Watching news accounts of the street protests, both violent and nonviolent, which accompanied the recent G20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany, I was struck by how sophisticated such protests have become. Planned and coordinated via social media, these highly organized events draw participants from around the world.
My thoughts soon drifted away to a vastly more innocent time and my own first foray into political activism. It was 1936 and President Franklin Roosevelt was the Democratic presidential nominee seeking re-election. The country at that time was still mired in the throes of the Great Depression. Unemployment was at an all-time high, the stock market was struggling toward stability and poverty was widespread. Through my parents’ valiant efforts we managed to keep our heads above water, living only slightly above a subsistence level. Our plight was shared throughout our neighborhood of former working-class families.
I was twelve years old at that time and, although lean of years in terms of experience and knowledge of world affairs, wanted desperately to find some small way in which I could help in my family’s struggle. The neighborhood we lived in was solidly Democratic, and so my like-minded playmates and I determined that we would plunge into the political fray on behalf of our families by publicly protesting the candidacy of Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent. Landon was scheduled to give an upcoming campaign speech at the New Haven Green. My friends and I collected a number of Democratic campaign posters and nailed them to long scraps of wood. Unknown to our parents, our posters remained hidden until the day of the speech.
Shortly before the festivities were to start, my group arrived at the site and proceeded to march around the speakers’ platform with our posters held high. After just a few minutes a policeman arrived to wordlessly confiscate our posters and politely tell us to go home. So much for free speech and the First Amendment. Alas, our first venture into protest politics was to be short lived. With our “tails between our legs” we exited the crowd and forlornly walked home. Though beleaguered in retreat, my brave band vowed to return another day.
More than eighty years later and with the body politic so severely divided, we’re witnessing what seems like an endless succession of protests which span the public-policy spectrum. Participants plead that given what’s at stake, they are compelled to march. I can remember once feeling exactly the same way.