Letter from Hartford

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

Richard Greeman

CROWDS OF onlookers smiled, applauded and made peace signs as our small contingent of antiwar protesters marched through the streets of Hartford, Connecticut on May 27 as part of the traditional Memorial Day parade. Meanwhile, thirty miles south in New Haven, George Bush was greeted by protests and repeatedly booed during his commencement address at Yale University.

In Hartford, the marching bands and uniformed military began forming up on the grounds of the State Capitol at 1:00 p.m. for the first Memorial Day parade since the “victory’ in the Gulf War. Frankly, we were pretty nervous when we showed up with our antiwar signs and giant puppets.

“We’ included two small groups: the Central Connecticut chapter of Veterans for Peace and “Paper Angels,” our local Bread-and-Puppet-style antiwar street theater group. Although we had official permission to join the parade, we were concerned that our twelve-foot-high puppet of a black-robed mourning mother and our huge banner reading 150,000 Iraqi war dead’ might provoke some hostile reactions from super-patriotic types intent on celebrating our country’s “great victory’ over Iraq.

At 2:00 p.m., we nonetheless fell in behind the vets, whose hand-written banner read ‘Vietnam Vets Against War/We are Expendable/Again?”

So imagine our surprise when we became aware of applause coming from the bystanders lining both sides of Capitol Avenue in the ninety-degree heat At first I thought they were applauding the group ahead of us. But since we had deliberately spread our small contingent out over about fifty yards—giving people a chance to take in the impact of our signs and visual message—it soon became apparent that it was for us!

Some bystanders flashed the peace Sign. A number of African Americans gave the clenched-fist salute What was most amazing was to see middle-aged white people—wearing American flag T-shirts—smiling or applauding.

A good half of the people applauded, and many smiled or nodded their heads. Others appeared puzzled or disturbed. I did not see anyone express hostility either in word or gesture. Indeed, some of the “brass” on the reviewing stand near the Civil War arch saluted as we marched past them.

One reason our contingent was small was that some of the members of our local antiwar community, which had grown in numbers and activity throughout the Gulf War, were down in New Haven to bring their message to George Bush at the Yale Commencement.

About fifty were protesting outside Phelps Gate at the entrance to the Old Campus quadrangle, where only invited guests with tickets could enter. Security had set up seven metal detectors at the Gate (which created major problems when Yale’s Brass Band marched in from the New Haven Green). But the small group of protesters was cheered when the Yale graduates started filing in.

Nearly a quarter of the Class of ’91 were carrying signs, wearing buttons or had painted signs on their mortar-board caps. Some were protesting the war. Others carried messages about abortion rights, the environment, civil rights or Yale’s labor relations.

Obviously things have changed at Bush’s Alma Mater since he was elected to Skull and Bones. Although many members of the select commencement audience greeted the President with cheers, loud and repeated booing was audible over the radio as Bush attempted to give his speech. At one point he was forced to stop and make a joke about being glad that protesters holding signs couldn’t throw eggs.

Two small points of light in a dark time What do we make of them? First, that the people of the United States are not as brainwashed by the jingoistic media blitz as we have been led to believe, although the antiwar movement was largely blanked out by the major media during Desert Storm.

The grey-haired woman wearing the American flag ‘I Support Desert Storm’ T-shirt who smiled and waved at us in Hartford may not agree with our politics, but she was certainly glad to see that we were still in business. Maybe she is willing to accept that the protesters were ‘probably right’ about Vietnam. if so, she maybe relieved that we are still around just in case the government gets us into more trouble in the future.

In addition, the ugliness in liberated” Kuwait and the spectacle of the Kurdish refugees “spoiled the victory”—as Bush spitefully accused his critics. Moreover, one recalls that Hartford and New Haven are two of this country’s poorest cities—tight in the middle of the richest state—and no amount of patriotic hoopla can hide the homelessness, crime, unemployment, and the insecurity of the middle classes.

Even the cream of the nation’s youth, the Yale Class of ’91, faces grim job prospects, and today’s Yalies (who now include women!) have not forgotten the social issues raised by the students of the 1960’s movements.

Second, no matter how few or weak we may feel, it is always good to stand up for our principles in public Even during the heat of the Gulf War, the weekly vigils we conducted at main intersections with homemade signs denouncing the lies and the killings provoked three times more V-signs and honking horns than raised middle fingers and curses.

It’s pointless to be pessimistic and far too early to give upon the people of this country. They are not responsible for the lies the media feed them. Traditions of free speech and radical action have deep roots in this land. While it takes a bit of courage to nurture them and test them in public it sure feels a lot better than sitting at home and cursing the TV.

September-October 1991, ATC 34