Does the US Have a Violent History of Suppressing Protest?


The United States is a country built on protest. The founding fathers led a rebellion based on the hatred of British colonial rule. Without dissenting the laws forced onto them by the monarchy, America wouldn’t exist.


Ben Morris (The Pontiac Tribune) — The United States is a country built on protest. The founding fathers led a rebellion based on the hatred of British colonial rule. Without dissenting the laws forced onto them by the monarchy, America wouldn’t exist.  Yet, as history shows, those with the power have embraced protest with brutal violence, with the goal of preventing social and political change.

1968 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION PROTEST

Just like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Vietnam War was widely unpopular. It was Democratic President John Kennedy who first sent troops into Vietnam in 1961. Seven years later troop involvement had been increased, American lives were being lost by the thousands, and many Americans were fed up. 

The Democratic Party was divided between the pro-war candidacy of Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy who was committed to ending the war. The tension inside the convention was nothing like the mess outside. Then Chicago Mayor Richard Daley brought in 27,000 police, state, and federal agents in response to anti Vietnam protesters who set up shop on Michigan Avenue to voice their opposition to the war.

Law enforcement with Jeeps equipped with machine guns pulled no punches in demonstrating their force and power.  Cops attacked journalists, protesters and innocent bystanders with tear gas, batons throughout the event, but the most famous encounter happened on August 28, outside a Hilton where journalists covering the convention were staying.  CBS engineer Fred Turner described seeing, “People are laying on the ground. I can see them, colored people. Cops are just belting them; cops are just laying it in. There’s piles of bodies on the street. There’s no question about it. You can hear the screams, and there’s a guy they’re just dragging along the street and they don’t care.”

Hospitals claimed 111 demonstrators were treated for injuries sustained at the protest.  Medical teams on the scene of the protests estimated they treated more than 1,000 injured on the streets. While the Vietnam War raged, law enforcement showed what happens when you show resistance. Sadly, the events at the Democratic National Convention paled in comparison to events two years later.

KENT STATE SHOOTING

Hubert Humphrey lost the 1968 election to Republican Richard Nixon, who promised to end the Vietnam War. At the end of April 1970, Nixon broke that promise by escalating the war into Cambodia, which brought protests throughout college campuses all over America. On the evening of May 1st, bonfires were started on the streets, some store windows were broken, and cop cars vandalized. The next day Governor James Rhodes called in the National Guard, and the stage was set for tragedy to occur. 

At around 10:PM on May 2nd, the Ohio National Guard arrived at the Kent State campus to see the ROTC building on fire with around 1000 people watching it burn. On the same day Governor Rhodes claimed the demonstrators were “worse than the brown shirts and the communist element,” and that the government was “going to eradicate the problem.” Two days later that plan succeeded.

After breaking up a noon hour protest with tear gas, National Guardsmen opened fire on the crowd of around 1,000, injuring nine and killing four. Leaders of the National Guard claimed they returned fire after a rooftop sniper opened fire, but a New York Times reporter who was on the campus claimed he, “did not see any indication of sniper fire, nor was the sound of any gunfire audible before the Guard volley.”

In the 13 seconds it took guardsmen to fire 28 rounds, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison Krause, William Knox Schroeder and Sandra Lee Scheuer were murdered for the crime of voicing their right to oppose war. After numerous lawsuits, and investigations; not a single guardsmen was tried, or convicted. One Grand Jury refuse to indict based on the belief the force, “fired their weapons in the honest and sincere belief…that they would suffer serious bodily injury had they not done so.”   

 1999 SEATTLE WTO PROTESTS

From the DNC to Kent State, and then Seattle thirty years later; all levels of the American government did not change one bit. Instead of learning their lesson, they attacked another protest with vicious brutality.

The “Battle in Seattle,” brought labor unions, human rights advocates, environmentalists and others to the home of grunge music in solidarity against globalization. Their mutual cause gave them bruises, broken bones, and arrest records.

On November 30th, the protesters locked hands to block access to the Seattle Convention Center to prevent delegates from entering, and all hell broke loose. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to separate the men and women from the formation. The protesters stood strong while police used gas and physical force in an attempt to remove the crowd.  As day turned to night, some started fires and destroyed property; police began to crack down even more. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell installed a curfew and formed a “no protest” zone to discourage the protesters from returning.  The next day a militarized police forcibly arrested hundreds, holding them for days. Those actions dismayed Police Chief Norm Stamper to such a degree he resigned, and became one of the leading voices against the police state.

Stamper admitted to making major mistakes in dealing with the protesters, he bemoaned the decision to use tear gas, telling the BBC, “After the tear gas, many previously non-violent demonstrators turned much more active, much more militant and in some cases violent in response to the violence they experienced,” he admitted,

We saw what looked and felt very much like a war zone over the next three days and in effect we started it.

Not only did Stamper resign, Schell lost re election, and the city lost a trial in Federal Court which found the City violated the free speech rights of protesters. Although demonstrators got some retribution, what happened in Seattle set the stage for how police responded to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

OCCUPY WALL STREET

In a story he wrote for The Nation in 2011, Stamper used his experience leading the violent crackdown in Seattle to criticize the actions of the Oakland Police who followed the protocol of beatings, tear gas, and military style weaponry to silence the movement.

In Oakland during the Occupy protests crime went down, but the government suppressed the information in order to hide any positive press that would make the protests justifiable. Police assaulted the campers, stole their property and sent many to hospital with injuries.  Throughout the country, incidents had a different setting, but the story remained the same.

At UC Davis, then Lieutenant John Pike approached a group of seated protesters dressed in riot gear and pepper sprayed them without provocation. Annette Spicuzza, the chief of the university police force defended the use of the pepper spray because, “”students had encircled the officers”.

In New York, where cases of police brutality are well known, Cecily McMillan responded to a hand grabbing her breast, by striking the unknown molester with her elbow. She did not know the man who grabbed her was a police officer. She went to jail for assaulting the officer, while those police officers who assaulted protesters on the street kept their jobs.

From the DNC to Occupy, American history is tainted by violence perpetuated by the state. If people do not know that, they either do not know American history, or they choose to ignore it. The events in Ferguson are a continuation of decades of police power ever increasing and going unchecked. The looters, arsonists and vandalizers in these cases were the minority, yet any sign of a person practising their right to express their dissatisfaction with their government has resembled the scenes in communist countries the American government spent decades to fight.

The land of the free is not is not drenched in freedom. A government that spies on innocent people, regulates what citizens can do with their body, and steal fruits of labor is notoriously violent when it comes to their citizens expressing their first amendment rights. Nothing will come from Ferguson except for more police brutality, and more suppression of protest.

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