President Nixon may have signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1972 to end the United States’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but a University of Rhode Island philosophy professor doesn’t attribute the end of the war to a treaty.
“The Vietnam War would not have stopped without the protests,” Galen Johnson said. When he studied at Wheaton College just outside of Chicago, he was part of between six to 12 protests. His main concerns were surrounding the draft, stopping the war and his school’s mandatory two-year ROTC program for incoming male students.
He was among the nearly 10,000 students who gathered in Grant Park to protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. They were protesting against the DNC’s nomination of Hubert Humphrey, a Vietnam War supporter, as their presidential pick.
“[Grant Park] was where the police came at us on horseback and with clubs,” he said. “Word got around that it was happening, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Johnson said he sees many similarities between the political and protest climate of Nixon’s presidency and our society today.
“When I heard Trump say…‘it’s going to be about law and order,’” Johnson said, “that had very bad echoes for me.”
He explained that phrase was coined by Nixon to describe how he was going to treat protesting students. Nixon authorized the mayor of Chicago’s efforts to allow police to meet protesters with weapons, clubs and tear gas.
Johnson also said he remembers that people, his own father included, said that the protesters wouldn’t accomplish anything. That sentiment, which shares many of the same arguments as anti-protesters today, is completely untrue, according to Johnson. He referenced the Sioux tribe, veterans and protesters who effectively stopped the advancement of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota this past week.
“That’s a small example of people standing up and saying ‘no, this is wrong,’” Johnson said, and it worked.
To refute arguments that protesting is “a bunch of people whining,” Johnson said that “a knowledge of history is very important.” Additionally, talking to people who have experience protesting or witnessing other parts of history is critical, according to Johnson.
“It’s also about injustice,” he added. “This is not whining.”
On his own college campus, when Nixon escalated the war from Vietnam to bombing Cambodia, Johnson said he remembers he and his classmates “shut the place down.” Frustrated by the advancement of the war, students gathered on their quadrangle and blasted rock music to interrupt classes. People gave speeches, and even professors came out to join the protest, he said.
Cambodia and the DNC incidents were only heightened by the Kent State Shootings, where unarmed students were shot by soldiers on their college campus during a protest.
“[It was a] situation where we just weren’t going to stop [protesting],” Johnson said.
Johnson is firm in his beliefs that protesting does influence change, and definitely helped stop the war. He says that the most important parts of a successful protest are numbers and news media presence. In his experience, the problem with some protests is that they seldom turn into movements, like the Occupy Wall Street, he said, which died out.
The key to turning these protests into movements is connecting with other people, and organization, he explained, but you must take instances of standing up to injustice from a local level to a national level.
“You just do it. Talk about it,” he said. It’s uncomfortable, and inconvenient to protest, he adds. But that’s the point.
So where should protesters in this age go from here? Well, Johnson thinks we’re at an opportune moment in history.
“Bring it on,” Johnson said. “I mean it. Organize. In my opinion, both national parties are bankrupt. The Trump election is so strange that the republican neo-conservative and the democratic neo-liberal ideologies are ended. So we need new ideas. Just get in touch with each other, try to talk about it. Those pipeline people were serious.”