Frankly, the first thing that came to my mind was that whomever was in charge of the municipal response to the protests probably doesn’t know how deep the stuff they’re about to step into can get, by tangling with Mr. Boone. From just my work as a reporter trainee under his tutelage, as a freshman Journalism major, while he was Editor of the Richmond AFRO-American Newspaper, I feel privy to something that public officials probably don’t know:  They have just entered into an arena where the “tiger”- which they think they may have finally caught by the tail- actually has “home court” advantage!

In my lifetime, I have yet to meet an individual with the journalistic cunning, integrity and tenacity possessed by Ray Boone.  Public officials are probably clueless in understanding this individual’s persistent determination and razor sharp wit that he will likely bring to bear on the issues they’re just beginning to clash over. And, that includes his strong public critic, the Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who, ironically, lives next door to Mr. Boone.

As I understand it, public officials slapped Mr. Boone with a city zoning violation (see “Publisher Told to Oust Occupy from His Lawn,” by Richard Prince, The Root, http://www.theroot.com, November 24, 2011). In the process, Mr. Boone has “…30 days to appeal the decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals. The appeal must indicate grounds for the appeal and include a filing fee of $250.” But, using the slogan of The A-Team’s Mandinka Warrior-“Mr. T” (a.k.a., B.A. Baracus, 1980s television The A-Team series; and Clubber Lang, in the 1982 film Rocky III), “I pity the fool” who will be getting into the ring with Mr. Boone.

As I recall, this is a man who doesn’t run from a fight, as he has consistently shown within his past activities as editor, publisher, White House Reporter and college journalism professor. In my opinion, he is the consummate journalism professional who is excited about taking on various economic and social justice battles within the Capital of the Old Confederacy. It’s the kind of fight he feeds on. I was reminded of this within his recent successful campaign to remove the Virginia Supreme Court’s ban on black newspaper access to the court, from its racist coverage policy. For nearly nine years, Mr. Boone sparred with the court, contending that its black newspaper access ban was a violation of the 1st Amendment’s “guarantee of freedom of the press” and promoted “monopoly journalism.” The ban was finally lifted on October 21, 2011, when Richmond Free Press photographer Sandra Sellars covered the historic investiture of Judge Cleo Elaine Powell, an African-American, as Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Long after leaving the ranks of aspiring black journalist, to focus on raising and providing for my family, Ray Boone has remained one of my biggest heroes. In all the years that followed, regardless of what I was doing to earn a living, it was his occasional chats about the transformative power of words as weapons for peace or social and economic justice, especially within the Civil Rights Movement, that lingered in my head. I often thought of this 1st Amendment warrior’s words, before my retiring as an investigator, while closing out various cases and summary reports, some destined for judicial review within various jurisdictions of the Commonwealth.

His words also come to mind when considering the delaying tactics and baffling politic of federal, state and local governments, in response to public protest around the nation. In my opinion, many of the responses will likely exacerbate the problems they hope to avoid, similar to what unfolded within the French Revolution (1789-1799) or even the protest movement flicking at America’s heels, during the Viet Nam Era War (1964-1975), in the wake of our nation’s hushed counterinsurgency involvement supporting South Viet Nam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem.

The Anti-Viet Nam War protest era is a period I know well from serving in the U.S. “Blue Water” Navy, as a Radarman/ Intelligence Spec, with direct involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 14, 1962 – November 20, 1962). This was a period of high drama and Black Power vs. Civil Rights Movement initiatives, in the United States, as well as street riots associated with growing Anti-Viet Nam demonstrations. Within the ignorance of my youth, I didn’t understand much of the non-violent philosophy. And, I never really considered myself as “non-violent,” since I was never willing to turn the other cheek, to anyone. But I later learned to appreciate the logic behind loving those who hated you. Yet, I still believe that there’s a time for war and the dogs of war; and, there’s a time for peace. I also feel that it is past time to bring our young uniformed warriors home from inappropriate deployments around the globe.   

On the other hand, when I look around at today’s responses to the rising tide of political protest, I’m reminded of another hero of mine, another 1st Amendment warrior, a fellow Kentuckian by the name of Muhammad Ali. During my high school senior year, we knew him as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., before he had converted to the religion of the Nation of Islam. He came to visit our school in Frankfort, Kentucky, just before going to meet the Governor of Kentucky (Bert T. Combs) to receive his “Key to the City,” following the 1960 Olympics, in Rome, Italy.  

As Sports Editor of my high school newspaper, within a desegregating Kentucky, I was assigned to escort Ali around the school.  At lunchtime, since we did not have a school cafeteria, he walked with many of us back to the black community for lunch. The girls loved his flippant trash-talking style. Even then, he talked like a street corner poet, although it was mostly the girls who seemed willing to listen. For the guys, we enjoyed his bantering and playful challenges to a fist fight. Many of us had followed Ali during his Golden Gloves and AAU Boxing Championship, long before his 5-0 Olympic run. Whites had already dubbed him the “Louisville Lip.” But we simply, and lovingly, called him “the Mouth.”After listening to his stuff all afternoon, I was a little miffed because someone else, the student body president, not me, was chosen to take pictures with Ali. Yet, for me, he’s still “The Greatest.”

Years later, I was further irritated when he refused to be drafted into the army, based on his religious beliefs and his strong feelings against the Viet Nam War. Other African-Americans were incensed, too, especially those of us still serving in the military, at the time. But, I later grew to understand and appreciate the power and thought behind his protest, soon after his famous ranting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…” He was later arrested, found “guilty” of the charge of draft evasion and stripped of this boxing title. But, he shook the nation and raised the Anti-War consciousness of the world.

Yet, Ali was never stripped of his dignity and willingness to speak out for the poor and downtrodden in the world.  On the stage of Civil Rights and Anti-War protest, Ali pushed the envelope of free speech and 1st Amendment rights.  In the process, he reminded us about the often inverse relationship between squelching public protest and adhering to the, arguably elusive, intent of the 1st Amendment. 

But, considering today’s knee-jerk responses to the OWS protest movement, the past lessons about what brews protests and ignites revolutions doesn’t seem to have benefited this nation’s current motley assortment of congressional politicians and public officials. It appears they tend to forget the lessons that many of us learned during the Civil Rights Movement:  The more you squelch the protest, the more likely protestors will assemble, like Ali, to further push and probe the elastic boundaries of free speech and 1st Amendment rights.

Finally, being stationed in the Mediterranean Basin for a few years, plus a couple of years of high school French classes, taught me quite a bit about revolution, especially the 18th Century French Revolution.  It taught me how the ignorance of the aristocracy, within their unjust treatment of the peasantry, can launch public upheavals and transformative anarchy. But, judging from some of today’s boneheaded responses to current street protest, in the United States, I’m beginning to wonder if some of our public officials should take some remedial high school-level history lessons.

What do you think? Does America really appreciate the power of its people in preserving the spirit of resistance? Please let us know within the ‘comments’ section, below. Thanks.  “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.