From Dissent to Resistance

Brass Tacks

A.U.S. Marshal gooses the Guardsman in front of him with his night stick and tells him to move up. The Guardsman complies, jabbing his feet into the back of the demonstrator sitting in front of him. The Marshal peers through the Guardsman's legs and shouts at the demonstrator, "Get off that soldier's feet." The demonstrator tries to explain that the trooper has moved up behind him and that he can't move because of the people sitting around him. The Marshal smashes the demonstrator over the head. The Guardsman panies and hits someone else with his rifle-butt. Beer cans, coke bottles, and rocks hail onto the mass of soldiers and there is more clubbing. A bald scalp is split open with a bonecrushing sound. A girl is shricking hysterically.

All this and more was re-enacted again and again on the steps of the Pentagon last Saturday night. It was an ugly scene which demonstrated once again the feeling of impotence so prevalent among members of the antiwar movement. No longer satisfied with passive dissent the protestors wanted to be activist--to do something to stop the war. In the past, protests have been primarily symbolic; demonstrators have turned out in huge numbers as a show of strength. But now a new concept has been added to the rhetoric of the New Left, something short of open violence but beyond the impotence of dissent. It is "resistance."

The differences between dissent, confronation, resistance, and violence are graded. When a group is dissenting from a policy it seeks confrontation with the government; when confrontation is achieved, there is a tendency to resist defeat at the hands of the policy-makers; and when the government officials are faced with active resistance which threatens their mission, the chances of violence are high.

Out of frustration the New Left has turned to resistance. The most effective example of this is the burgeoning draft resistance movement. First people signed petitions saying that they would not fight, then they burned their draft cards, and finally said they would no longer communicate with the Selective Service System.

Last week most of the anti-war demonstrators, notably those in Oakland, Calif., have culminated in violence. Although much of this must be blamed on over-zealous police and soldiers, it is clear that demonstrators who resist contribute materially to the skirmishes. The antiwar movement is fed up with being pushed around by the cops and the new mood has been transmitted to the police who feel the only way to cope with disobedient demonstrators is with a billy club.

Here is where the events of last Saturday became tragic: the military treated anti-war resistance just as they would have handled common criminals. Had they arrested demonstrators in a firm but orderly fashion, instead of clubbing them before dragging them to the paddywagons, the violence would have been contained. Instead of provoking a bloodbath, the U.S. Marshals could have confronted each of the demonstrators individually, told him that he was under arrest for trespassing and lead him away. Certainly by nightfall, when most of the press had left, the large majority of the demonstrators would have preferred this to being beaten. Each side felt it had a duty: the military was obligated to defend the heart of our nation's capital while the demonstrators felt compelled to confront the Government until they were arrested. Taking the demonstrators peacefully would have satisfied both sides and the issue of whether the "peaceniks" were in fact trespassing could have been grappled with in the courts. Even assuming that a number of the demonstrators would have resisted arrest, there is no doubt that the military had the manpower to carry these people away peacefully.

The phenomenon of "acting out" is not uniquely a psychological term which describes an individual working out his neurosis. It also applies to political groups which are struggling to resolve internal (sometimes only semi-conscious) conflicts. Last Saturday numerous demonstrators had to decide whether their protest was simply a symbolic testimony of their opinions or whether they would "put their bodies on the line" and defy the only representatives of the government they were permitted to meet-the 82nd Airborne and Federal police.

There were three different ways of resolving the conflict: one group left because the violence seemed either inappropriate or useless, another group fought back when they were assaulted, while a third group had to find a compromise somewhere between the two extremes. The last group was in the most ambivalent position, not ready to fight back and not willing to be pushed around. Instead they sat on the ground and linked arms and legs so that it would be clear that they were resisting arrest. But even this seemingly trivial decision was brought into question when it became clear that the more people held onto each other, the higher the number of casualties. In the end they decided that locking elbows was simply provoking the Marshals and that they should "go limp" as soon as they became the next target.

During the course of Saturday night it became clear that most of the demonstrators were willing to risk injury and imprisonment because they wanted to impress the Government, the world, and themselves with the depth of their conviction that the U.S. must get out of Vietnam. They had to prove that they weren't fair-weather protestors, that there were front-line casualties in the anti-war as well as in the war, and that they were not the cowards many of the less subtle pro-war advocates accuse them of being.

An example of this kind of courage came from a middle-aged woman, apparently from Women's Strike for Peace, who sat near me around midnight when the Marshals and paratroopers were getting particularly brutal. The soldiers in front of us raised their rifle-butts and started clubbing the people below. When I finally mustered enough courage to lift my head from between my knees where I had hidden it, I could see that the old girl had not budged. She sat there silently glaring at the troops.

There were many similar instances of unbelievable devotion and guts from the most unlikely people. But in the end I couldn't help feeling that there was something mock-heroic about it all. When a large group of demonstrators broke through a line of guards, a cheer went up which should have been announcing the storming so grand as that, it was, perhaps, the cry of a neglected child who knows that he won't be heard, or if heard will go unheeded.