"What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance?"-- Thomas Jefferson
Over the past few months, I've heard from many Americans who feel they've lost the power to be heard by their government. From the repeated assaults on our civil liberties to the financial ruin brought about by irresponsible corporations and government officials, Americans feel helpless and beaten down.
Faced with a government that is not heeding their demands, many are simply giving up. But we are far from helpless, and this is not the time to surrender our rights.
Too often, we forget that America began with a revolution. America was born out of the sheer grit and determination of a rebellious group of colonists. These freedom fighters stood their ground. They knew they had rights. And when those rights were systematically violated, they resisted.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of Americans--what I like to refer to as "teaspoons of resistance"--who have not given up the fight and are choosing to exercise their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and "petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
There are many examples. Let me cite a few. In more than 40 cities across the country, growing numbers of Americans have been taking to the streets and staging "tea party protests" to voice their objections to the government's out-of-control spending and its bailout of mega-corporations and bad mortgages. Although no tea is being tossed at these protests, they are gaining in popularity as a way for citizens to express their discontent with government spending gone haywire. In fact, organizers are planning a nationwide Tax-Day Tea Party protest.
Mindy McAlindon of Franklin, Tennessee, is taking a slightly different approach in voicing her discontent about the economy. She plans to bombard the White House with actual tea bags and protest notes. Protesters in other cities are planning to do the same for members of Congress.
More than 10,000 demonstrators in 100 locations across the country recently gathered at the offices of major banks whose behavior both before and since the government bailout "epitomize an era of CEO and corporate excess at the expense of broader prosperity that has weakened the economy."
Thousands will soon travel to Washington, DC, to protest the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The rally, which will take place the day after the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, will reportedly be the first national antiwar demonstration in the United States since President Barack Obama took office.
And then there is Concepcion Picciotto, a small woman in her late 60s who has carried on the longest continuous act of protest in the United States. Since 1981, Picciotto has staged a round-the-clock peace vigil across from the White House in Lafayette Park in the hopes of ending U.S. interventionist wars and banning nuclear weapons. She has thus far managed to outlast four presidents--Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush--and she's planning to outlast Barack Obama.
To fellow activists, Picciotto is a living symbol of resistance and an amazing example of grassroots democracy who understands that power is with the people. Unfortunately, her vigil has not been without its trials. Over the course of the past 28 years, Picciotto says she has been cursed at, spat on and beaten up, arrested and issued $50 citations for illegal "camping" in the park. Nevertheless, she persists in her solitary vigil.
We could use more tireless freedom fighters such as Concepcion Picciotto today. Yet she is merely one of a long and historic line of Americans to stage populist protests in the form of sleep-ins, sit-ins and marches to oppose government policies, counter injustice and bring about change.
For example, in May of 1932, more than 43,000 people--World War I veterans and their families-- marched on Washington. Out of work, destitute and with families to feed, the veterans set up tent cities in the nation's capital and refused to leave until the government agreed to pay the bonuses they had been promised as a reward for their services. The Senate voted against paying them immediately, but the protesters didn't budge. Congress adjourned for the summer, and still the protesters remained encamped. Finally, on July 28, under orders from President Herbert Hoover, the Army descended with tanks and cavalry and drove them out, setting their makeshift camps on fire. Still, the protesters returned the following year, and eventually their efforts not only succeeded in securing payment of the bonuses but contributed to the passage of the G.I. Bill of Rights.
Thus, while protests and acts of resistance may not always achieve immediate results, they're a good place to start. Time and again throughout our nation's history, real change has come at the urging of the people. After all, governments aren't proactive, they're reactive. They only move when you urge them to move. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is a perfect example. Just imagine how much longer it would have taken to gain equality for African-Americans without the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and so many other fearless black Americans.
Clearly, this is no time to stand silently on the sidelines. It's a time for anger and reform. Most importantly, it's a time for making ourselves heard. And there is no better time to act than the present. As Robert F. Kennedy reminded his listeners in a speech delivered at the University of Cape Town in 1966, "Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape men's lives. Everything that makes man's life worthwhile--family, work, education, a place to rear one's children and a place to rest one's head--all this depends on decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people."
What can ordinary citizens do? Instead of sitting around and waiting for someone else to change things, take charge. Never discount the part that everyday citizens play in our nation's future. You can change things, but there can be no action without education. Get educated about your rights and exercise them. Start by reading the Bill of Rights. You can do so online at www.rutherford.org. Or, if you want a copy to keep with you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you a free one.
Most important of all, just get out there and do your part to make sure that your government officials hear you. The best way to ensure that happens is by never giving up, never backing down, and never remaining silent. To quote Dr. King, "If you can't fly, run; if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, crawl, but by all means keep moving."
It doesn't matter whether you're protesting the economy, the war, the environment or something else altogether. What matters is that you do your part. As that great revolutionary firebrand Samuel Adams pointed out, "It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brushfires in people's minds."
Take some time right now and start your own brushfire for freedom. In the words of one Tea Party organizer, become "10-minute citizens. Take 10 minutes, six days a week and learn about the issues, and then call politicians, or email them, or call talk radio, or write letters to the editor and make your voice heard."
It's midnight in America right now. But the real question is, will there be a dawn? That's up to you and me. The future is in our hands.