Long before I was a history teacher with a blog (that I even posted to sometimes), I was a history major. In order to graduate with a history degree, I had to write a thesis. My work for my thesis focused on the Vietnam War protests, specifically in Madison, WI where I grew up. My thesis looked at the impact of the bombing of the Army Math Research Center (AMRC) in Madison in early 1970 on the anti-war movement.
As I was out for a walk this past week, I started thinking about my thesis. Particularly, I was thinking about the widespread protest that characterized the 1960s, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War protests, and the number of people in the streets today protesting all manner of acts by President Agent Orange (thanks Busta Rhymes for that moniker).
It is always imperfect to draw comparisons across historical eras. However…
As the protests around the Vietnam War drew on, protesters became frustrated: their huge numbers and vocal dissent seemed to be doing nothing. The Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia and Laos while protests were widespread. President Nixon even said that he knew nothing about a quarter million person march in Washington DC because he was too busy watching football.
This frustration manifested itself in more aggressive and confrontational tactics by protesters. Whether it was the sporadic violence of the Weathercells or an enormous bombing like the explosion at the Army Math Research Center, protesters were upping the ante in their level of confrontation with the government. The AMRC bombing ended up killing a researcher, ruining the research of many, and crippling the anti-war movement in Madison and beyond as the public rejected the violence of the movement.
I am not here to cast judgment about whether protests that cross the line from nonviolent to violent are just. Others have written about this, and made me think deeply about systems of oppression and who is requesting protesters only exercise their rights nonviolently and in ways that aren’t inconvenient to the dominant groups in society.
My point is, though, that had protesters in the late 1960s knew the impact they were having, they would have been heartened. Nixon, despite his public lack of concern about the protesters, received multiple updates per day about protests. He made sure the FBI was using COINTELPRO to target anti-war groups. Protesters had an impact: the devastation that the Vietnam War had on American soldiers and families - to say nothing of the Vietnamese people - was muted by the protesters speaking their truth to the people in power. They just didn’t know that.
So stay active. Keep marching. Keep calling. The fight will be long. There will be losses - Sessions, DeVos, etc have already shown this. But the 2018 elections will be here soon. Keep the pressure on. Your actions have impacts on policy makers, whether they want to admit it or not.