Sunday, March 05, 2006

Forrest, Where Were You?

Maybe you have seen the movie Forrest Gump. Forrest was a fictional character who was cleverly inserted into film clips from the 60’s and 70’s. That is also when I grew from a boy in high school into a young man. It was one of the most tumultuous times in America in the 1900’s.

Recently I once again saw the scene where Forrest Gump is invited by Abbie Hoffman (Founder of the Yippies) onto the stage before an anti-war protest of vast proportion. I cannot document the exact protest (if any) that was being portrayed in the movie. However, it bears a striking resemblance to the largest protest that I was personally involved in. The protest took place in the fall of 1969. Preparing for this post has been a great lesson in how tough it is to be accurate about history, even if you were on the scene. There were a series of protests during the late sixties. The biggest ones occurred in the fall of my sophomore year at college. I gradually became more and more involved.

At this point, my memories of that day consist of a sort of collage of individual moments. I remember stepping off the chartered bus that we rode from Pittsburgh, and staring in awe at the vast number of buses that had parked as close as possible to the mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial were the protest was to be held. It seemed a long walk to the mall, and I vividly remember machine gun nests built with sandbags on the entrances to some of the government buildings. The height of the Washington Monument made it an ideal landmark, and I spent most of the day within a few hundred yards of it. I remember being so far back in the crowd that I could hear practically nothing of the speech making that was going on. Nor could I see the stage, other than a brief glimpse of it in the distance when a buddy hoisted me up on his shoulders. During that same moment I clearly remember looking out over the vast crowd (estimated to be at least 250,000 and at most 1,000,000). It filled the mall and stretched out into adjoining streets.

I also clearly remember helicopter gun ships hovering above the edges of the crowd. They were low enough that I could distinctly see the soldiers poised behind the machine guns.

The guns, soldiers, and thousands of police were no surprise. Although that day is noted now for its relative lack of violence, at the time it felt like anything might happen. Earlier protests had sometimes been accompanied by rock and bottle throwing or worse. Police routinely decided it was necessary to use clubs and tear gas to control the crowds. Approximately six months later, at a much smaller protest at Kent State University, national guardsmen fired their weapons towards the crowd as the guardsmen were being pelted with rocks and bottles. Four students died and a number were injured. It was in those same years that race related riots resulted in arson, looting, shootings and massive destruction in many inner city ghettos.

As I look back, it almost seems that the current blue state / red state polarization is a languorous debate or half hearted argument compared to the turbulence of the late sixties.
However, from a global perspective, the violence in the U.S. during the sixties was a mere blip compared to the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia or the horrors of Rwanda and Burundi. Even the tanks at Tiananmen Square were far more violent than what the U.S. experienced.

One of my last memories at the protest site was looking out across the mounds of garbage and the smoldering fires that dotted the mall area near the end of the day. Many started burning trash in an effort to stay warm that chilly day. It was less than six months before the first official “Earth Day”. I was disheartened to see the squalor. It was a raw confrontation with the reality of unintended consequences.

It makes no more sense to long for the protest movements of the sixties than it would to long for the trash and smoldering fires to spring up unbidden in your own front yard. The smallest act of compassion projects more power than thousands of angry, chanting voices. Forgiving a trifling personal offense is more potent that all the vitriol we hurled at “the establishment”. I want to change the world. I no longer want to pretend that I am changing it. I hope to do so by conforming my mind to the mind of Christ. I will do that not in my own strength, but by the grace of God.

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