Act 2: The Evolving Language of Political Dissent

“We’ re fuckin’ dying”

John Marshall Park, Washington, DC, Sep 2019

There are interesting dichotomies between the spoken, written and visual languages of dissent. Here we look specifically at the DC Climate Strike, part of the September 20, 2019 Global Climate Strike. According to Jonah Gottlieb of the National Childrens Campaign, about 12,000 school kids and adults participated. Because I wanted to capture more than photographs, Debbie Messina, a journalist and my wife, went along to interview some of the strikers. Here are excerpts from three interviews.

Debbie Messina interviewing a climate striker

Donovan Weber, DC Climate Strike, John Marshall Park

Donovan Weber said this about the sign he brought to the strike;

“I wanted to make my message short and bold. It’s our future at stake. It’s our children’s future at stake.” Talking about industry, Donovan’s remarks were sharp. “I don’t want them (industries) changed, I want them out. They won’t change unless they are removed.” That industry provoked Weber’s ire was palpable. 

Keely Ferrando, DC Climate Strike, US Capitol

Keely Ferrando, media coordinator and a strike organizer, was concerned about more than just the environmental impact of climate change.

“It’s important to anyone who walks and breathes to have a functioning ecological system.” But she also fears climate change “…is going to have severe economic issues; possibly economic collapse.”

Sam Schulman, DC Climate Strike, US Capitol

And Sam Schulman, one of the strikers reporting for his school newspaper, said this; “The planet is literally dying. Sea level rise is wiping out coastal areas. Ocean life is dying because it can’t handle rising temperatures. It’s hard to get people to care. Legislators are not changing their minds. We need to continue to bring attention…keep the conversation going so people will care. I’m worried less for myself and more for people with less resources than I have.”

Co-MCs, DC Climate Strike, US Capitol

Before introducing a line-up of speakers, the co-MCs for the strike sounded off five demands:

  • Pass the Green New Deal
  • Respect indigenous rights
  • Promote sustainable agriculture
  • Protect biodiversity
  • Environmental justice for all
  • Over the next 90 minutes about 30 people addressed the crowd. Most were students. Stepping out of the Capitol at various times, Representatives Nanette Barragan, D-CA; Kathy Castor, D-FL; John Garamendi, D-CA; Raul Grijalva, D-AZ; Jim McGovern, D-MA, and Jerry Nadler, D-NY each made brief remarks. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was expected to speak but didn’t make it out.

    In the days following the strike, some criticized the strikers suggesting that they were kids being manipulated by parents and politicians. On Twitter, one young speaker was called “deranged.” Those exaggerations were off-base and unwarranted. Were people excited? Sure. Did they carry banners and make some noise? Yes. Just like my friends and I did in our youth for causes that mattered to us.

    The kids in DC weren’t suckers. And they damn sure weren’t deranged. Frankly, it was refreshing to see several thousand engaged young adults come together in an organized fashion for an important cause. Perhaps the students are becoming the teachers?

    The strikers spoke with a collective sense of urgency. I believe that is appropriate. To consider the edgier side of dissent and transitions from what they had to say to the signs they carried, take a look at the photographs for Act 2: The Evolving Language of Political Dissent.

    Post Note:

    Donald Trump, Sep 2019

    As the week of Sep 23 moved from Tuesday to Thursday - from Pelosi’s call for an impeachment inquiry to the Trump-Zelensky phone call to the whistleblower’s letter to Joseph Maguire’s testimony - I considered scrapping this article on climate change. Then I thought better. Svante Arrhenius made some of the first calculations of atmospheric cooling in 1896. Today we know a hell of a lot more about climate change than we do about Trump-Zelensky-whistleblower-Maguire.  We’ll come back to the events of this week in a future Act. But we’ll do that when we move further from “what we think we know” to “we know.”

    Act 1: The Evolving Language of Political Dissent

    “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

    circa 1967-68; photographer and source of original publication unknown

    I started college in 1968. Then this protest chant was growing louder on campuses and in streets across the United States. 1968 was a year of unwelcome records. US troop presence in Vietnam peaked at a high of 550,000. Almost 16,500 soldiers were killed, the single deadliest year of the war. Over $77 billion was poured into Vietnam, the most spent in a single year on a war more people questioned and fewer supported. But that slogan? 

    “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” 

    Quietly, even opponents of the war worried that the language crossed a line. It was a personal attack on the President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It called LBJ a murderer. Such irreverence was shocking. How dare these dirty-long-haired boys and braless girls say such things. Didn’t they love the country? 

    They did.

    Older now I realize it’s sometimes easier to see from a distance. Photographs from those years contain hints. But too few of us were paying attention. We missed signals. The language and action of American dissent wasn’t just getting louder. It was taking a dark turn. 

    • In October 1965, David Miller burned his draft card in New York City. The 24-year old Miller was the first person arrested and convicted under the Military Training and Service Act. Traitor or hero?
    • One month later, on November 2, Norman Morrison poured kerosene over his body and set himself ablaze at the Pentagon beneath the office window of the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Morrison’s self-immolation was timed for maximum affect. He went up in flames just as thousands of Pentagon workers left for the day. (The burning image most Americans know is that of a buddhist monk burning to death on June 11, 1963 on the streets of Saigon. Thich Quang Duc was 65 years old.) Morrison was a 32-year old American father of three, dying by his own hand not on some faraway soil but in Washington, D.C.
    • Toward the end of the sixties, the pace of draft card burnings, sit-ins, marches, and peace strikes accelerated; an embattled LBJ decided one term was enough; and Richard Nixon was elected the nation’s 37th President. Soon, even darker times emerged from the shadows.
    • On May 4, 1970, after days of student unrest, four unarmed students were shot and killed by 28 members of the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University. Americans killed by Americans on an American campus.
    • In the aftermath of Kent State, 4 million striking college students shut down 450 campuses across the United States. Attitudes about the war were now unmistakeable. 

    The signals - and the message - were clear.

    Joseph Karpen, Photographer, UWC 2797

    By the time Saigon fell in 1975, Nixon had already resigned in disgrace. Gerald Ford, America’s first non-elected caretaker president, did his best to shift language from dissent to unity with a new slogan; WIN, Whip Inflation Now. The war was over, but WIN was too pollyanna for a country hardened by Vietnam and Watergate.

    Fast forward 45 years.

    ©Philip Shucet Photography 2019

    Is a new war brewing? A domestic war? Not the war on terror. But a war between the President of the United States and his supporters and the people of the United States? A war that may be reshaping and rewriting the language of political dissent?

    Over the next 14 months, we’ll examine political events as they happen leading up to the presidential election in November 2020. You’ll find photographs here along with updated commentary as we consider The Evolving Language of Political Dissent.

    ©Philip Shucet Photography 2019

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