Professor Joe Goldblatt
My adolescent nose followed the strong scent of marijuana as I joined thousands of students protesting the Vietnam war in 1970. There were no speeches, however, the signs calling for an end to what many believed to be an immoral war, caused instant angry flare – ups from conservative citizens standing upon the pavement.
Some folk shouted “Hippies get a job!” Other folk were even more direct and told us to “Go to Canada!” Their loud voices were impenetrable to the hoards of young, passionate, high, and determined protestors who were enjoying the camraderie of thousands of like minded spirits sandwiched within a two lane street of a major US University campus.
Only a few months earlier I had joined hundreds of people of all ages marching up the main street in my hometown urging citizens to join us in boycotting lettuce. We believed the farm workers in Texas, who were mostly illegal immigrants, should be fairly compensated for their labours and until this happened we urged everyone to stop buying lettuce. We were successful and as a result of our protests the Farm Workers Union was established to protect these labourers.
The 1970’s was a time of unlimited passion for causes that included equal rights, a woman’s right to choose, fair pay for all, and yes, peace. Therefore, today, as I passed an Edinburgh primary school and watched a handful of six teachers holding picket signs and loudly cheering when drivers would honk their horns in support of their industrial action I became hopeful that once more citizens were showing their public support for one another.
In an age of grave vocal dissention and physical separation from one another due to the recent memory of the deadly pandemic and the continuing prevalence of acrimonious social media I often wonder why we are choosing to shout on line rather than in person to voice our views about important issues?
Occasionally groups such as All Under One Banner will organise a march to promote Scottish Independence, however, I am not aware of any other group that is assembling citizens to urge support for tackling the cost of living crisis, equal rights for marginalised groups, and many other important causes. Could this reticence to assemble in public be due to the fear of being labled as promoting blasphemous messages or is it simply a matter of political correctness that seeks to deplatform and cancel speakers rather than welcome their different points of view, no matter, how harsh or radical their message may be?
Regardless of the reason behind this lack of desire for public assembly through a peaceful protest, I fear that future generations are missing the excitement and warmth of like minds coming together to advance important causes and at the same time enjoying an energising and positive social experience. Perhaps, one way to encourage folk to return to the streets is to turn the often negative aspects of social media into a positively enhanced opportunity to move from clicking to marching and reclaim our streets and public squares for legitimate protests. However, once we leave the virtual world there will be a need for a physical space to welcome us.
London’s Hyde Park has long featured a Speaker’s Corner to allow free speech to take place in a peaceful manner. Interestingly, in this park there was once a hangman’s gallows where 50,000 persons were executed and each prisoner was given the privilege of a final speech prior to their death. Years later, in the latter part of nineteenth century, protest groups would end their marches in Hyde Park and one time the parks commissioner was forced to resign because 150,000 protestors tore down the barricades to gain entry to his locked public space. From suffragettes to protestors of the Iraq war and many other assemblies, millions of citizens have gathered in Hyde Park to raise their voices in mostly peaceful protests.
Therefore, I wonder why the City of Edinburgh, the capital of our country, of our does not have a similar venue that welcomes this type of free speech on a regular basis. Should citizens be free to assemble at a designated site upon the Royal Mile such as the Mercat Cross or in one of our world class parks such as near the Scottish Parliament, or another location that will provide the ease of location and facilities (toilets) that will support safe, secure and peaceful public assembly?
The US singer / songwriter Pete Seger along with his co – author Lee Hays attended many protests and wrote perhaps the best anthem for demonstration that is entitled “If I Had a Hammer”. This song was popularised by Seger and later other folk artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary. The closing lines joyously remind us of the hopefulness of positive protest.
I got a hammer
And I’ve got a bell
And I’ve got a song to sing
All over this land
It’s the hammer of justice
It’s the bell of freedom
It’s the song about love between
My brothers and my sisters
All over this land
Perhaps one day soon we may find many thousands of our fellow citizens holding hands and raising their voices in song in a designated public space where we may experience the joy and jubilation of citizens assemblying together to peacefully express their views and advance their causes through a song of love and freedom. I believe Robert Burns would heartily approve and might just sing along.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot