“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

First Amendment to the Constitution, United States of America

 

Tuesday a few weeks ago I got an email requesting that I join an Occupy Wall Street sympathy demonstration in Durango that afternoon. I decided to drive by to check it out.

For years I have occasionally demonstrated at the corner of 11th and Main on Friday afternoons. Charlie and M’Lou Swift began this peace vigil shortly after past president Bush started the war in Iraq. Sadly, Charlie died this September at age 92. He did not live to know that President Obama promised that all our troops would leave Iraq by the end of this year.

Of course the small number of people standing on the corner in our little town didn’t influence Obama to stop the war, but we did help keep antiwar sentiment alive. The hundreds of people who passed that corner in the hour we stood there fell into three categories. A few expressed disagreement by flipping us off or spraying diesel exhaust in our faces. Many looked at the signs we held but did not express any sentiment. But it was gratifying how many people paused in the cars to smile and nod, make a “V” sign with their fingers or honk their horns in agreement.

In high school I attended a number of protests against war organized by the Religious Society of Friends, and helped organize one. We had training in nonviolence to ensure the tone of the demonstrations. They were all peaceful.

Most social change has come at the cost of bloodshed, although nearly all religions espouse peace and nonviolence. Remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): “…Love your enemies, bless them that curse you….” A peaceful, respectful approach to change follows from this mandate.

Nonviolent protests have made huge changes to the modern world. Gandhi used the technique to free India from British imperialism. Martin Luther King Jr. led the African-American Civil Rights Movement using nonviolent techniques. And a winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah Gbowee, guided the women of Liberia in nonviolent protests to free Liberia from its former tyrannical leader, Charles Taylor. The movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a wonderful depiction of that historical event.

Back to Durango and the Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot of the anger of the Occupy movement is against the large banking corporations that have lost billions of dollars for our citizens, but then were bailed out with our tax money. A friend expressed concern to me that I was quoted (correctly) in the Herald: “I think that giving corporations essentially personhood is one of the largest mistakes made by our country, and I think that needs to be rescinded”. John Dowling (president of the local branch of the Bank of Colorado) and I agree that this statement does not apply to our local financial institutions. It applies to the massive investment banking corporations that exalt profit and growth rather than sustainability.

When I drove by the Occupy protest that afternoon, rather than the young radicals I expected to find there were thirty or forty people who were middle aged or older. Unexpectedly, the person who had sent the invitation that morning was a friend who had retired from a career in industry. He is concerned about the state our democracy and wants to get people involved and visible. Just as largely nonviolent protests brought about amazing change in Egypt and Libya —the “Arab Spring”—this sort of participatory democracy can help improve our country.

A few days later I was pleased to read in the Herald that members of Occupy Durango approached City Council to ask permission to stay in Fassbinder Park overnight. Although their request was denied, they received something much more valuable. From the Herald: “The mayor and each city councilor praised Occupy Durango protesters for their courage, moral code and expressed solidarity with the movement’s message of economic justice and social reform.” These are young, thoughtful people.

I am pleased that American tradition of demonstrations is still alive in Durango and the rest of the country. I hope that the protestors will continue to exercise their right “peaceably to assemble”, and that the police will be nonviolent.

© Richard Grossman, MD