Russians Observe Americans' Right To Peaceful Protest


Editor's note: The following column is the fifth in an eight-part series about "What's right with America" that will appear in the pages of the Roundup through July 4. The author, Stan Brown, is a local historian, a columnist for The Rim Review and a retired minister. This series reflects his take on the implications of freedom in America.

What's right about America? The freedom to conduct social revolutions is right about America. Going on a tour of the White House that rainy day in Washington, we had to walk through scores of protesters lined up across the street with their placards and displays, literally camped out 24 hours a day. The President had to see them day after day, simply by looking out the windows of his home. One may or may not agree with every cause they represented, but they were able to be there because this is America, and they have the right to non-violently proclaim their point of view.

When those in leadership, those who determine policy in our nation, are out of tune with what the people consider to be right, they can be overthrown by the voting process and their stand on issues can be changed by public opinion.

On my first trip to Washington D.C., I was introduced to a defector from Russia, who had recently arrived in our country. He reacted to the ever-present protesters outside the White House, saying in fear, "If anybody were to protest like that in Russia, they would be arrested and shot or sent to the insane asylum." Earlier, upon seeing a peace march, this same person urged his host, "Hurry and warn them to hide. In Russia those people would be run over with tanks."

By the time of our second visit to the capitol, President Reagan was working to bring the cold war with Russia to an end. We happened to be in the Capitol Building the very day Michail Gorbachev and his wife Risa were there. In the Hall of Statues, men were working with lights, cameras and security, including bomb-sniffing dogs.

We were told a select group of senators and congressmen were to meet with Gorbachev in an hour or so. Soon, as we continued our wandering about those inspiring precincts, we found ourselves, along with others near us, locked in and forced to wait behind silken ropes in the rotunda area. The visiting Russian was making his presentation to the politicians. Fortunately we were the first to be corralled, and were in front against the rope. Soon the senators, many of whom we recognized from long exposure on TV, began filing past us on their way back to work from the meeting. We had fun seeing how many we could name: Kennedy, Nunn, Thurman, and Glenn.

Suddenly Gorbachev entered the room, surrounded by security guards and his entourage. As soon as he saw the crowd of people he broke rank, grinning from ear to ear, and went to the rope where he began shaking hands with everyone as he moved slowly along. As he came toward us, I brazenly popped my camera flash in his face, and he immediately reached out and shook my hand. He was a fine looking man, appearing rested, beautifully dressed and personable. A few yards behind him came his wife. My wife Ruth recognized her and exclaimed, "Oh, here is Mrs. Gorbachev." She seemed pleased to be recognized and gave us a broad smile and she also shook hands.

After they passed on by, we were again allowed to roam, and we nurtured our thoughts of what freedom means to us. The man, who helped to bring down the Iron Curtain from the Russian side, also saw the protesters. We wondered if he was impressed enough to want some of that freedom for his own country.

Protest is part of America's greatness. I remember flying over Los Angeles that summer when the community of Watts was burning.

What a terrible decade that was. Rosa Parks in Montgomery was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a bus to a white man. A bus boycott followed, and we began to hear the voice of Martin Luther King Jr., calling for brotherhood and equality. Those were terrible yet glorious days. We were facing up to perhaps our greatest failure as a nation. We had ended slavery but not racism; we had promised equality but kept a double standard. We eliminated the legal exploitation of black citizens but continued economic exploitation.

Now America was paying its debt in fire and blood, and we felt a shudder, a convulsion that could have torn any other nation to shreds.

I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking down that beautiful mall with its pond. I tried to recapture the picture I had seen on television that Aug. 28, 1963. Dr. King was captivating 200,000 people in that place, and another 200 million around the world as he said, "I have a dream that this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

That dream moved closer to fulfillment because America is free to conduct its own social revolutions and survive. We cherish our freedom to protest; to speak out, to act on our convictions, to work for change without fear of being political prisoners, knowing that as we win the majority, change will come.

This greatness of America shines in the voting booth as in no other place. We have freedom to right the wrongs at the polls, to demand change in peaceful revolutions.

The freedom to conduct social revolutions is right about America.

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