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Petitioning (March 3, 1999)

In 1968, on the interstate just outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, stood a billboard depicting a Ku Klux Klansman in full regalia atop a rearing white stallion. The caption read: “Help Fight Communism and Integration.” They meant it, too. In Klan country you had lynch law and so folks tended to mind their manners. Customs carried weight in those parts. Things were done in certain ways and so long as you stayed with the program you could expect a tip of the hat from your neighbors. Life’s little problems were dealt with on the spot. If you went and mouthed off and somebody popped you, you didn’t go crying to the police. If you were not willing to risk getting your ass kicked, then you watched your mouth. If a woman got “grabbed” by some guy, she didn’t go whining to the courts about “emotional trauma” and “mental distress” — she smacked the guy in the face. And if he smacked her back then he had best hope she didn’t have a father or brothers, or uncles or cousins. Children were safe on the street. You mess with somebody’s child and you hope the Sheriff gets to you first. In short, it was the promise of violence just beneath the surface of southern society that made nearly everybody agree that it was crucially important that everybody keep to their place.

Which was easy to do if you were sitting high on the hog. Not so easy if the whole hog was sitting on you. When, after thousands of ritual killings during the previous 80 years, President Truman — ignoring the heart-rending wails of southern Democrats — rammed through Congress the first federal anti-lynch law in 1949, he forged a stake that eventually would be driven through the heart of the south’s Good Old Days. Finally granted nominal federal protection against officially sanctioned “daylight” lynchings, blacks (and white labor organizers and religious dissidents) slowly began to raise their voices. They could still be beaten or murdered and their houses and churches could still be firebombed. But if they were going to get lynched, then it would be at night in the woods.

With a meticulously maintained former slave market in its town square, Fayetteville in 1968 was in some ways a more dangerous place than it had been in 1948. For one thing, in nearby Fort Bragg were thousands of Vietnam veterans finishing off their enlistments. Fill their bellies with rotgut and mix them in with maybe 40,000 other “legs” and “cherries” and they could turn mean for any or no reason. Weekends saw their share of brawls and stabbings and shootings. Some bars were still segregated (rules strictly enforced for reasons of public safety), though — with black friends — whites were still welcome in the juke joints. If whites attacked blacks, then blacks fought back. But there was still no percentage in blacks ever attacking whites.

Over in Wilmington a bunch of counter sitters had been framed for arson. down in Augusta, eight black teenaged “looters” were back-shot and killed by police without anyone raising an eyebrow. Across the piedmont good, church-going folk were behind bars for “trespassing” or “vagrancy” or “failure to disperse” or “inciting to riot” or — a favorite under police states — resisting arrest.” When the shanty-dwellers of Fayetteville’s “darktown” marched on city hall to deliver petitions demanding a cleanup of the neighborhood’s cesspools and the installation of sewer lines (demands for paved streets would come much later), about every white stakeholder from up and down the Cape Fear River was “deputized.” The city permit allowed the marchers one sidewalk and one of Hay Street’s four lanes for their procession, and at intervals on the rooftops and along the double yellow line was all of the tobacco-chewing, scatter gun toting insurance the town fathers needed to make sure the marchers behaved themselves.

When our new organization, GIs United Against The War, decided to pass some petitions we made the mistake of sending people down to Hay Street in ones and twos. After a couple of our people were beaten, we made the rule that nobody could work in Fayetteville without three escorts. So the town fathers, as a favor to the Fort Bragg brass, passed an ordinance declaring that four people standing on the sidewalk constituted a parade. When we sent our petition crews downtown they were arrested for parading without a permit. Once, while I was locked up in a darkened squirrel cage, I was visited by a pair of Good Old Boys. While they didn’t lay a hand on me, they made it clear that I was dragging my bait through the wrong hole.

When one of our members got liquored-up and got mouthy with a Hay Street merchant, he was slammed with 60 days on a chain gang. When he finished his sentence the Army added another 60 days to his enlistment to make up for the “bad time.”

On post I was busted in rank, forced to forfeit 60 days pay, given 60 days of extra duty and 60 days of restriction to my battalion area. Officially my crime was appearing “unclean and unshaven.” In fact I was busted because I had spent the previous week handing out copies of the Bill of Rights.

Soon civilian lawyers volunteered their assistance and our lives got a whole lot better. My conviction was overturned on appeal and my company commander, who had organized the frame, was relieved of his command. Fayetteville’s new parading law was quickly struck down as unconstitutional and 18 of us filed suit in federal court charging our post commander and his superiors with violating our rights under the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th amendments of the Constitution. While the harassment and intimidation didn’t entirely cease, at least from then on each time they whacked one of us with some kind of disciplinary action they were only building our case.

When I returned to the west coast as a civilian I kept passing petitions. For this cause or that I must have collected thousands of signatures. While anti-war organizers in California had about the same status as “outside agitators” had in Fayetteville, I never felt like I was taking my life into my hands. Out in California the problem was finding public “commons.” Try to set up in a shopping mall and the rent-a-cops would run you off. Try setting up on the sidewalk and there was always somebody who didn’t like it. Somebody who was “losing business,” somebody who had a kid killed in Vietnam, somebody who didn’t want “trouble,” somebody who felt the whole idea didn’t seem right. The police would be called and, just so nobody got their feelings hurt, often we would be “asked” to move on.

You might think college campuses were friendly to petitioners and, by then (1970-72) you would be right. Yet it is important to remember that it was only because of student “free speech” movements and years of court fights that humble petitioners were finally tolerated within the ivory towers.

Whoever it was who said that Americans have constitutional rights only so long as they don’t use them must be giggling over what’s going on down in Orange County today. In case you haven’t heard, some poor fellow in Little Saigon hangs a portrait of Ho Chi Minh and all hell breaks loose. Court orders, eviction notices, bomb threats, death threats, boycotts, vandalism and he even gets attacked by a mob (under the noses of the police, no less). You would think somebody in Orange County had read the first line of the First Amendment. But no. The official response has been like the advice I got in that blackened squirrel cage: “If you don’t want trouble then don’t go and stir it up.”

As with most American news stories, what is important is what is left unsaid. Like, where in the hell is big Saigon, anyway? I can’t find it on any current map because it is now called Ho Chi Minh City. How did that happen? Maybe it is because Ho Chi Minh’s people are still in Vietnam while the folks in little Saigon are in, well, Orange County. Which certainly isn’t Diem’s Republic of South Vietnam in 1958. Nor is it Fayetteville in 1968. You would think somebody would remind those folks.

I don’t know what kind of advice to offer that poor guy. Since he is entitled to the protection he obviously isn’t getting, maybe he should consider passing a petition.

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