Death of an American Pastime


There was fatigue in the melancholy stare of the aging boomer. Nearby, some 200 protesters held signs and chanted a familiar refrain:

"What do we want? Troops out. When do we want it? Now!"

"You know what that chant reminds me of," he asked, lighting a cigarette and turning to meet my gaze. "A car alarm. When car alarms were fresh and new, people jumped, looked around, took notice. Today, that same blare barely turns a head. Same thing here. Street protests have been defanged."

It was a cold Saturday afternoon in south Minneapolis. The protesters moved in loose circles to stay warm. Passing motorists occasionally honked their horns. Inside one car was a U of M grad student who gave the protesters a thumbs-up, "mostly out of pity," he said.

"I feel bad for them. A couple hundred people protesting a war is like one man at a sporting event holding up a John 3:16 sign. It's one lonely scene."

A policeman on horseback rode his mount slowly along the curb, surveying the landscape. He pulled his collar up close to his ears as the gray breath of his horse caught the attention of the boomer.

"I remember the cops on horseback back in the '60s," he said. "They had a different look on their faces altogether. This guy has the bored stare of a traffic cop. Back then they had the look of soldiers in combat.

"You know what killed the war protests?" the boomer continued. "It wasn't the end of the draft, like everyone claims. That had an effect, sure, but it was really the information revolution that did it in, the mass-media explosion over the last couple decades.

"When I was at Kent State in 1970, we were making ourselves heard the only way we knew how. The national media amounted to little more than the New York Times, Washington Post, and three TV networks. Look at this crazy world today. Jesus, it's blogs, tweeting, texting, Facebook, websites, email, cable TV. I mean, back then we felt disenfranchised. You can't really argue that anymore."

A young woman turned toward the Lake Street traffic and shouted, "U.S. out of Barackistan" as two teenagers hustled past, eating from a McDonald's bag.

"It doesn't matter if there are only a couple hundred of us right now," she said. "You start with this and you build."

"I sympathize with you," the boomer said. "I really do. I did a whole lot of this at one time in my life."

"Why aren't you with us now?" the protester asked.

"Oh, I guess back then I saw things a little more clearly. Nothing's that black-and-white to me anymore. Part of the problem with protesting this war is, it's no longer enough to say, 'Get out.' You need to offer some type of counterproposal. Saying 'get out' is too easy. You don't think Obama wants out? He's struggling with one seriously complicated international picture. There are no simple answers anymore. And there are no more eight-word slogans that say all that needs to be said."

A short old woman with a plaid scarf covering her thinning hair overheard the conversation and said in a soft voice, "War is never the answer."

The boomer smiled at her and said, "Ma'am, I want to live in that world too."

The cop on horseback was telling the driver of a pickup truck, who had pulled over, to move on. The driver was talking through his open window, telling a man with a sign, "Everything changed after 9/11."

The man with the sign, a teacher at a Quaker school in St. Paul, stepped away from the pickup as the driver sped off.

"I wanted to tell that guy that he's right, everything did change after 9/11," the teacher said. "I wanted to tell him what changed was we finally saw we could no longer survive in this world on the old model of conflict resolution. Nine-eleven showed us we were going to have to become smarter thinkers, and more creative problem solvers, if we expect to still be around a century from now.

"We need the same quantum leap in consciousness that the Manhattan Project delivered in weaponry. We need to find a new way."

The boomer walked on down the street, blowing into his cold, cupped hands.

"New way indeed," he muttered. These protestors are all going to have to find a new way."