In high school, I had a phenomenal sociology teacher, Mr. Stortz, who taught us how to question the status quo; how to see an obstacle and make a peaceful, law-abiding plan to eliminate it. He taught us about peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, walk-outs, beautiful sign-making, and petitions. His students decided we needed a place that was ours to hang out, to recite poetry, to be kids. He helped us draft a petition, get adult support, and present that petition to our local council. It resulted in an older home owned by the Hoover Company being reserved for our after-school use. There was nothing in the home but an old couch…there might have been a few chairs, but it didn’t matter to us. It was ours!
For about three months, which is how long it took us to get bored.
One of the businessmen in town whose son was in our class donated some basement space beside his barbershop. We painted the concrete block walls a lovely shade of black, hung a string of Christmas lights, and used blacklight paints to decorate. It was in this basement space that we held our weekend open mic nights with lots of bad poetry filled with teenage angst and pseudo-intellectualism. We said ‘FAR-OUT’ and ‘GROOVY’ a lot.
Way too much!
That went on for…about 3 months before we got bored, but my point is that Mr. Stortz inspired us to be citizens. Real citizens who paid attention and made a difference, which is why in high school I found a tribe…my tribe. I am part of the Protest Tribe…the generation that knew without a doubt that the Vietnam War was a bad idea.
Nixon didn’t like us. I’d say he didn’t like anyone who questioned or disagreed, but I was actually too young to know that for sure…it was the perception, and perception, as the psychologists say, is the individual’s reality.
We weren’t the ‘jocks’, or the ‘eggheads’ (our term for nerds), or the ‘druggies’; we were the Flower Children of North Canton Hoover High School, the students who donned black armbands and sat in the courtyard during lunch…the only permitted protest time.
I know what you’re thinking…yes, we were a little nerdy, but hey, at least we were in the courtyard standing (actually sitting) for the end of the war!
I had a tin bracelet with a POW/MIA soldier’s name engraved and each night, I’d sit on the blue-green carpet in our living room in front of our small television while the names of the KIA scrolled slowly over the screen. My legs criss-cross applesauce; my left hand covering the bracelet on my right wrist; my eyes filling with tears as the names continued to flow, in complete silence, on the tv…each name another boy who would not come home; each name another family who would never see their son, husband, brother, cousin, uncle, nephew.
These were real people.
These were scared young men who followed the orders of other scared young men; who met with derision, scorn and disrespect from many who called themselves Flower Children, hippies, patriots. But for many of us, these were heroes fighting to keep communism from our shores.
I played and replayed, cried and re-cried, the 45 rpm record: The Ballad of the Green Beret sung by SSGT Barry Sadler, himself a member of the elite Green Beret. See if you can get past the idea of his last request without tears welling in your eyes…I doubt you can. It was an earworm as I sat in front of the neverending scroll of names unfurling in front of me each night.
It served to remind me that these were people, with lives and families and fears and hopes and dreams.
These names were people. REAL people.
I understood protesting that war.
I understood respecting the soldiers who returned home, and the memories of those who didn’t. They are all heroes, though I don’t feel the same about the politicians who sent them.
Many of the protestors were heroes too. Not me. I was a follower mostly. I would never have been the one to organize the lunchtime sit-ins in the courtyard, nor did I believe we were making much of a difference. I couldn’t have spoken intelligently about why the war was such a bad idea or how the US politicians prolonged the conflict, but these were some of the talking points that other protestors discussed with the confidence of knowing facts and figures.
One day in the spring of 1970, 45 minutes up the road from where I sat in the courtyard with black armbands made of crepe paper wrapped around my skinny upper arm, 4 students were murdered at Kent State as they protested on the green. Some who were injured or killed weren’t there for the protest at all; they were simply on their way to a class. I knew one of the National Guardsmen who was ordered to shoot that day. He was the same age as the victims of Kent State and of the war.
He was a scared young man haunted by the idea that it might have been one of the bullets from his gun that killed Allison Krause, or Jeffrey Miller, or Sandra Lee Scheuer, or William Knox Schroeder.
We will commemorate the 50th anniversary of these shootings in 2020.
2020…isn’t that the number assigned to perfect vision?
Over the last 50 years have we gotten perfect 20/20 vision?
Are we writing petitions, exercising our right to vote, fighting for every citizen’s right to vote in this country, honoring those patriots who FOUGHT for our right to vote, protesting peacefully FOR things like peace, human rights, human dignity, the safety of our children, the health of our planet?
Are we demonstrating respect for all humankind no matter their skin color, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, size?
As I watch the news on a large screen in my living room, I no longer see names scrolling across a screen. Maybe that’s something to celebrate, but what I do see are young black men being unfairly targeted by our institutions; I see food deserts across the world while we have an excess supply that rots; I see the voter registration roles being unjustly gutted with black and Latino voters suffering the most; I see politicians who ignore the constitution they were elected to uphold in order to retain lobbyist’s money and realize selfish ambitions.
Is this 20/20 vision?
I think it’s very presbyopic.
We aren’t seeing what’s right in front of us. We are believing the lie that we are a human-rights-committed democracy.
When I look at the big picture, what I see is a country filled with humane, compassionate, democracy-proponents. The details show a different view; a view that would make Mr. Stortz cringe.
We do NOT fulfill our civic responsibility to peacefully protest against unAmerican, unconstitutional practices; we do NOT fulfill our civic responsibility to overcome the obstacles to democracy by voting in and voting out those politicians who will stand for the principles that the majority of us value in our hearts:
- freedom of speech, religion, peaceful assembly, the press, to petition the government for change
- the existence of a “well-regulated” military who has the right to carry military weapons
- the right to refuse to allow soldiers to live in your home
- the right to be safe in your own home from searches, and seizure of property without proper warrants
- the right to due process of the law
- the right to a speedy trial
- the right to a trial by jury for any offense over the value of $20
- the right to appropriate bail, fines, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
- the rights of ALL people to have THESE rights without discrimination.
- the rights of states to regulate rights not specifically denied by the Constitution
BY the 50th anniversary of the May 4th killings at Kent, my vision for our country is that we can say truthfully that our eyesight has improved and that the people of this country we love, including the politicians…are acting on our shared values of equality for all, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that we are all engaged in the fight to protect our Bill of Rights for ALL people.
After all, the heroes who follow the orders of these politicians deserve to KNOW that their leaders and the American people whom they protect fight for the same values; it is the least we can do for our country…to see with 20/20 vision and VOTE!