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Batavick: ‘Everybody look what’s going down’ amid Black Lives Matter movement [COMMENTARY]

“There’s battle lines being drawn Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong Young people speaking their minds Getting so much resistance from behind

“It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound Everybody look what’s going down.”

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Stephen Stills wrote and sang these lyrics in 1966, and they soon became an iconic protest anthem as politicians escalated the Vietnam War and draft boards sent torrents of notices to the 18 ½ to 25 years-old crowd. Documentary producers found it quite easy to use the song to underscore scenes of earnest, marching youths staring down the police and troops, especially after the tragic killing of four unarmed Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, with nine more injured. I’m reminded of that time by this time, the spring and summer of the Black Lives Matter protests.

In October 1967, I was inducted into the U. S. Army. I had just married in September. After basic training, the Army sent me to Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, to learn the skills and duties of a company clerk. Think Radar in M*A*S*H without the ironic humor. I was Vietnam-bound and awaited my orders while delivering mail to the seemingly endless number of offices along the 17 ½ miles of corridors in the Pentagon. My orders came soon enough, but so did April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Washington erupted in spasms of mourning and mindless rioting, and I was taken off orders and assigned to help coordinate troop movements.

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I’ll never forget standing on a hill on the base and looking down on billowing, black smoke darkening the sky and obscuring the Capital’s marble-white monuments. I wondered where that catastrophic moment would take us.

Fast-forward to spring 1969. I was now a short timer, having literally dodged the Vietnam bullet because of luck and Army regs. Anti-war protests were an almost daily occurrence in Washington, and I decided to join one of them while dressed in my civvies, GI haircut and all. The protest was peaceful; almost sacramental. When twilight came, I joined waves of candle-carrying marchers slowly circling the White House complex like church acolytes. Some left their lit candles on the House’s wrought iron gates, flickering like silent prayers. The war dragged on another four and a half years.

I was honorably discharged in late summer 1969, just in time to enroll in grad school at the University of Maryland. By spring of 1970, the campus was roiled in anti-war protests. Huge crowds filled the quad in front of the library, exhorted by student leaders to join sit-ins or blockade Route 1. The governor called in the National Guard. They exchanged tear gas canisters for the bottles and rocks that greeted them.

Protests continued in the months that followed. I was a teaching graduate assistant and learned that one of my new duties was to don a green arm band with other GAs and try to talk some sense into the protesters disrupting classes as well as traffic on a key local highway. I remember wading into unruly groups on Route 1 and learning that some of the students were quite serious and knowledgeable about the war, while others acted as if they were in the cast of “Animal House.”

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In spring 1971, clashes occurred again on Route 1. By this time, we had two children, and one was only three or four months old. The National Guard again battled violent protesters with batons and tear gas. Some of the rioters ran into nearby graduate housing where we lived, pursued by troops. The National Guard decided to use tear gas to flush them out of the building, and soon our second-floor apartment was full of the noxious fumes. Later that evening, my mother called from New Jersey, quite concerned because she had seen footage of the clashes on Philly’s nightly news. I falsely assured her all this activity was quite distant from where we lived.

I remember these things, and today’s events are giving me a real déjà vu moment, though an ill-advised, regrettable war cannot begin to parallel the systemic racism that has infected this country for almost 400 years. I have no solutions. I just know that whites have got to stop saying, “I’m not prejudiced” or “This isn’t a racist country.” They don’t understand that they’re not Black, and this is not about them, and never has been. They need to just listen for a moment and finally see.

“A thousand people in the street Singing songs and carrying signs…. It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound Everybody look what’s going down.”

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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