Editor’s note: The author wrote this column in response to features writer Chris Brock’s inquiry seeking comments regarding the new Netflix film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and its possible parallels to today. The story and sidebar on the movie can be found beginning on Page F1.
Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the bedrocks of American democracy and the charters of our sacred freedoms, address the right of every citizen to protest and exercise dissent.
The Declaration was born through voices of dissent and set forth the right of the 13 colonies to shed ties to the British throne and with its words — “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” — express the strength and commitment behind the dissent of the founding fathers.
The Constitution defines the framework of our new nation, and its First Amendment ratified in 1791 guarantees the freedom of speech and the right to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Those words are as timely today as they were in the days of the founding fathers. They allowed the historic exercise of the civil rights and suffrage movements, anti-Vietnam War protests in the streets across the United States and today’s Black Lives Matter movement, just to name a few, among many others. Political scientists teach that such movements can lead to legislative remedies just as third parties can influence the policies of the first two.
Petitioning for redress of grievances can take forms of civil unrest or civil discourse. Abbie Hoffman, in his pre-Save the River days, personified the civil unrest of the anti-war movement. Civil discourse in Washington created Social Security, Medicare, John Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs upon which our cities, states and main street Americans depend.
It was years of strong disagreements but civil discourse between Great Lakes House members and senators and other colleagues protecting the competing interests of East Coast, Gulf Coast and Pacific Coast ports to create the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway. It was civil discourse that allowed a “small c” conservative, U.S. Rep. Bob McEwen, to gain the support of his liberal political House colleagues to provide federal funding for the Lake Placid Olympics and to lay the groundwork for the modern Fort Drum, now New York’s largest single-site employer. That same civil discourse dominated Northeastern Rep. Dave Martin’s successful efforts to establish a U.S. Army division at Fort Drum in face of often downright nasty opposition from Southern congressmen and Senators and a warm-weather devoted cadre of Southern generals who opposed in the strongest of terms development of what they called a “sleepy Army post in the wasteland of ice-bound New York,” which they disparagingly called Fort Snowbank and Fort Freeze Your “xxx” Off.
Washington has always been populated by “show horses” and “work horses.” The former throw bombs, insults, create tension to gain attention and chase headlines often creating unrest; the latter get the work done with civil discourse.
I was in the staff gallery in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives when in a joint session of Congress on Aug. 12, 1974, President Gerald Ford said, “As president … my motto toward the Congress is communication, conciliation, compromise and cooperation.” Today’s Washington in most instances, it seems, has abandoned Ford’s four C’s of civil discourse. It has been overtaken by civil unrest in American politics.
Civil unrest can divide. Civility in dissent can unite. I believe in the latter.
America can again unite. It always has.
Cary Brick served as executive assistant to U.S. Rep. Robert C. McEwen and congressional chief of staff for U.S. Rep. David O’B. Martin, both of St. Lawrence County, and John McHugh of Jefferson County during a Washington career spanning 30 years.