I have witnessed, learned and pondered much about the right of peaceful assembly and protest this week, not just in the Arab world, but also in visits to New York City and Kent State University in Ohio.
The moving and instructive juxtaposition of the two sites, bringing together very different moments in U.S. history – the early 1970s and today – captured the universal and timeless importance of the centrality of the rights of free expression and dissent to wholesome statehood and credible democracy.
More and more Americans these days are noting that their politically discontented and vulnerable countrymen congregating in the streets to demand serious national policy changes are in fact inspired by the courage of millions of Arabs who have been demonstrating for months in half-a-dozen countries. Some now say that the Arab Spring, as they call it here in the United States, has spawned an American Autumn. Nice.
The common theme that defines much of what is important about Arabs and Americans today – like four decades ago – comprises two larger-than-life dynamics: the indomitable human will to resist political corruption, oppression, lies and subjugation, and the vital importance of providing all citizens with a guaranteed and protected opportunity to speak their mind and challenge authority peacefully.
One of the corollary lessons I also learned this week from my visit to Kent State University – reminding me of the best in American life – is how societies respond to those instances where freedoms break down and the political authorities shoot and kill peaceful protesters.
The story of Kent State University is probably not well known by younger people around the world, but it rings loud in modern American history. Around noon on Monday, May 4, 1970, National Guard troops who were called onto the Kent State University campus to disperse anti-war demonstrators angered by President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, shot into crowds of students. They killed four and wounded nine others. The subsequent political reaction to the shootings generated heated discussions, court cases and years of debate about the appropriate use of police and army power in the context of peaceful demonstrations.
The location of the shootings is now a National Historic Site and includes a memorial. In the words of Kent State University President Lester A. Lefton, the memorial commemorates those who died but is also “an enduring dedication to scholarship that seeks to prevent violence and promote democratic values – from public service to civil discourse.” For
Lefton, “May 4 shows the need to communicate effectivelyand employ nonviolent conflict resolution.”
I remember the events at Kent State University very vividly, for they occurred during the week that I was graduating from university in New York, at a time when college campuses across the U.S. were rife with demonstrating students. The memorial at Kent State University is a reminder that those challenges were not about only that moment, in the U.S. or around the world, but also that they remain relevant to billions of people today.
I understood that better when I traveled from Ohio to New York City and visited the site of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Zuccotti Park in downtown New York. I wanted to understand at first hand why ordinary Americans from all walks of life who are deeply fearful of their ability to find work or live decent lives have launched sustained and growing protests against the power of Wall Street, corporate America and corruption.
The signs the demonstrators carried were telling: “Arrest the real criminals: bankers”; “Get the money out of politics, then we fix the world”; “Corporations are people? Who do they pledge allegiance to?”; “We the people, not we the profits”; “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this any more”; “Waterboard Wall Street.” And, my favorite one: “Establish justice, promote the general welfare.” I asked one protester how he would summarize the single most important goal of this activism, and he said it was, “to end corporate personhood and give the government back to the people.”
A Palestinian young man and an Egyptian young lady stood in the heart of the protest carrying a poster noting that Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are free, and Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and other Arab countries are pending. I noted to myself on the subway ride back to midtown Manhattan that my journey among freedom-loving, rights-focused citizens had come full circle, from my university days 40 years ago in the time of the Kent State shootings to the Arab citizen revolts today that have inspired similar uprising by enraged Americans.
As I left the protest at Zuccotti Park with my son and niece, my Kent State visit and memories and the vibrant Arab citizen revolt, were all swirling through my head simultaneously. That night, I thought that those who had died at Kent State, Deraa, Manama, Misrata, Cairo, Tunis and thousands of other places around the world where freedom summons those who dare ask; that these individuals had not died in vain, but in fighting for liberty, equality and opportunity, sending out sparks that are lighting other fires around the world.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Star Lebanon on Oct. 12)