Sunday, May 30, 2010

30 May 1971: Vietnam Veterans Against the War Occupy Lexington Green

As discontent over the Vietnam War rose, a "rabble" of militarily trained radicals was once again forced to disperse from Lexington Common.  As the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities recounts it in today's "Mass Moment":
On this day in 1971, over 450 anti-war protesters occupied the historic Lexington Green and refused to leave. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War had organized a three-day march from Concord to Boston — Paul Revere's route in reverse. According to Lexington's by-laws, no one was allowed on the Green after 10 PM, so the selectmen denied the protesters permission to camp there. With many townspeople supporting the veterans, an emergency town meeting was held. When no agreement was reached, the veterans and their Lexington supporters decided to remain on the Green. At 3 AM on Sunday, they were all arrested in the largest mass arrest in Massachusetts history. After being tried, convicted, and fined $5.00 each, they continued their march to Boston.
The rest of the piece goes on to talk objectively not just about the incident, but about divided opinions over the war, including the rationale of those in favor of continued US engagement.

Had I been there and of age, I would have been on the side of the protesters.  In this case, although the law was clear and the veterans, for reasons of political strategy, rejected a compromise proposal to allow them to camp nearby , it arguably would have made sense to grant an exception to a rule created for other purposes altogether.  Opponents sought to exploit that rule for their own political ends, though both sides no doubt thought they were best honoring the historical importance of the site.

Still, now that I've served in Town Meeting and recently joined the Select Board, I have to confess that I can better appreciate the technical arguments and the complexity of choices that local governments face. 

The famed New England "commons," used for public purposes ranging from grazing of flocks to markets and militia drills, were originally parts of the huge royal highways, laid out 40 rods (660 feet) wide.  As such, even if they from the later nineteenth century on acquired the character of parks, they are still considered part of the "public way," and thus under the jurisdiction of the Select Board (a collective executive in locales governed by a town meeting rather than mayor and council).  This is often a source of confusion in historic-preservation discussions as well as much else.

The real issue here, of course, was not who controlled the Common, but how and for what purpose.  We spend a lot of time trying to find that elusive middle ground that honors both procedures and outcomes.

At times, we are asked to disregard or bend the rules on the grounds, "but how could that possibly hurt??"  People don't understand that, particularly here, where local government long had a reputation as polarizing, arbitrary, and inefficient, an ad hoc approach that values procedures only to the extent that they produce desired results can erode confidence in the entire system. That said, not all rules and situations are equally important, and one needs to have a sense of balance.  Both myopic and rigid adherence to process, on the one hand, and cavalier disregard for process, on the other, can feed political frustration and cynicism. 

In still other cases, we are asked to vote on issues far beyond the scope of local government or otherwise having purely symbolic value. Here, too, there are philosophical differences. Some of us consider such measures to be essential and even heroic collective statements of moral principle while others of us see them as time-wasting and potentially divisive empty gestures that hamper our ability to accomplish the tasks clearly within our purview.  (A case in point was the debate last fall over inviting cleared Guantanamo inmates to settle here (1, 2)—even though current national law does not allow for their relocation within the United States.)

Of course, the founding fathers knew this democracy stuff would not be easy—but they also knew it was a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Oh, yes, and, in case you didn't read the rest of the Mass Moments article: (1) the protesters were correct in concluding that the camping ban and arrests only increased publicity and sympathy for their cause, and (2) "At the next election, all the incumbents lost their seats on the Board of Selectmen."

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