In mid-November, 1969, several movements against the war in Vietnam coalesced to stage a series of massive demonstrations called, then and now, the November Moratorium. More than half a million people descended on Washington DC, filling the Mall and overflowing into the surrounding streets; smaller but still massive demonstrations in New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco drew well over 100,000 each. Numerous other cities and towns held their own versions, large and small, on various days close to the middle of the month: Seattle's took place the day before DC's, on November 14. Somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 people (histories of the movement today are usually content to simply say "over 3000") gathered at the city's Central Library at Fourth and Madison and marched the mile and a half from there to Seattle Center, where they were treated to a concert at the base of the Space Needle by blues singer Taj Mahal, who was playing a Seattle club that evening and was willing to put his art to work for the cause.
Melody and I happened to be staying with her parents in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle, at the time, so we left our infant daughter with her grandmother and drove in to join the protest, picking up my sister Lillian on the way. The area around the library was a milling polyglot of people, ranging from hippies and counterculture waifs to office workers and suburban housewives; we located Melody's dad in the milieu (as one of the marshalls for the march, he had arrived much earlier), and ran unexpectedly into our former landlady, Nona Hales, white-haired and proper in a well-tailored blue coat. As the march started, we found ourselves walking with a friend from our college days, Baker "Sox" Stocking, MD, who was in the middle of an internship at one of Seattle's hospitals and had come dressed in his white physician's coat with a stethescope draped around his neck. It was a beautiful Fall day, and a mellow, friendly, peaceful crowd.
Until suddenly it wasn't. As the march passed through Seattle's financial district, a small group of young men dressed in black - no more than seven or eight in all - suddenly broke from the crowd a dozen yards in front of us and started smashing bank windows.
The rest of the crowd, more than 3000 strong, joined hands and began a disapproving chant: "No! No! No!" A large, empty half-circle formed around the window-smashers, its border formed by slowly moving marchers; into that half-circle rushed the police. The seven or eight young men were quickly prone on the sidewalk. Cries of "police brutality" rose. Sox left us and rushed forward, muttering something about how they might need a doctor.
He was back quickly, looking disgusted. "They're faking," he said. "They're squirming around on the sidewalk and trying to look brutalized, but the cops aren't doing anything to them. There's no apparent injuries, and there's certainly no police brutality. They're just being arrested for smashing windows."
It is important to emphasize something here: no one should read those words and leap to the conclusion that all reports of police brutality are false. Far too much of it is real - real then, real now. George Wallace really did turn fire hoses on peaceful protestors; George Floyd really did die under a policeman's knee. But not all skies are blue, not all arrests are brutal, and not all actions of the police at demonstrations are uncalled for. The protest we were engaged in was a form of free speech - permitted, orderly, and fully legal. The actions of the window-smashers were vandalism, not speech, and vandalism is and should be illegal. And when you do something illegal directly in front of a phalanx of police officers, you should not be surprised to be arrested. The vandals may well have thought of themselves as political prisoners as they were marched away, but thinking that did not make it so, any more than thinking you are a bird will enable you to fly.
And now we leap forward fifty-plus years, to the events of January 6, 2021, in Washington. Were the "Stop the Steal" rally and the invasion of the capitol building that followed it a protest, or were they an insurrection? That all-too-popular question misses the point entirely - because the answer to both halves of it is "yes."
The rally in front of the White House, at which Donald Trump and others spoke, was a legally constituted protest demonstration. The organizers had a permit for the event, just as the organizers for the November Moratorium did, back in 1969. The statements made by the speakers that day may have been reckless, and many of them were certainly false (opinions on that last point may differ depending upon the political affiliation of the opinion-holder, of course), but unless it can be proved that they were deliberately and effectively inciting insurrection, it was not illegal to express them. The free speech clause of the Bill of Rights was specifically designed for exactly such circumstances.
But the moment the capitol was breached by people intent on stopping the peaceful transfer of power, their status as protestors ended and their role as insurrectionists began. Insurrection, like vandalism, is a crime, and should be dealt with accordingly. And you don't get a bye because the insurrection failed. Attempted murder is still a crime, even if the victim lives.
The "Stop the Steal" rally organizers' permit was for a crowd of up to 30,000 people. I've been unable to find an actual estimate, but a look at the pictures of the event suggests that this number was met or exceeded. Of those, an estimated 2000-2500 stormed the capitol building. That leaves roughly 28,000 outside. I do not know if there were cries from those 28,000 of "No! No! No!", but I do know that they cannot be called insurrectionists. My politics and theirs are worlds apart, but as an old protester myself, I have some sympathy for them. As in Seattle in 1969, the vast majority of those present were engaged in an act of peaceful protest that a much smaller number disrupted. As also in Seattle in 1969, the vast majority of press attention has been focused on the disruptors, not the protestors. And the rest of those present, like the rest of us in Seattle, should definitely be excused for crying: but what about US?
So I have a request for the press and for those discussing this issue on social media: please stop calling every person who participated in the events of January 6 an "insurrectionist." They were not, any more than everyone who participated in Seattle's November Moratorium march was a vandal, and to say that they were merely confuses the issue. An attempted insurrection did take place - I don't know what else you can call invading the seat of government carrying weapons and zip ties and battling the Capitol Police with the stated intent of capturing the Vice President and the Speaker of the House and keeping a defeated president in power by violent means - and those involved should be dealt with accordingly. The invasion of the capitol building was no more a legitimate act of protest than breaking bank windows was. It was a crime - not just any crime, but the greatest crime that can be committed against a democracy - and attempts to whitewash it in order to make political points should be treated with the contempt they deserve. But we really need to stop confusing protestors with insurrectionists. They are not remotely the same thing.
The right to protest is fundamental, as necessary to the proper functioning of democracy as is the right to vote. All of us - right and left alike - have a stake in making sure that it remains a central part of the American experience.