The Students Are Revolting (Again)

In response to the Vietnam war,

…students protested on college campuses across the country. Protest spread to the “civilian” population — people who were not students, but agreed that the war was wrong and had to be stopped at any cost. I was one of the students who chanted, sat in, boycotted and marched. In 1967 I took part in the giant peace march that extended all the way across the city of San Francisco. There had been violence at some other events, but this one, while enormous, remained peaceful.

President Lyndon Johnson announced in March of 1968 that he would not stand for reelection, partly as a result of this march, but mostly in response to the national sense that he was responsible for the ongoing death and destruction in southeast Asia. America was fed up with his leadership.

Many peaceniks, me included, cheered his decision, and treated it as a great victory for The People. There have been and will always be debates about what happened, why a president would walk away from the most powerful position in the world, but one thing we know: Johnson’s abdication gave us President Richard M. Nixon, a turn that could not have been worse for Democrats and progressives of the day, and, I would argue, for the United States itself. Johnson inherited the Vietnam conflict and was not happy about it, but on the “good” side of the ledger it was through his initiative that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed. We threw out the good with the bad, and maybe we got what we deserved.

Today’s campus protests look eerily similar to those sit-ins and marches of 1967: Angry students raising signs and fists; slightly bewildered cops trying to keep order despite having little or no training in hand-to-hand crowd control; the sides facing off with impossible demands. All of us recoiled at the October 7th attack by Hamas. All of us recoil at the horrors visited on Palestine by the Israeli Defense Force. In the middle of this mess, we demand “Release the hostages!” “Stop the carnage!” “Someone must pay!”

Righteous demands, to be sure, but as in all wars, everyone is wrong, and everyone is lying. Sometimes it feels as if both sides are using the sixth-grade playground excuse “They started it!” We must be able to find a higher level of diplomacy than that.

World pressure — and American student opinion — may one day bring the sides together, to reach some kind of rapprochement. Surely everyone agrees the bleeding must be stopped. But as history repeats itself in this endless cycle of hatred, outrage and killing, many in this country want to hold President Joe Biden responsible. But I hope the war in Gaza doesn’t blind us to the looming threat of a second Donald Trump presidency.

This idealistic teenager has, sadly I guess, grown into a pragmatic old man. I know humans will always hate each other, steal from each other, and finally kill each other. Threats to stay home on Election Day or vote for RFK, Jr. are self defeating. If we can scare Joe Biden into dropping out, or if our “protest votes” prevent his reelection, we are again throwing out the good with the bad, and we’ll again be getting what we deserve, and I don’t mean peace in the middle east.

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