THE BLOG
01/24/2017 02:45 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2018

The Difference Between Protest America 1968 And 2017

The largest coordinated national and international protest in American history snuck up on me, like a long-lost friend's unannounced visit. I spent half my life pining over being slightly too young and too conservative to have been together with Woodstock's 400,000. But there I was 48 years later, half a century later, on January 21, 2017, stumbling unwittingly out of the Metro red line at Judiciary Square, Washington, DC, and spilling onto a sea of humanity packed like sardines, and into an experience that dwarfed 1969 Woodstock. This was not a sea of kids scared to death of the draft, everyone in their twenties, raucous music and lots of sex. There was no tear gas and rage and throwing stuff everywhere like Chicago 1968.

There was plenty of anger, but there was this strange peace among people of every age group and race, religious and secular, the very young and the very old, families with kids, the super straight and the extraordinarily tattooed, every social group imaginable. The crowd was exuberant but sad, ecstatic but serious, eager to march but almost absurdly patient and kind. They were mostly women but an astonishing number of supportive men. I still cannot understand the calm without guides, without any instructions whatever, without any sound system or video or speeches, crushed by a turnout so large that no one could move.

Here is the thing, most of us were content to just be with each other without direction, massively crushed, enjoying each other's signs and all our outrageous peculiarities and differences. It is as if some outside dark force had ordered us to say hello to each other for the first time in our lives, because we knew in our hearts that we may be about to lose each other. The scientists know well that loss, fear of loss, is a far more powerful motivator than opportunity for gain. We average Americans sat there like sardines, very patient, because we knew that what we were doing right then and there, that freedom of assembly, may be lost. But with such high stakes why was it all so calm, why weren't we angry at organizers or lack of directions?

I saw something new, some new state of mind cutting across generations, with no tension with one age group or gender against the other, no race or religion against one another, no secular against religious, no mockery of any group or phenomenon, except mockery of mockery itself. I also saw something not led from the top, but led from our strange attraction to each other in a time of sorrow, of loss. I sensed it from the first second we entered the metro and discovered long lines of strangers from around the country lining up for metro cards, lines I had never in my life seen in Washington.

I sensed already on the DC Metro, rushing as a mob to the last usually empty cars that everyone filled to every single space, and then we looked at each other after the doors closed in amazement. Who are all these people? Why do they all wear the same pussy hats? Who coordinated all of our feelings? What the hell has just happened to my individual loneliness and hellish confrontation with the possible end of democracy? Where was my lonely sorrow, and why did all these people have the same look in their eyes of longing, sadness, hope? It was as if we knew no one but knew everyone and the pain they carried inside. With complete strangers, at each turn of our journey to the march, we sensed urgency, but not urgency to get to the march, urgency that we might lose the most precious gift of freedom that our ancestors had given us. We were racing not to the marching grounds but to an inheritance that we felt we could lose. As the march on Washington was lived on the ground, there was a new reality born, a reality of collective care and commitment to save what we can always be lost. No intellectual rebuke, from Socrates to Eisenhower could convince us of what we might lose as much as the reality of these days.
When massive crowds come to know each other, history often adjusts. In April 1967, about 300,000 people demonstrated against the war in New York. In 1965, most Americans had supported U.S. policies in Vietnam, but by 1967 only 35 percent did so. In October 1969, more than 2 million people participated in Vietnam Moratorium protests across the country. The following month, over 500,000 demonstrated in Washington and 150,000 in San Francisco. The American population at the time was about 190 million, and today it is about 320 million. With our millions this past week, we are not that far off from the kind of numbers that changed history and changed attitudes in the United States within a few small years. But there was persistence and momentum that made the difference in the 1960s, and our future and our willpower is still uncertain.

What impressed me most about all the demonstrations around the world that these women led is calm. One of the reasons for the unbelievable calm, composure, kindness and self-discipline of the masses, is that we are wiser today about ourselves, about violence, about anger, and about change. Oh, we are angry, and every one of the participants felt aggrieved or wounded in one way or the other by the unjust, illiberal and tragic way in which a minority in the country, together with a minority of billionaires and covert leaders, seized the country, enjoyed an absurd mascot, and began to dismantle every aspect of democratic safety, with bullying of each of us in different parts of our identity. But we are impressed by the relationship between inner peace and outer peace, the consequences of personal behavior, personal demeanor for the effectiveness of social change. Calm hovered over the atmosphere like a soft blanket in situations that were often tense with deeply uncomfortable crowding, no directions, no way out (I tried to go home for an hour and gave up), no guidance, no police protection, no program that could be heard or seen, at least in DC.

Perhaps we are reaching a new stage of history. We show up with our minds and our bodies to challenge injustice, to fight for a better way, but we are doing so with calm restraint and love, from teenagers to twenty-somethings, every single decade of human beings, gay and straight, every religion and no religion, angry for a thousand legitimate reasons, and still harming no one, aiding many and guiding many at every turn, with the calm aid of others an act of ultimate defiance against bullying itself.  

Historians and conflict analysts will study this day, for both its purposeful qualities, its accidental qualities, and the surprising global outcome. They will study the action/reaction spiral of threats to democracy and the response of the masses. They will note that these marches occurred in the shadow of other mobs that have been given permission to threaten and bully isolated individuals and institutions across the country. They will note the less understood and bewildering contemporary effects of false social media, virtual bullying, virtual mob violence, and the instrumentalization of this by foreign states and agencies. But they will also note with incredulity the spontaneous courage of millions of strangers, led by women, to forge quiet, determined commitments that can be summed up on one placard: This is what democracy looks like.

They will note the overwhelming evidence from every conflict region in the world that where there is increasing equality of men and women together in struggle, something dramatically wise and calm occurs in human thinking and collective decision making, something that explains the sustainability of women's peace relationships with other women and men across enemy lines in the worst war zones. They will note that something dramatic is happening to human evolution of consciousness and evolution of change that occurs with less violence in direct correspondence to when women and men unite as equals.

Let's make this the norm of the American future, let's do this often in strategic ways, let's do it locally at every level of decision-making. We need to change, we need to unite, but we need to do so with calm and discernment. We have learned that the way we gather, the way we look at each other, the way we talk to each other, has far-reaching consequences for the kind and quality of power that we generate, for the kind and quality of society that we build. We can be angry; we can be ferociously determined to change what is unjust. But with calm, with kindness, we become an unstoppable force of social persuasion and enlightened democratic life.