Our Country was Founded by Protesters

DESPITE the assurances of countless history teachers and politicians, our civil liberties are not defended by our armed forces, but rather by the efforts of protesters who in some situations risk their safety and freedom to assure these liberties for everyone

I served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps (1959-63), and at that time I believed we were guarding our Constitutional liberties. That’s what our officers told us. There’s even a line in the Marine Corps Hymn that goes, “First to fight for rights and freedom.” We were taught to sing it while in basic training.

Actually, I knew the song long before I joined the USMC; I learned it in grade school, in our music class. In school they also taught us that the U.S. Armed Forces defend freedom. And my teachers specified what sort of freedoms they meant; I remember one of them explaining, “If we don’t like the president of the United States, we can go out on the street and even hold up a big sign saying what we think.”

That freedom stuff does at times seem like a fairy tale somebody invented to tell children, but, as I look back over my 62 years I’d say that a lot of people take it seriously. The Bill of Rights is deeply ingrained in American consciousness; it’s part of our tradition. I’d seen it in action often enough that on the evening of Friday, March 21st, 2003, when I set out to join a demonstration to express opposition to our unelected president for starting an illegal war in Iraq, I was reasonably confident that I could do so without getting arrested.

That evening in San Francisco, along with some 200 other protesters, I was caught in a mass arrest. It happened as we were marching up Franklin Street. Police blocked off the street in front of us, and as we turned and attempted to go back the way we came, more police moved in behind and cut off our retreat. Everyone on the block was under arrest. All of us.

Since we were so many, the arrest process took several hours. When they finally got to me, an officer with a clipboard asked my name, and I gave him not only my name, but also my branch of the military, plus my rank and service number--according to the Geneva Convention.

The officer looked at me for a moment, then said, “Semper fi?”

“You’re a Marine too?” I said.

For the most part, the police acted professionally and were respectful in their treatment of us. Charges were eventually dropped. Nevertheless, it was an incredible shock to discover that our First Amendment rights could be ignored so casually. We’d been swept up off the street and hauled off to jail, just as in a police state.

The war continued and so did our protests. The morning I was released from jail, there was a much larger rally, and this time some 20,000 of us marched up and down the streets of San Francisco, successfully doing what we’d been denied the night before. Police didn’t interfere with this demonstration, nor the one two weeks later in Oakland, when we held a march and rally on April 5th. But then came the morning of April 7th--a day we’ll not soon forget.

We were holding a peaceful protest against war profiteers in the Port of Oakland when police opened fire with “less-lethal” munitions. Several dozen protesters, nine longshoremen and two newsmen were injured.

The port that morning was like a combat zone, and I found myself in a situation that resembled a recognizance patrol in “enemy” territory. Nothing in my Marine Corps training, now some forty years ago, had ever been as intense as my experiences in the antiwar movement. Of course the Marine Corps had us crawl under live machine-gun fire, but we always knew they wouldn’t hit us. Nobody got hurt during those military exercises. But the community protest at the Port of Oakland on April 7th was different--people did get hurt.

One young woman who’d been hit by a concussion grenade had a bruise covering her entire right shoulder. Another woman had been struck in the jaw and neck. I also saw a fellow with baseball-sized bruises on both his back and chest.

The event was the most violent police response to the antiwar movement during the spring of 2003, and one might’ve expected it to be the end of antiwar activity in Oakland, but remarkably enough, the result was quite the opposite. Antiwar people got together with the longshoremen’s union (ILWU), held rallies and forums in the community, spoke to the city council and five weeks later returned to the docks for a successful demonstration in defense of our First Amendment rights.

These experiences have made me think about the protection of our civil liberties. Suppose I were a Marine in Iraq today. Would I be guarding our freedoms--as White House spokesmen keep telling us? No way! I’d be defending the agenda of Bush and Ashcroft which includes the so called “Patriot Acts.”

Fortunately, there’s been a good side to all this. During this year of activity in the antiwar movement I’ve seen that we do have a strong tradition of civil liberties in this country. It’s a tradition that continues to live and grow in spite of Bush and Ashcroft as well as many other enemies of our freedoms. I attribute this heritage to the work of many generations of protesters, from the days of Samuel Adams to the present. Our country was founded by protesters, and I believe we honor their legacy by defending our Constitutional rights.

Daniel Borgström
March 2004