Demonstrations in Washington, D.C. seem far removed from our Southern Oregon neighborhood. Somebody else supporting … or protesting … something or other. Some images on television, then back to finish the crossword puzzle.

But, in my life, they were “up close and personal” for a number of years. I wasn’t there as a proud or angry citizen. I was a broadcast reporter and that meant getting in the middle of them, getting the flavor and telling a large, sometimes national audience what was going on. Live.

I’m not talking Beck’s lawn party of 70,000 to 80,000. My time was 1969 through 1971 and crowds were 200,000 to 700,000. So large speakers could not be heard by most attendees no matter the electronics. So many people, so many flags, so many ethnic groups forming a patchwork of America that, at ground level, it seemed like every American had come to participate.

Most events were peaceful. Most were conducted by experienced leaders with volunteer staff workers keeping things going. While some programs simply came to an end, most either climaxed with a concert by some of the biggest headliners of the time or drifted into a huge line-of-march to walk Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues before heading for home.

A few had problems. My personal experience is that often when things turned nasty it was an over-reaction by one of the law enforcement agencies in attendance that set things off. I’ve been ridden down by mounted park police, tear gassed by D.C. Police and arrested while broadcasting. I was hit in the head with a nightstick once though a large orange and black DC Police-issued press tag hung around my neck. Made a great target and I soon learned to work without it.

One scene, especially, haunts me even today. The DC Transit system was owned by a rabid Nixon supporter named O. Roy Chauk. Back then, he owned every bus in town. Most were not in terribly good shape but they got you from place to place in a city where weird streets and erratic traffic posed constant challenges to drivers.

Before one large Vietnam protest rally, the Secret Service used many of Chauk’s buses to totally isolate the White House. Hundreds of them ringed the entire area up Constitution and back down Pennsylvania. Bumper to bumper. On top or inside about every fourth bus was a sharpshooter with a rifle or shotgun. Atop the White House, more snipers behind the ledges.

I radioed in a report. Then those damned buses caught my eye. I just stared at them for a few minutes. And I thought to myself, standing among hundreds of thousands of people, “sharpshooters taking cover inside a fortress made of buses to keep the president safe from the people.” At that moment, I was more ashamed for my country than I had ever been. When I think of it now, 40 years later, it’s the same emotion.

There was no more need for that armed affront to liberty in 1970 than there would have been when Beck’s bunch gathered there a few days back. Both rallies had messages of rights and liberty and country. Both attracted Americans believing their presence there meant something.

There was one sharp difference, though. The recurring theme at Beck’s event was “taking our country back” as though someone had taken it away. No one has.

But 40 years ago, someone … many someones … had really taken the country away and sent it down the wrong deadly road. Public anger over that war at that time was palpable and became overwhelming. Polling proved it. There was little support for continuing the killing.

My sense is that scenario is being played out again. No matter who conducts the polls now, Americans are walking away from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All polls show a distinct majority wants out of both. Iraq is our longest war ever and no one militarily or politically has been able to enunciate a clear and convincing goal.

Looking back on those ‘60s and ‘70s national rallies, I don’t hear the singing as loudly. I don’t see the seemingly endless crowds of people as clearly. But I can still smell the tear gas and feel the pain of that police baton.

And those buses. Those damned buses with the sharpshooters. We must not let any national argument go that far again.

One Response to “My national nightmare was buses and snipers”

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