- - Monday, March 14, 2016

Recently, there have been some major disruptions of Donald Trump’s rallies caused apparently by well-organized protesters. The aim of these protestors is to prevent Mr. Trump from speaking to the thousands of people who have come to hear him, using chants, assaults, and violence to create so much chaos that the rally cannot proceed.

The reaction of the other candidates in both parties has been cries of indignation and horror, not, as one might expect, at the protesters who are attempting to deprive Americans of their constitutional right of free speech, but at the candidate who is the object of the organized disruption.

It is true that Mr. Trump’s language has been intemperate at times. Nevertheless, such reactions are outrageous. They suggest that these politicians, who are seeking the highest office in the land, do not truly support the most basic right Americans have, the right to speak freely and publicly of their opinions and beliefs.

These are not isolated incidents. There have, in fact, been a host of similar attempts to silence speakers on American campuses, mostly successful, mostly leftists shutting down advocates of conservative views. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a report of this trend called “Disinvitation Report 2014: A Disturbing 15-Year Trend.” “Disinvitation” includes retracted invitations to speakers, withdrawals of speakers, and speeches not allowed to continue because of harassment and heckling. Their findings are an indictment of current university faculty and administrators alike. In summary:

“FIRE has compiled and analyzed 192 reports of disinvitation incidents involving campus speakers since 2000, including campus speeches, commencement ceremonies, and other events or engagements.” (May 28, 2014)

Their data do not include the last half of 2014 or any of 2015.

The clear implication is that activist students and faculty are learning that these “brown shirt” tactics are so effective at protecting the university community from the contamination of conservative ideas that their use is increasing dramatically. This from the people whose first loyalty is to “academic freedom,” that basis of all faculty tenure. Apparently, they do not understand that what tradition has given can also be taken away when so blatantly abused.

There is, however, an even more disturbing aspect to the growing appetite for violent protest. This is the specter of a return to the violent days of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The “anti-Vietnam War movement” spawned a growing series of demonstrations beginning about 1965 and gaining more and more momentum for the next few years. There were marches, speeches, occupation of university buildings, and eventually sabotage, bombings, and shootings. The anti-war movement was not the only anti-establishment effort; there was also a major civil rights crusade, a so-called “hippy” movement, and many smaller communes, “rogue rockers”, and other causes. A time of massive social unrest and change.

The most visible and shocking displays of all this turmoil started in 1968. In the winter, the anti-war movement went political when Sen. Eugene McCarthy challenged sitting President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in New Hampshire — and came in a strong second. This led to the withdrawal of the pPresident from the 1968 campaign and later the entry of Sen. Robert Kennedy into contention with Eugene McCarthy. Later still, the “establishment” candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, entered the race. The landscape began to look favorable for a change of war policy.

Then everything went to hell — almost literally. First, civil rights hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4. Some of the fiercest race riots in American history ensued, spreading to more than 100 American cities, lasting until April 14, with thousands arrested, and causing more than 12,000 National Guardsmen to be deployed.

Then Kennedy won the June California primary, cementing the nomination, and was shot to death that same night. This set up the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August. The remaining contestants for the nomination were now McCarthy and his fellow Minnesotan,Humphrey. Thousands of students and other activists descended on Chicago, all favoring McCarthy, who was a proven anti-war candidate.

But the party bosses had other ideas. It became clear that they were going to award Kennedy’s delegates to Humphrey. The activists were incensed. They flooded out into the streets near the delegates’ hotels and were met by an armed and ready police force, which had orders to stop any violence and arrest any agitators. The police waded into the crowds and extraordinary fights erupted with the students who were not about to be pushed around. There were many injuries and arrests. All on national television. The Democratic Convention of 1968 was the most spectacular – and the saddest — political event ever televised in the United States of America.

The outcomes changed history. Humphrey won the nomination. The party split down the middle, giving the election to Richard Nixon, who kept us in the Vietnam War for another seven years. There has been much speculation about how American history might have changed had Bobby Kennedy not been killed and had won the presidency as had looked likely. For one thing, he would have stopped the War. Secondly, his brand of Democratic ideology was far more centrist — as was his slain brother’s – than the far left positions which characterized Johnson and George McGovern, and many of their successors. Had Kennedy won the presidency in 1968, it is doubtful that the Republicans would have held that office from 1968 to 2008 with only two interruptions totaling twelve years. We will never know.

However, the events of 1968 do not tell the whole story of violence in American politics. The protests continued and escalated to the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on protesters, killing nine students and wounding fourteen more. Between 1950 and 1981, there were six assassination attempts on American political figures, three successful — President John F. Kennedy (1963), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1968), Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (1968); and three unsuccessful — President Harry Truman (1950), Governor George Wallace (1972), and President Ronald Reagan (1981).

This history is not what we Americans want to repeat in 2016. There are two forces which have the best chance of maintaining the peaceful freedom of speech. The first and most powerful is public opinion. All of the presidential candidates must be called upon to stand together and condemn these protests which aim to deny freedom of speech to any and all political speakers — for whatever political office is being sought or supported. The same is true of all public figures. Donald Trump may be the victim this time, but campus behavior shows clearly that this menace to American freedom of speech can exist anywhere at any level.

The second force for peaceful discourse is, of course, law enforcement. In this arena, they face two countervailing pressures. On the one hand, they are responsible for maintaining discipline and safety in the crowds which gather at political events. On the other hand, they must not make the mistake of the Chicago police in 1968 or the Ohio National Guard in 1970 by being too aggressive and too hostile to the protestors. A delicate balance to be sure, but one we must all maintain.

We do not want another 1968.

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