Watching the Baltimore and Ferguson protests on cable news recently, I thought of the anti-war demonstrations I covered long ago during the Vietnam years. Certainly that was a very different era, yet there were some striking similarities. In fact all of the protests and demonstrations of the past half-century–even those in Egypt’s Tahir Square and China’s Tiananmen Square—have a lot in common.
Commonality 1: Most protesters have legitimate grievances, though real problems are typically drowned out by noisy opportunists.
Commonality 2: Protests frequently focus on one emotional rallying point that is only a tiny piece of a much larger whole.
Commonality 3: Street demonstrations command maximum media attention, especially when they turn violent, yet they seldom produce the change that protestors want.
Commonality 4: Protestors who demand the arrest of a perceived transgressor, resignation of an official, or end of a standard government policy, seldom offer a viable fix to any problems.
Commonality 5: Politicians, pundits and religious leaders invariably create distorted versions of each situation, blending facts with fiction to advance their own agendas.
Commonality 6: Despite news media reporting, all protestors don’t necessarily have the same issues. Regardless of rhetoric by protest leaders, people often participate for widely diverse reasons, beliefs, and behavior.
In the recent Baltimore protests, the loudest voices seemed to be against the police department. Protest leaders cited the death of a young African American man who died while in police custody. Although the actual circumstances of the man’s death were not totally clear, a death under those circumstances and the sight of a grieving family would always elicit anger and sympathy from any group. Nevertheless the senseless death itself wouldn’t normally have brought hundreds of angry people to the streets.
Protest groups generally focus on the rhetoric of a small number of loud, articulate agitators. However, the overwhelming majority of participants are seldom violent, and aren’t anarchists. Though the loudest voices railed against the police department, Baltimore’s real issues are more numerous and complex.
Most Baltimore protestors are angry about poverty, lack of opportunity and a disproportional percentage of young black men being in jails or prisons. Though the police force is the face of the law, cops aren’t the cause of these very real problems. Poor people arrested for crimes seldom have effective legal representation, and typically go to prison, following quick plea bargaining sessions. The legal system doesn’t have the resources—courtrooms, judges, lawyers, and support staff—to treat all accused people fairly. This is a money issue, and a political issue. Every large city seems to have the same situation, typically created by the same politicians that continue to win elections.
Despite their commonalities with other kinds of street protests, anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam years eventually succeeded. To write about those events, I chatted with numerous street protestors and realized that their anger wasn’t against the war alone. Nevertheless it’s easy to argue against people dying in wars, so battlefield deaths always made headlines.
Why was the result of the anti-war demonstrations different from the other protests that have followed? Despite the comparatively small numbers of protesters who argued against the war, the protests gained traction, thanks to media attitudes. The press corps, the only source of information before the era of the Internet and social media, covered protest events as though protesters were a monolithic force. Public opinion however, remained evenly split between those who supported the war effort and those who fought against it. Then one horrible event—the massacre at My Lai—disgusted the American public, and created broad-based rejection of the military.
That single event provided a tipping point. My Lai created more backlash than all of the anti-war protests combined. The combination of media, protestors, and an indisputable massacre of defenseless civilians, forced the US Government to accept the Paris Accords and pull out of Vietnam. That’s how the anti-war protestors won.
My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history of the final Vietnam war years, with much better outcomes for all Americans, including behind-the-scenes secrets that changed everything. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX