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Why Protest? Why Write?

by BRUCE JACKSON

 

Most email I get is from readers suggesting links they think might be of interest or people submitting articles or ideas for articles. A few are from morons saying things like “If you don’t like this country go back where you came from!” If I didn’t think it might encourage them to correspond further, I would ask what, exactly, would be accomplished by my moving from Buffalo back to Brooklyn?

A few have told me that if I’m not willing to fight for my country I should stop demeaning patriots who are. I don’t know that I’ve ever demeaned a patriot willing to fight for his country, but I am convinced that standing up for the Bill of Rights and the other principles upon which this country was founded—in a demonstration, a letter or petition to an elected official, or by writing something that might bring light to the apparently benighted—is as patriotic as strapping on a weapon or a bunch of things that blow up and going where they tell you. Anyway, I did that when, as a kid, I spent three years in the U.S. Marine Corps. I never got shot at, a piece of good fortune for which I remain enormously grateful to this day.

Lately, the political website I edit, Buffalo Report, has published many articles and links to articles on other sites about George Bush’s war in Iraq and John Ashcroft’s war on civil rights. I’ve also run several pieces about Buffalo’s Common Council—mostly on the way the seven white members managed to disempower the six black members and how eight Council members turned an anti-war resolution into a request for funding from the federal government. Council staff members told me that most of the votes against the peace resolution were cast because the councilmembers were afraid of being labeled peaceniks in the next election.

How can you not write about foolishness like that? So I did. And that brought more mail.

I respond to just about everything that comes in except, as I said, people I don’t want ever to hear from again who write things that do not invoke ordinary epistolary politeness.

Ordinarily, I don’t show any of this correspondence to anybody else because everybody who edits or writes for a political publication gets similar mail, only with different nouns.

But then there was this March 22 email from a Buffalo resident who asked what I thought were two very good questions.

He wrote:

Mr. Jackson,

Two things:

1. Everyone in this beautiful country has a voice and a choice. I don’t agree with you most of the time but I respect your point of view. What are you attempting to accomplish with all of these anti-war protests? What is your goal?

2. Since you dislike so many of the “gutless” Common Council members, why don’t you run for a seat?

Thank you very much.

I responded:

Dear Mr. _________:

Two good questions.

The first I can only begin to answer; the second I can answer completely.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I hope to accomplish two things when I take part in an anti-war protest. One is to indicate to people who might not have given the matter any or much thought that there are many of us who disagree with the policy and path our government has taken and seems likely to continue to take. With the Vietnam war, we who opposed it were at first a minority and in time we became the majority and Nixon left the war—with almost exactly the terms he’d been offered his first day in the White House. As a result of the great public opposition that developed to the Vietnam war, our government has been far more cautious about involving itself in long-term land wars between two parties in distant countries. So the protest had an educational effect.

Equally important is bearing witness, the simple fact of standing with others and saying, “We think this is wrong.” Even if no one listens, it is important to name a wrong when you see it.

As for running for Common Council, I have no temperament for elective politics and I would be bad at it. When someone does something really stupid or immoral or unethical I have a difficult time standing by in silence, and a lot of politics seems to be doing exactly that. I wouldn’t attempt to repair the dents in my car either, but I see nothing wrong in saying that the shop that did it performed well or badly and I feel I’m qualified to say to other people “They do good work” or “They do shoddy work.”

We all do what we can do. I’m a schoolteacher and a writer. So that’s what I do. Furthermore, I think those Common Council jobs should go to young men and women so people who do well in them can have the opportunity to move up to more responsible positions, just as Byron Brown [a councilman who moved up to state senator and who stands a good chance of becoming Buffalo’s first black mayor] recently did. At 66, I’m far too old to play in that arena, but I see no reason I can’t yell from the sidelines, or even coach.

BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.

His email address is bjackson@buffalo.edu

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Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

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