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If Protesting Is Wrong, America Doesn’t Want to Be Right

As Trump talks of ‘mobs’ and channels King George III, dissenters are doing what they’ve always done

When athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists 50 years ago, they were kicked out of the Olympic village and banished from their sport. Now statues of them stand in museums. So goes American history, Curtis writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
When athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists 50 years ago, they were kicked out of the Olympic village and banished from their sport. Now statues of them stand in museums. So goes American history, Curtis writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

OPINION — This week marks the 50th anniversary of that electrifying moment at the summer Olympics in Mexico City when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, accepting their gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash, each raised a black-gloved fist in a protest of racism and equality in the year of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights.”

They are now immortalized in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and by a sculpture at their alma mater San Jose State University — their bravery noted, their impact on society acknowledged.

But in 1968 — the year of unrest, war and the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy — the two athletes were vilified, kicked out of the Olympic village and banished from their sport, returning home to cold shoulders and death threats.

Taking a stand on ideas that buck the status quo is seldom appreciated in its time — especially when practiced by certain U.S. citizens. Those who tell Colin Kaepernick to be more like King forget that when he was murdered, King’s disapproval numbers approached 75 percent. The years have burnished the reputation of the civil rights icon with a federal holiday in his name and current 90-plus percent approval.

That is par for the course of history.

It is something to remember as Republicans try to brand dissent as mob violence, a message led by a president who found “fine people” in an actual mob of white supremacists and Nazis who killed a woman, someone who whips his own rally crowds into frenzied bliss with calls for retribution against dissenters (answered by his fans with an occasional cowardly sucker punch to the face).

This is a nation founded on revolution, yet Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa more closely resembled King George III (no insult intended to either man) when he said Democrats “have encouraged mob rule,” equating a “yes” vote for Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court as a vote for righteousness itself.

Might the king have used similar sentiments when chiding the unruly colonists who dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor? Who constitutes a “mob” is most certainly in the eye of the beholder.

Invited to tea

Those pre-American Sons of Liberty were just raising their voices loud enough for leaders who had ignored them to take notice. That tea party label has been passed down, most recently to voters who overturned Congress in 2010 and sent like-minded rebels to wage legislative revolution against the Obama administration.

The tea party’s rallies and signs, as well as their calls for the media to “go home,” could get pretty aggressive. I covered enough of their gatherings, including the first national tea party conference, to know. In small groups, the conversation was friendly — in a civic center filled with synchronized shouting, not so much. Those occasionally raucous protests were their right, though.

And they were labeled heroes by many of the legislators now decrying an anti-government mob. The last few weeks have proved yet again that loud is just fine for some when clutching the mantle of victimhood and standing up for their rights. It all depends on whom and what you’re fighting against.

That, too, is par for the course of American history.

The peaceful March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was thought to be a violence-filled gathering waiting to happen; in reality, it was my mother in hat, gloves and heels attending with a church group. But we all know why from President Kennedy on down, a majority black group seeking equality initially seemed a threat.

Kavanaugh’s Trump-like insulting aggression and disrespect of members of the co-equal legislative branch represented by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a performance that saved his skin, would not have worked for everyone, especially not any defendant standing in a court presided over by Kavanaugh. One can imagine the judge holding such an impertinent person in contempt.

A white woman who, unlike the accommodating Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, came out raging, would have been called “hysterical,” a black woman “angry” and a black man carted off by security.

Volume control

For some, the volume will always be too loud, the tone too shrill, the entreaties too unreasonable.

True to history, and refreshingly so, that reality has not stopped those seeking justice to follow the playbook laid down by our contentious forefathers and foremothers.

When the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was trying to extricate itself and police departments from agreed-upon consent decrees that would curb abuses and improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect, activist groups were marching and shouting for justice in one of those cities, Chicago.

Their efforts eventually forced the city — one in which past offenses include a detective jailed for his torture of suspects and corruption and an extrajudicial secret holding prison — to eventually release a tape of the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. It triggered the defeat of a district attorney, the shortened career of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a guilty verdict for officer Jason Van Dyke for McDonald’s murder.

About this particular triumph of law and order, one that didn’t follow the prescribed script for the powerful, the administration of the self-proclaimed law and order president had nothing to say, though Trump did call for Chicago to step up the practice of stop-and-frisk, ruled unconstitutional when instituted indiscriminately, to combat crime.

It was citizens, not a “mob,” who would not give up, who led to a lawful and just result.

Raising your voice is the American way. Ideally, so is listening to, rather than dismissing, even those all-American voices with whom you may disagree.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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