Woog’s World / Westporters show although we live in a bubble, we are concerned and engaged
Published 12:00 am, Friday, June 16, 2017
It’s amazing what you can find on YouTube.
The website has exploded unfathomably, since the very first video was posted 12 years ago. (It was the San Diego Zoo, which may be one reason so many cat videos have followed.)
You can find anything on YouTube now, from old “M.A.S.H.” episodes to obscure music to, yeah, cat videos.
As well as a fascinating 11-minute clip of the day hundreds of Staples High School students streamed onto North Avenue, marched down the Post Road and protested the Vietnam War.
The date was Oct. 15, 1969. Across the country, Americans took part in a Moratorium to End the War. Westport was eager to participate.
The previous year, Gene McCarthy had campaigned, and fundraised here. Antiwar protestors were already out in force downtown on Saturday mornings.
Staples was a place of particularly high political awareness. A young faculty brought national debates into the classroom. A progressive principal named Jim Calkins was eager to hear student voices, and give them power. The threat of the draft made events thousands of miles away seem perilously close.
The video that surfaced on YouTube is a fascinating time capsule. Shot on 8 mm film by a senior named Guy Northrop — totally silent, without even the addition of a soundtrack added later — it shows more than 1,000 students (along with teachers) as they make their way from Staples to the front steps of the old YMCA (now Bedford Square) downtown.
The film shows black armbands, doves, peace signs and American flags. The crowd eventually swelled to 2,000, and the sight of so many Westporters filling the Post Road is compelling.
There are counter-protesters too, driving alongside, hurling unheard — but clearly provocative — taunts.
As a time capsule of Westport, the video shows the fascinating changes of the past half century. Most of the old stores are gone (as is the Y itself). Cars have come a long way. Fashion and hairstyles — well, you be the judge.
The moratorium that October day did not end the Vietnam War, of course. It dragged on for seven more long years. It cost the lives of several Westporters, though the combination of student deferments and the end of the draft meant most young men in this privileged suburb never experienced the worst horrors of that war.
In 1972, Westport’s RTM adopted a resolution asking President Richard Nixon to withdraw from Vietnam. The 17-15 vote made national news (and did not sway the president one iota).
The Saturday morning protests spawned by Vietnam continued for decades. Numbers waxed and waned, and the wars changed to Iraq and Afghanistan. But from the 1960s through the 2010s, through all kinds of conflicts and weather, Westporters have stood downtown, holding signs, hearing honks of support, enduring the shouts and catcalls of other passersby.
Westport’s political consciousness has waxed and waned too. As we morphed from an arts community to a place more known for marketing companies and (now) hedge fund headquarters and honchos, we became less agitated about Washington. As our houses got bigger, our concern about government grew smaller.
That was mirrored at Staples. The experiment with student governance faded. Political protests fell out of favor.
Which brings us to today. Though our high school is not a hotbed of political activism — the level of engagement in last fall’s election seemed low, compared to the very high stakes for teenagers — there are plenty of students who do follow the news. Some are highly motivated. And they are not all on the blue side, either. President Donald Trump has a solid base of support at Staples.
But elsewhere in town, the spirit of the ’60s is rising. A couple of months ago, four women organized a Democracy on Display rally that drew nearly 1,000 demonstrators. It also attracted the attention — and presence — of Connecticut’s two U.S. senators, and our local congressman.
Hoisting signs, chanting, and waving American flags, the group marched from Jesup Green to Veterans Green. The event was recorded not by an 8 mm silent camera, but cellphones. Photos were posted instantly on Facebook and Instagram; video went up on YouTube.
So too with the recent demonstration on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge, opposing Trump’s decision to pull our country out of the Paris Climate Accord. Once again there was concern, action and passion. Once again, Westporters showed that although we live in a bit of a bubble, we are concerned and engaged with the rest of the world.
If you get a chance, check out Guy Northrop’s 1969 mobilization video. (Search YouTube using his name.) Then fast-forward nearly 50 years, and consider Westport’s response to political events.
The times they are a-changing. Or perhaps not.