My first protest | Bleader

My first protest



Somebody told us that Oliver North was coming. That was all we needed to know. Without even discussing it, I vowed with my friends Steve and Jake that we would be there. It was a duty, since we counted ourselves as three of an estimated 11 liberals in town.

In truth, we had probably overstated the left-of-center population in St. Joseph, Michigan. Call it wishful thinking.

“It’s our chance to remind the people that the United States of America needs to end its illicit colonial wars in Latin America,” Steve proclaimed. He was the most radical among us by virtue of the fact that for weeks he'd been driving around with a hand-scrawled sign in his car that said “U.S.—hands off Nicaragua!” None of our classmates knew what the hell he was talking about, but they were pretty sure it was some commie crap.

“Yeah,” said Jake, who had recently begun making his own statement of cultural defiance by wearing around red Daffy Duck children's sunglasses. “Plus, Ollie North is a dickhead.”

This was the spring of 1989, when I was 17 and living in a Republican home and it seemed that the Reagan era would stretch on forever—Just Say No, the worship of Wall Street, proxy wars in Central America, and Republican control of the national conversation, even after the Iran-Contra affair became public. A lot of Washington scandals have come and gone since then, but Iran-Contra didn’t involve sex or interns or even tweets about sex and interns—it was the mess in which North and his higher-ups in the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran so they could illegally fund right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua. Then they lied about it before Congress.

Yet Reagan called North a hero—and people still loved him.

The old man left office in January 1989. But the fact that George H.W. Bush had replaced him as president seemed a mere technicality—especially when the run-up to the elections the previous fall had once been so promising.

Even though I was about six months too young to vote, I’d been riveted by the unpredictability of the Democratic primaries, which featured a number of great characters with eight years of Reagan excesses to campaign on. Al Gore was young and even professed to be a Springsteen fan, though Tipper was problematic. Jesse Jackson was electrifying, but even I knew he wasn’t viable. Paul Simon was freaking smart, yet even with a great baritone voice he couldn’t keep me awake. I was a big fan of Joe Biden, so it sucked that he forgot a cardinal rule of politics: when you’re stealing someone else’s speech, it’s wise to at least say so. Richard Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt—well, at least they weren’t Reagan.

And while Michael Dukakis may have been a dork, I could live with him. By the time Dukakis won the nomination, the Republicans were accusing him of being—brace yourself—a “liberal.” The attacks ended up turning "the L word" into a slur in American politics. At the time I thought it was an honor.

So I fell in love. In retrospect, I will admit that I loved the idea of liberal politics far more than I loved Governor Dukakis himself, but I still think fondly of those months when he was my nominee.

Early in the fall—around the time my friends and I had a moment of silence for the 18th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death—Dukakis was still hanging with Bush in the polls. I convinced myself that he could do it, despite his ill-conceived decision to put on a helmet about six sizes too big and pose for photos in a combat tank. Even Bush looked tough and decisive by comparison.

It didn't get better, for one simple reason—Dukakis was a terrible candidate. By Election Day, my hopes had been crushed almost as resoundingly as his campaign.

But then, just two months after Bush’s inauguration, possibility arrived in the unexpected form of Oliver North.

He would be speaking to a group of civic-minded area professionals—in other words, die-hard Republicans. Maybe we couldn’t do anything about a Bush presidency, but this gave us a chance to tell a handful of people in our corner of the world that we knew North was, in fact, a dickwad.

In the weeks leading up to the speech, Steve contacted everyone he could think of who was left of Pat Robertson and might be open to showing up—civil rights groups, the Young Democrats of Western Michigan University, Republican senior citizens who were both alive and willing to admit they’d voted for FDR in their youth.

“This protest is building,” Steve said.

Unfortunately, it didn’t build quite as much as we hoped. In addition to Steve, Jake, and I, seven members of Steve’s church showed up to march and picket.

Still, we were armed with energy and placards we'd made earlier that day. Steve’s sign demanded once again that the United States get out of Nicaragua’s business. Mine informed the world that “Ignoring Congress Isn’t Heroic.”

Jake decided to take aim at the people showing up for North’s speech: “How Much Would You Pay To Hear Manson?”

Republicans in southwest Michigan were not used to encountering demonstrators. Some flipped us off or glared. Others screamed at us.

“Colonel North is a patriot!”

“He’s my hero!”

“You should be glad he was working on your behalf!”

“Hey kids, go fuck yourselves.”

It was great.

By the time we were interviewed by TV and newspaper reporters, my spirits were soaring. I had a voice.

I got so fired up that I started to believe I might see the day when the Democrats wouldn’t always be a bunch of wimps getting outmaneuvered, Republicans wouldn’t always be so mean-spirited, and once in awhile they’d all stop selling out and maybe even team up to get some shit done.

I still love the idea.