When Protest is a Silent Vigil

NONE of us was about to be drafted. None would be going to fight in the Gulf war. None had a self-absorbed reason for standing in front of Northrop Memorial Auditorium as winds from the North Dakota prairie buffeted us while we listened to loud-speakered voices from the indoor stage 200 yards away. But there we were at an antiwar rally on the University of Minnesota concourse, among nearly 10,000 protesters, only a few thousand of whom had been able to find shelter inside the packed auditorium. We were a mixed bag. There was the charismatic young chaplain with the intense gaze from a small local college. The tall, distinguished, Scandinavian-looking retiree with the white moustache. The 30-something black couple - a college professor and her attorney husband - and their two children. The single woman first-time homeowner from Minneapolis.

We did not yell ``Hell, no, we won't go'' anti-establishment slogans. We did not taunt. We were attentive as the microphoned voices from inside the auditorium urged us to resist the war.

We were a part of and very much like the vast majority of the crowd - a crowd so different from those of two decades past. Only a handful of the crowd were college-age students. Antiwar crowds of some 20 years ago were often young, driven, boisterous, demanding, self-righteous, indignant. Most of this crowd was a generation - or two or three - older than that of many of its Vietnam-War-era predecessors.

Vietnam War protesters had been bent on disrupting both the status quo and the war itself. The Northrop crowd, though, was keeping a vigil. Most of us had come from around the state to silently stand united against a war we opposed, and we were against the war because of our past experiences. As a group, we had fought in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam - or had been touched by others who had fought in these wars - and we were protesting the Bush administration's war policy; we were the nation's modern-day antiwar conscience.

Our group was so unlike what my friends and I were like on May 4, 1970, when the Vietnam War came to Illinois - the day when, for us, the war became real. On that day four of us were standing in our college dorm lobby reading the Selective Service notices posted on the bulletin board. Suddenly, a classmate burst through the front door.

``Did you hear about Kent State?'' the fellow college sophomore blurted out breathlessly.

``What about it?'' I asked. Even though I was the only Buckeye in the group, I knew little about Kent State University, other than it then had the reputation of being rather conservative and a bit of a party school.

``The National Guard just shot some war protesters there. I think they killed some students,'' he said.

As we let what he had just said sink in, the Vietnam War protests finally hit home. The protests were no longer confined to ``the coasts,'' to the Berkeleys or Columbias. Protests had come to a college near my hometown; to an average place in mid-America. If antiwar protesters could be shot at Kent State, they could be shot anywhere - including Illinois.

None of the four of us ever went to Vietnam, although one did join the Army reserves. We were living privileged lives in a private school, and we somehow knew that others would fight the war for us. What we didn't know then was the lasting power Vietnam would have for the rest of our lives on our friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and, by osmosis, ourselves.

As I stood, shivering in front of Northrop Auditorium, I suspected that the Gulf war had reminded most of us of our battles and brushes with previous wars. And in our silent soul-searchings, I imagine we all were still coming to terms with our own wars - and collectively praying that today's 20-year-olds could be spared from standing in the cold in a similar rally sometime in the 21st century.

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