Marching in the streets. I’ve been going to protests for more than 53 years. A sign I saw at the women’s march on January 21 said something like “Why am I still having to fight for this shit?” I feel that way myself, but I can’t sit home and pretend the current events don’t affect me, even if they don’t all specifically address me. Here’s how I got this way.
In the fall of 1963, while Kennedy was still president, Madame Nhu, sister-in-law to South Vietnam’s president, came to Washington, D.C., where she gave a talk to the National Press Club, attempting to shore up support for her brother-in-law. I was living in a commune of like-minded lefty students and other young people. Some of them organized a protest in front of the National Press Club at noon on a Friday afternoon in October.
The organization where I worked, United World Federalists, was just a few blocks away, so I thought I would walk down on my lunch hour and join them. When I arrived, the “picket” was across the street from the Press Club, not where I’d expected it. And among the dozen or so people walking around in a circle with signs (“Madame Nhu must go”) were none of the people I knew. What to do?
I had never joined a picket line. Even though I had lefty parents, they had never involved me or my younger siblings in any political activity. In fact, their political activity largely consisted of working for Democratic candidates.
When I was 16, I’d heard about a march against nuclear bombs from New York to Washington, D.C., in August, to culminate on Hiroshima Day, August 8. The march was scheduled to pass near our home in Levittown, Pa., and I wanted to join in. My mother said, “no.” My father had recently started a new job, and if anything happened to me, if I got into the newspapers, it might damage him. But this is something we believe in, I argued. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t stand up for my beliefs. But it was 1958. I knew about McCarthy, but he’d been out of the Senate for a few years. Because my parents didn’t connect their politics and their personal lives, I didn’t understand until many years later how fearful they were.
A year or so later, there were pickets of the local Woolworth’s in sympathy with civil rights sit-ins in the South. I wanted to join those too. But no one I knew in my new high school were part of those protests, and I didn’t know how to become part of a group where I knew no one. I never even asked my parents.
Now, watching a group of people I didn’t know walking around with signs expressing thoughts I agreed with, I didn’t know what to do. People going by looked at the picketers or ignored them. No one joined them. I wanted to, but didn’t know how to take that first step.
Then I noticed, down the street, another group of protesters. They were wearing brown uniforms and carrying signs the proclaimed them as the American Nazi Party. I knew such a thing existed and its headquarters were not far away, in Arlington, Va.
I watched the Nazis in support of Madame Nhu, then the picketers in front of me, then the people walking by, oblivious to both groups. Thoughts and feelings began to clarify. If I continued to stand by, I was basically saying, there’s no difference between these two groups of people expressing their political thoughts. Maybe this is what happened in Germany in the 1930s, ordinary people not able to see a difference between Nazis, Communists, Socialists, and other political parties. Here were two opposing views right in front of me, and I knew who I thought was right, and that I had to make that clear with my body.
Still feeling nervous, I stepped into the walking line where a space appeared. A woman smiled at me. I smiled back. We walked and walked, until it was time for me to go back to work. I had gotten my political feet wet and didn’t drown.