Law enforcement officials in Ferguson, Missouri are having a difficult time separating peaceful from violent protesters. As a result, the peaceful ones suffer from teargas and other unpleasantries. From someone who has been there and done that as an antiwar protester during the Vietnam War, let me offer this advice–it’s not the responsibility of law enforcement, it’s the the task of the protesters themselves. During the Vietnam protests there were a whole host of opponents from pacifist religious groups (Quakers, for example), politically focused groups–Students for a Democratic Society, Socialist Workers Party, Progressive Labor Party, etc., veterans groups–Vets for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, other pacifist groups–SANE, Another Mother for Peace. Then there was the Black Panther Party and there was the YIPPIEs. Think Ferguson is complicated? Not much compared to Vietnam War protests. The tactics and the agendas of those very diverse group varied widely–from peaceful marching through campus and government building occupations all the way to bombings and armed confrontations. While many carried signs announcing their affiliations and the essential intelligence activities of major city law enforcement, especially Washington, DC were up to the task of identifying some of the groups or individuals, plenty of mixing of the groups took place. SO, how then did it fall to the groups themselves who were non-violent to protect themselves? Simply this, before any march or other organized protest the instruction from leaders came out something like this:
If you see someone throwing stuff, attacking the police or acting violent or erratic–move far away from them, as quickly as possible.
Accompanying this admonition often came the additional commentary that the agitators could be government agents planted as provocateurs to discredit the group or the protest. Paranoia? Perhaps, but as later investigations showed, not entirely unfounded. All in all, a difficult time for both those protesting and those trying to keep the peace. For more on my own lapse, very briefly, into violence, read my Essay from Today Magazine on Views from Eagle Peak. Or for much more on Vietnam War era politics and protests, check out my memoir, Waiting for Westmoreland.