Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Voice -- Make that Two Voices -- Crying in the Wilderness

And it came to passe in the fourtieth yeere, in the eleuenth moneth, on the first day of the moneth, that Moses spake vnto the children of Israel...Behold I haue set the land before you.
--Deuteronomy, I:3 and 8 (King James version, 1611)

If you're going to San Francisco,
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair...
--Scott McKenzie, 1967

It's been a biblical generation -- 40 years -- since the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco, a time which becomes more heavily romanticized and idealized as it recedes into the fog of time. But the reality of life on the street in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the summer of 1967 was considerably harsher than the idyllic legend would have us believe, as thousands of runaway teenagers from all over the country converged on the already-crowded district. Broke, homeless, and an easy mark for predators, this horde of migrant children was more likely to find a dirty, abrasive, hand-to-mouth existence on the San Francisco streets than the lovefest they'd anticipated.

The late sixties as I remember those years was a troubled and turbulent time. The country was at war then, as it now is again (or maybe I should say "still"), and the conflict in Vietnam threatened to spill over into open warfare at home, as the domestic generational and ideological struggle sparked by the war intensified between 1965 and 1970. It actually did break out in open and widespread violence at several times and places, most notably at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968.

The "Summer of Love" in the Bay Area was immediately followed by sporadic, sometimes intense violence between antiwar protesters and the Oakland Police during "Stop the Draft" week in Oakland in October, 1967. At one point during the week, the National Guard was called in to restore order and clear the streets in front of the Oakland Induction Center.

"Even though an official has warned us that we’re disobeying the law, the cops give no warning," reads the October 17, 1967 entry in protester Peter Vincent's diary. "They just start charging down Clay Street, pouring out of the garage as well, swinging clubs & spraying tear gas with smirks on their faces. People beaten & dragged through the streets. Bodies piling up. Bloody scalps & burning eyes."

A Gallup Poll taken at about the time of the Stop the Draft Week riots records that 23 percent of Americans defined themselves as "doves" and 61 percent as "hawks." The intense, confrontational antiwar protests were undertaken in an atmosphere of general support for the war.

Fast forward to the present day, and two lonely teenagers walking a hot, rural July highway in Iowa, in the middle of a two-person, coast-to-coast protest march to try to generate active opposition to the Iraq War. Despite the fact that an overwhelming number of Americans oppose the current war (a recent CNN poll shows that a mere 30 percent now support it, while 60 percent want us out of Iraq by a year from now at the latest), and in sharp contrast with the national identity crisis brought on by Vietnam, active opposition to the war has been weak and ineffective despite the conflict's massive unpopularity.

"It seems like the country is asleep," says the male half of the March for Peace team, Michael Israel, 18, of Jackson, California. "A lot of people we meet are against the war. But it doesn’t seem like many people are doing anything about it."

The brainchild of 19-year-old Ashley Casale of Clinton Corners, NY, the two-person March for Peace wasn't what she had in mind when she set up a website (http://marchforpeace.info) and sent out flyers to colleges across the country announcing the march. Israel was the only volunteer who offered to join Casales in committing to the whole journey, although others have joined the pair for portions of the walk since they set off from San Francisco on May 21, right after their first face-to-face meeting 10 minutes earlier.

"Although it's always nice to have as many people as possible, it's more about the message and we haven't been disappointed there aren't tons of people walking," the always-upbeat Casale says after covering 1600 miles, going through three pairs of sandals, and enduring sunburns and blisters. The pair has sometimes faced taunts and obscene gestures as well, and one farmer who had given them permission to camp on his property made them leave after he found out they were a two-person peace march.

However, Casale and Israel have gotten mostly positive feedback along the way, even if they haven't initiated a groundswell of antiwar activity. Many people have given them a place to stay for the night, others have fed them, and one gave Casale a new pair of shoes to replace her treadless sandals. Supporters have also bombarded Casale’s cell phone number, which is posted on the Marchforpeace.info website, with sympathetic messages and encouragement.

Commenting on the teenagers' lonely and Quixotic march and their attempt to arouse the inert conscience of a nation that seems to have gone into moral hibernation, an International Herald-Tribune reporter offered the opinion that "America's current anti-war movement has been regarded by historians and critics as less vibrant than its counterpart in the Vietnam era. Some attribute the difference to the lack of a draft, leaving a wider gap between anti-war sentiment and actual activism."

Certainly the imminent threat of being pulled off the street and sent into combat in Vietnam contributed significantly to the vigor of the sixties antiwar movement. But there was also an awareness of larger issues than just the Vietnam War informing the protests of a generation ago, and a countercultural awareness of the underlying causes of war which is absent today. "The system isn't human, it's a machine," was the standard expression of the wisdom of the time, "and the machine is out of control." The anti-Vietnam protester used "system" as a shorthand reference for the military-industrial complex and its need for perpetual warfare, or the war machine, as some call it.

As I look at these two, beautiful, heartbreakingly idealistic young kids sweating their way across the country, walking on blistered feet and trying to squeeze a few drops of conscience out of our dried up husk of a country, it makes me wonder whether the majority of my fellow citizens is even capable of remorse any more. As the pair gets closer to Washington, D.C. later this summer and the march gathers more attention, we'll find out.

"Our message is about ending the war in Iraq, but it's more than that," Ashley Casale says. "It's about cultivating peace in our daily lives and responding to things in a peaceful, nonviolent way."

You can get a more complete view of Casale's and Israel's philosophy of peace and a day-by-day chronicle of their odyssey by visiting their website, Marchforpeace.info. Their target date for reaching the White House is September 11. Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink are also supporting the march and post frequent updates on their various websites.

No comments: