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Protesting is as American as can be, but don’t step over the line

Barry Saunders
·3 min read

In Philadelphia Freedom, his head-boppin’ 1975 homage to tennis great Billie Jean King, Elton John sings:

I used to be a rolling stone, ya’ know

If the cause was right

I’d leave to find the answer on the road.

That described 21-year-old me to a T, so in 1978 when the editor of Howard University’s student newspaper wrote and asked if I were coming to Washington for an anti-apartheid protest march in front of the White House, I said “Of course I am” – as though I’d planned to come all along and hadn’t just heard about it at that moment when she mentioned it.

I tossed my clothes into a matchbox, grabbed an armful of Greyhound and made the bus ride from Atlanta to Washington to engage in civil protest – and, I confess, to meet the woman editor. You see, I was smitten by the way she, with youthful idealism, always closed her letters with “Yours in the struggle.”

I, unfortunately, never met her. We’d arranged to meet in Lafayette Park across from the White House, but neither of us knew what the other looked like, and apparently I didn’t look enough like Shaft’s younger brother – which I might’ve told her I did – for her to recognize me.

The protest was peaceful and the Capitol Police were cool – all except for one ornery officer who snapped at me as we chanted and marched in a circle on the sidewalk in front of the White House.

“I’m not going to tell you again. Do not step outside that block” of sidewalk, he snarled.

Perhaps he had me confused with another marcher, because he had never told me that, had never even spoken to me. So when he turned to direct his ire at another marcher, I — in an act of knuckleheaded defiance — stuck my toe outside the assigned area like a man checking to see how cold the water in the pool was and snatched it back.

That’s when another cop snatched me.

He grabbed me under my arm, marched me away from the other pickets and proceeded to not-so-gently explain why my act of disobedience wouldn’t be tolerated.

We’ve got to keep the sidewalk clear for pedestrians, he said.

It didn’t seem like a good time to note there wasn’t a pedestrian within 100 feet of us marchers. He then explained that if one person breaks the rule, that would embolden others to do the same.

My face turned red — take my word for it — from embarrassment, but I never believed that my toe could start a riot. Fearful that I might be going to jail for trying to overthrow the government, though, I apologized anyway.

In the movie The Wild Ones, somebody asked Marlon Brando’s perpetually angry character, Johnny, what he was rebelling against?

“Whaddya got?” he replied.

Right on. Being able to protest — against the government, to save the whales, to stamp out instant mashed potatoes — is one of the things that makes America great, and I have never opposed groups marching in full-throated support or opposition to anything, even to me.

Actually, especially not those groups, because if I oppose their right to protest and speak out against me, they could do the same to my right to speak out against what threatens me.

January 6th taught me something about this country that I didn’t even know: that I love it.

Seeing the assault upon the Capitol, the emblem of the U.S., seeing cops being beaten, has left me personally offended, depressed, heartbroken.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man tells Dorothy “Now I know I’ve got a heart, cos’ it’s breaking.”

That’s precisely how I felt watching the U.S. Capitol being overrun by insurrectionists intent upon overthrowing the government: Now I know I’ve got a heart for America, because it broke that day.

Here, though, is the big question now: “Is our country broken, too?”

Editorial Board member Barry Saunders is founder of