Demonstrations in Washington, D.C. seem far removed from our Southern Oregon neighborhood. Some group – formal or not – supporting or protesting something or other. Some images on television, then back to finish the crossword puzzle.

But, in my media life, huge national rallies were “up close and personal” for a number of years. I didn’t show up as a proud or angry citizen. I was a broadcast reporter and that meant getting in the middle of them, getting the nessage and the flavor and telling a large, often times national audience what was going on. Live.

These days, a rally of 20,000-60,000 is called a “big deal.” During my years – 1969 through 1971 – many crowds were 200,000 to 700,000. So large that speakers could not be heard by most attendees no matter the electronics of the time. So many people, so many flags, so many ethnic groups forming a patchwork of America that, at ground level, it seemed like nearly every American had come to join in.

Most events were peaceful. Most were conducted by experienced leaders with volunteer staff workers keeping things in order. While a few simply came to an end and everybody went home, 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 rallies had problems. My personal experience is that, sometimes when things turned nasty, it was over-reaction by one of the law enforcement agencies in attendance that set things off. Or they deliberately lit the fuse. 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 D.C. 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 D.C. 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. They still do.

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 third bus was a uniformed sharpshooter with a rifle or shotgun. Atop the White House, more snipers on the roof.

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 busses 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 need for that armed affront to free speech in 1970 or since. Most rallies – then and now – had messages of rights and liberty and country; Americans believing their presence on the National Mall meant something.

Today, we have small groups gathering there whose unfounded claim is that someone has “taken their county away” and they “want it back.” That, of course, is nuts. But 40 years ago, some one … many some one’s … 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. 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. Today’s 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, convincing, legitimate, achievable goal. No one. Not once.

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.

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